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The LA story behind Aretha Franklin's best-selling album, 'Amazing Grace'

Cover art for Aretha Franklin's
Cover art for Aretha Franklin's "Amazing Grace" recorded in 1972 it sold over two million copies in the United States alone, earning a Double Platinum certification. As of 2012 it is still the biggest selling disc of Aretha's entire fifty-plus year recording career.
Cover art for Aretha Franklin's
Publicity photo of Aretha Franklin.

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Aretha Franklin was already an international superstar the weekend she stepped into New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Central L.A. 40 years ago. Together with gospel giant Reverend James Cleveland, and in front of a live congregation, Aretha recorded what is still her best-selling album ever, 1972's "Amazing Grace."  The album is also the best-selling Gospel record of all-time. 

Reporter Christopher Johnson recently visited New Temple and spoke with people who still remember Lady Soul’s heavenly performance. 

Today, the New Temple choir is doing its best. Only a few singers have shown up for service this Sunday morning. 

The pews aren’t looking much better. Even with the few dozen worshippers seated up front, it feels empty, this big space, wide and flat like a dress shirt box. Except it isn’t quite flat. The sanctuary floor slopes down very slightly from the front doors toward the pulpit.

This hasn’t always been a church.

"When i was a kid I used to come here to the movie theater," says congregant John Ford. "Some good cowboy pictures."

John Ford was an ironworker and a member of New Temple when the church moved here in the 1960s. The deacon was here that night, both nights, actually, when Aretha came. He was in the back, where the projector used to be.

This was before the renovations, so mostly everyone else who could get a seat was parked in a flip-up theater chair. That left lots of people standing,along the walls, in the back. It didn’t matter. 

Aretha was coming. 

Reverend James Cleveland opened things up. By 1972, he’d been a gospel legend for at least as long as Franklin had been making pop hits. More than 10 years her senior, he had also once taught Aretha some piano technique when he lived with the Franklins in Detroit. 

For this reunion, Cleveland brought members of his powerful gospel ensemble. Seated behind the pulpit, in their black shirts and silver lamé vests, this choir was looking sharp.

"It was packed! Just to see Aretha Franklin was exciting to me!" said Ford.

John Ford’s daughter Glenda Ford-Favors was 18 years old.

"I was working at Winchell’s at Florence and Vermont, so I left work on purpose. I knew she was going to be there and i hadn’t bought a ticket. So one of the church members said, “Let her in!” said Ford-Favors.

Ten years before he shot “Tootsie,” Sidney Pollack had a crew document the whole thing at New Temple. No movie has been officially released, but there is a trailer. In it, you can see Aretha ease down the aisle, through the standing ovation. Elegant. For sure, a queen - not just of soul, but of this moment, too. Her kaftan like light green sea spray. Sequined.

She’s humble. And she's quiet. Until.

"Aretha is playing, on piano, that’s where you hear ‘doom-toom-doom-toom’ ... That’s Aretha." said Pastor Alexander Hamilton, who directed the choir both nights.

"You look at Aretha, and while you see the artistry and the command of the voice, you also see in her the humility. she was not the Aretha in lights that you see on the stage. She was just Aretha, our sister, singing for the Lord," said Hamilton. "We had just come through the '60s, we were just making the transition from colored to negroes to black. Black is beautiful had just come out in the mid-60s."

Hamilton remembers 1972, and what was in the air among South Central L.A.'s black residents — socially, artistically — when “Amazing Grace” was made.

"Just as there was a new culture emerging among our race, there was a new culture in our church to use some of the other instruments. Drums were still very new," said Hamilton. "As the change was happening, here comes Aretha in '72 and we’re going to use an entire rhythm section, which was rather radical.

Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic Records super producer who helped resuscitate Aretha’s career in the '60s, has written that getting Aretha back into gospel was his idea. Aretha has said it was hers. 

"The debate as to who came up with the idea, whether it was Aretha Franklin or Jerry Wexler, is something they’re going to be debating in Heaven 100 years from now." said music journalist Aaron Cohen, whose book "Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace (33 1/3)" details the making of the album. He says there was definitely an opportunity, one Wexler wouldn’t have missed. 

"Gospel was becoming a commercial force. "Oh Happy Day," George Harrison’s "My Sweet Lord," so there were white hippie audiences buying gospel music at that time." said Cohen. 

Aretha may have had her own strong motivations for returning to her spiritual and artistic home. In the previous few years, she’d lost several close friends and mentors: Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King, and her band leader King Curtis who was murdered the summer before she cut “Amazing Grace.”

Gospel great Clara Ward was very sick, but she was there, at the concert. Right in the front row. Just 7 months later, Aretha would sing at her funeral. But Aretha isn’t mourning. Not here. “Amazing Grace” is not a sad album. It’s not a eulogy.

As Ms. Ward watched her friend and student step her whole self up into Ward’s signature gospel standard “How I Got Over,” it was clear: This, folks, was church.

And we cannot forget that force of a choir behind Aretha. Alexander Hamilton had rehearsed them for weeks and weeks before the recording dates. Most of the singers grew up on that music anyway, and the Southern California Community Choir was used to doing very big shows. 

"Even though it stands out now as an event, for those of us who love the Lord it was just another day at the office," said Hamilton. "It was really just about the Lord." 

But for others, this was an event.

Along with the gospel and soul greats, there were plain old rock stars in the house, too. Film footage shows Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts clapping along with everyone else. John Ford’s daughter Regina was barely a teenager at the time. She is still glowing forty years later that somebody picked New Temple Missionary Baptist to make history.

"I was just excited! i’d never seen nothin' like that in my life. I felt like I was royalty.  I talk about it today, 'Remember that ‘Amazing Grace’ album? That was made at our church.'  It made me feel like I was somebody!" said Regina Ford. 

"They talked about it for months! everybody was going around, 'Aretha Franklin was at our church!' I didn’t have too much chest, but I stuck what I had out!" said John Ford.

These days, things are much quieter at New Temple. Membership has dropped. Attendance is sparse compared to the early '70s. John Ford has an idea that would surely fill the pews, at least for a night. Have Aretha Franklin come back and reminisce about the time she lit that church up. That would be truly amazing.

Special thanks to Aaron Cohen for his help with this story. Cohen's book Amazing Grace details the making of the album.