This past week, like most people in this country, I found myself revisiting the works of Aretha Franklin. The undisputed Queen of Soul passed after a lengthy illness of pancreatic cancer just this Thursday before last. I was at work when the news alert came across my phone. When I left my office, I got in my car and immediately opened my music app and the first song I played was “Mary Don’t You Weep” from the album Amazing Grace. The flood of memories washed over me.
My mind flashed back to days of my childhood when I developed a Sunday morning habit of taking a cassette tape and listening to the local gospel music station and recording the songs that I felt like tackling on the piano. Undoubtedly to a beginner musicians in the mid-90s, this often meant listening and learning three-part choir songs produced in a previous generation. Not knowing their vaulted status, songs like “He Decided to Die,” Myrna Summers’ “I’ll Keep Holding On” or Wilmington-Chester Mass Choir’s “Take It Away From Me” were just basic enough for me to attempt to learn. Sunday mornings were dutifully dedicated to me sitting at the spinet piano pressing play, rewind and play again learning what I later understood to be the foundational chords and rhythmic timing of the black gospel tradition.
As I sat in my car Thursday before last, I was transported back to the bric-a-brad memories of sitting on the dark fuchsia plush carpet of my living room and discovering my parents treasure trove of vinyl records. Records for a kid my age, born in the 1980s, possessed the dual nature of being old school, yet something new. As a young kid there were restrictions on my usage of the record player that was attached to stereo system. So of course that meant I would sneak and play records just to be able satisfy the primal kid-lust of doing something forbidden.
It was probably a Sunday morning when my mother was still sleep and my dad was at work early (we didn’t attend church until the 6pm service because of my dad’s work schedule), when I first played the Amazing Grace album. My church’s dance ministry had recently performed to “Mary Don’t You Weep” and even all these years later I’ll never forget the setting. The house lights in the church were dimmed and dancers, in all white, stood in the shafts of light that pierced through the skylight at the apex of the sanctuary’s roof. The piano comes in first. Nothing special. We’ve all heard a piano play gospelized chords before. The bass guitar comes in next, locking down the established 12/8th rhythm. It’s at this point, the dancers start swaying and the church–along with the recorded aggregation at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church time traveling to the present–participate in the beginnings of a what will be nothing short of pneumatological ecstasy.
Then the Hammond organ creeps in. Like a mystic fog underneath a door.
In the days before music streaming services and downloads, when buying blank cassette tapes might as well have been purchasing gold bars to a 11-year-old on a meager weekly allowance, the only option I had to hear this enchanting sound again was to play it on a record. My parents had an old stereo complete with an 8-track cassette deck, a floating record player (just in case the party got to raucous, the record wouldn’t skip from dance floor vibrations) and two speakers with 12-inch subwoofers. To my pre-adolescent ears unaware of music theory, I had no idea what was happening. I had no conscious way of processing the spiritual arousal that this song was causing both psychologically and physically. I say physically because it was as if the music was going to manifest bodily in the room with me as I sat on the floor. I was spellbound. The back beat that the bass line was producing transfixed me in one spot. The choir intoned words that felt like spiritual groanings behind the one and only Aretha. It was at the moment I knew I had to be a gospel musician.
The repetition of the refrain “Oh, Mayyyyyy-rheee don’tchu weep” is sung in the background as Aretha goes into the sermonic story lifted from the pages of the gospel according to John, chapter 11, when Jesus resurrects Lazarus–the brother of Mary and Martha. Aretha crescendoes in agony quoting Mary speaking to Jesus saying “If you had been here… my my my my my my…” As she inches toward the top of her register, the Hammond organ stabs out the D-flat-minor-7 chord–and the church goes crazy.
While the other songs like “Old Landmark,” “How I Got Over,” “Climbing Higher” and “What A Friend” were memorable in their own way, none of them affected me the way “Mary Don’t You Weep” did on that Sunday morning. I remember picking up one of the two albums getting ready to put them back in their dust jacket and noticing that the title track, “Amazing Grace” took up half of the playing grooves on one of the records. I must hear this, I said to myself. I put the disc lovingly on the spindle like I was holding something precious. I placed the auto-changer stabilizer arm to hold the album in place. I had watched my dad do this for years around the holidays as he played Lou Rawls and Motown Christmas albums. I clicked the selector to “AUTO” and the 12-inch LP dropped to the turntable. The first sounds were the classic static scratch before the stylus picked up the sound grooves. And then it began.
For the majority of the track, it’s Aretha’s voice singularly moving the song forward. It was familiar enough song. Of course. The words and lyrics of “Amazing Grace” were far from strange for me. While I knew and recognized the rolling soulfulness of the song, it was that Hammond organ that sent it over the top. I had never heard an organ make that sound. Aretha prepares to hit the top of her register and unmistakably the organ makes this growl sound at the depths of its lower register. I’m pretty sure I thought the sound was going to wake the dead, let alone my mother, as the subwoofer thumped out the low frequencies trembling the floor on which I sat. Aretha’s calliopean voice bursts forth on the word “grace” and makes a melismatic run to the very top of her vocal capabilities. The sound of her voice hangs in the air, slightly trembling; you can imagine watching Aretha making the straining faces that come only at the right mixture of sprit and force combine, belting out the note. The church audience and choir concert together in choral agreement.
It wasn’t until I began attending evening services at a COGIC church in Atlanta many years later that I heard the same sounds reproduced on a Hammond organ. Aided by a bit more music theory I can now identify the rapid-fire glissandos that emanated from the musician, Kenneth Lupper, that evening as he sat on the organ. A particular technique of mashing all the lower keys down with a particular drawbar setting produces that famous growl in the bass. Anyone with a casual knowledge of the Hammond organ knows that its unique sound is a result of its mechanical inner workings and the accompanying Leslie speaker. One doesn’t work without the other. The Leslie speaker, with its rotating cow bell-like horns, doesn’t quite sync with the motor of the Hammond; the amps from the organ are greater than the speaker’s amps, and it produces this overdrive quality to the sound from the speakers. However, to any musicians familiar with not just gospel, but rock and R&B, this is exactly the sound you want. (The overdrive sound production is so desirable, in later models, the Hammond organ producers have tried to reproduce the sound digitally.)
As I sat in the car that Thursday, and I listened to the streamed recording of Aretha’s “Amazing Grace” I realized that the tessitura of her voice was very much like that of a Hammond organ through a Leslie speaker. Aretha produced the gospel as music, carrying the weight of her spirit and the Spirit, through the high highs and the low lows of her voice. The sultry moans were like the growling bass of Hammond, her high notes were the punchy strivings of a voice that was bigger than the earthly vessel that tried to contain it.
While black gospel music owes a debt to the Aretha Franklin–the Amazing Grace album was certified double platinum and the only gospel album to have done so in American history–I realize I owe my own devotion to gospel music to Aretha as well. I had a metanoiaic moment sitting on my parent’s living room floor, one that moved me playing music from just being a hobby or something I was mildly good at to something that could be worth more than silver and gold.
While Aretha has joined the ancestors, her voice still lives with us. Long live the Queen.