Aretha Franklin "Amazing Grace The Complete Recordings" On Vinyl For the First Time

It seems appropriate to review Rhino’s sumptuous 4 LP set Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace The Complete Recordings, her enduring gospel album recorded in a Los Angeles church and released in June of 1972 on Atlantic Records, two days after Kanye West’s Easter morning “gospel service” at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival before 50,000 fans.

Granted, one was performed in The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church by one of the greatest singers of the 20th and 21st centuries, whose father was a minister, and who grew up performing gospel music in church while the other was more directed than performed, by a human puppeteer rap artist/promoter not known for his multi-octave singing abilities, outdoors in a meadow atop an artificial hill built specifically for the event.

One performance was reverential, devotional, humble, spiritual, inwardly directed, heartfelt, sanctified and disciplined—even when the material was secular—while the other was more a loud, boastful sprawling mess of a spectacle with religion worn more on sleeves than in hearts and with $50 Jesus Walks socks and $70 Trust God T-shirts among the items for sale in the “Church Clothes” merchandise tent.

Watching the Kanye spectacle, shot through a peephole lens, sounded and looked more than anything else like the scene from Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in which people gathered on a hillside are mysteriously moved to chant the familiar five tone phrase.

Though I think Mr. West means well and his motives were pure (despite the merchandising), what went on at Coachella didn’t move me, Aretha’s record does every time—and I’m a certified agnostic. The 1972 two LP set (Atlantic SD 2-906) went on to become Aretha Franklin’s best selling album and the all time best selling live gospel album. Franklin also won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance.

That original song lineup was culled from two nights of performances with Franklin backed by three well-known New York studio musicians who formed the core back up group for her Atlantic Records recording sessions: Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass, and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums along with local organist Ken Lupper. The majestic Southern California Community Choir directed by James Cleveland can be heard throughout. Franklin plays piano on two tracks and celeste on one. Of course her voice at it’s peak back then is an electrifying, other-worldly instrument that to this day arguably has no equal in either the pop or gospel world. Franklin does more than reach personal religious ecstasy as she lives (and re-lives) these familiar songs: through force of will and the overwhelming physicality of her vocal prowess, she presses the holy spirit into the members of the church audience and through the recording into listeners at home. If you know this record, you know that’s not an exaggeration.

An all star tech team was also on hand to capture it all, led by live recording specialist Ray Thompson (for Wally Heider) whose long list of engineering credits can be found on Assisting Thompson were three engineering greats: Jimmy Douglass, Gene Paul and George Piros. Arif Mardin mixed and edited. Of course the sound on the original LPs mastered by Piros is a live recording sonic spectacular, though the record changer friendly 1-4/2-3 sequencing is a pain for some.

In 1999 the complete concert was released for the first time on CD mastered by Dan Hersch and Bill Inglot at Digiprep. The occasion for this first-time-on-vinyl 4 LP set is the release of the long delayed concert film directed by the late Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie”, “Out of Africa”, etc.). The Pollack choice was unusual in that filming concerts is very different from feature film making but Warner Brothers, or whoever was in charge of decision making went with Pollack, who filmed without “slating” the picture to make it possible to synch it with the sound. With no clapperboard used, synching picture and sound was impossible. The elements sat in vaults for decades until 2008 when the producer Alan Elliott using the latest digital technology was able to finally synch picture and sound.

Nonetheless even after the finished film was ready, Ms. Franklin didn’t want it released unless her financial demands were met so again it sat on the shelf until shortly after her passing, when arrangements were made with her family, who upon seeing it for the first time agreed to allow its release.

So now, for the first time, the entire concert is available on vinyl in an impressively produced package on 4 180g records ($99.00) again re-mastered by Hersch and Inglot (unless the producers just used the files of whatever resolution were created in 1999) with lacquers cut at Capitol by Ian Sefchick. So how does it sound? While the original sounds “live” on a vivid 3 dimensional soundstage, with a “she’s there on the stage” Aretha, the reissue sounds flatter, more two-dimensional, dynamically compressed (though not excessively) and lacking in the original’s air and transient sparkle. The equalization is tasteful though somewhat "buttoned down" on top.

Here’s an excerpt of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” with the two versions digitally spliced together. The recording is so fine, that if you’ve never heard the original you will enjoy the reissue. See if you can hear the “splice” and the difference in sonics—especially how the drum loses its "pop" and Franklin's voice seems to almost fade into the background as if she's walked off stage. There's but one "splice" after which you'll hear just the reissue:

”Wholy Holy”

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mrl1957's picture

I heard the "splice" at nearly 1:21. Aretha's vocal had slightly less presence and was almost overwhelmed at times in the "reissue" mix. The drum sounded like it was pushed a little more forward compared to the original recording. I also heard less tape noise (and consequently less "air") in the reissue.

Tom L's picture

...that you like to have a "story" of some sort to hang the review on, but when writing about Aretha I really see no need to mention that guy at all. Not at all.

mrl1957's picture

...(In)significant other included!

Hackmartian's picture

I can't speak to the source for the new 4LP set (though my gut is that it's pressed from the digital masters Hersch & Inglot's prepared for the CD release in 1999), but another reason the original album would sound different is that the 1972 album included overdubs and other post-production work whereas the performances on "The Complete" set are presented unadorned. Some of the issues you hear when A/B'ing "Wholy Holy" may have less to do with mastering and source quality and more to do with hearing the raw performance versus what was added or "fixed" in the studio after-the-fact before the original LP's release.

Michael Fremer's picture
Regarding overdubs and in-studio "fixes"? Aside from that, it's clear that the recording has been dynamically compressed and the tonal balance altered to produce less "presence".
Hackmartian's picture

The information about the overdubs and such came from conversations I had at the time the CD version was being put together (I worked for Rhino at the time and am close friends with the folks who produced it). This is also referenced in co-producer Patrick Milligan's liner notes from the set where he says that there was postproduction work done on the live recordings by Atlantic that included substantial editing as well as some overdubbing and re-recording but the decision was made for the Complete set to restore everything to how it was originally captured. He goes on to outline a few specific examples of tracks that were subject to overdubbing and re-recording and therefore differ between the two releases (and also points out that, as a result, this set is supposed to compliment rather than replace the 1972 album).

In regards to "Wholy Holy" specifically, the version that appears on the 1972 LP used a second take recorded on the second night as an instrumental backing to overdubbed vocals. The decision was made to include the original, unaltered take from the first night on the Complete set to keep the integrity of the raw performances on the reissue.

Hope that helps!

Tom L's picture

Thanks for the information, a really interesting look at what goes on "behind the scenes" of a carefully produced reissue.

bent river music's picture

the 'after-splice' section sounds great but since I DID hear the first part I will have to look for an original release - her presence is so much more in the original. Also, just to nit-pick, at the chord change at 23 secs. the bass sounds slightly flat - is that just me?

cundare's picture

Yeah, yeah, I know what you meant, but the way that sentence reads now, it seems to say that Kanye held an "Easter morning Coachella gospel service" (yikes, indeed!) in June 1972.

Nit-pickin' Don

MalachiLui's picture

Is when David Bowie predicted Kanye West's existence on the album cover of "Ziggy Stardust," according to the Bowie/Kanye conspiracy.

Jancuso's picture

Aretha's "Amazing Grace" is a wonderful thing in any/all formats. The film puts you in the room, a fly-on-the-wall. We enjoy both the original LP and the 1999 'complete' CD. And have now seen the film twice. 47 years waiting to visually witness and fully appreciate the dynamic interactions in the church those two nights has been a LONG time and greatly worth it. Can I get an 'amen'?

AnalogJ's picture

I think it has just played festivals and hasn't had a wide release. I saw a trailer for it at the Reading IMAX (at Jordan's Furniture) before seeing the most recent A Star Is Born.