Amazing Grace, Sydney, Aretha and Dave Chappelle

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Aretha in the film "Amazing Grace" photo Rolling Stone
Run, don't walk to see "Amazing Grace" - the 1972 film that features footage of a live "in church" concert that Aretha gave in 1972 in Los Angeles.


"Amazing Grace" is the fourth live album by American singer Aretha Franklin. Released on June 1, 1972 by Atlantic Records, it ultimately sold over two million copies in the United States alone, earning a double platinum certification. As of 2017, it stands as the biggest selling disc of Franklin's entire fifty-plus year recording career as well as the highest selling live gospel music album of all time. It won Franklin the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance.The double album was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles during January 1972. A film documenting the making of the album was set to be released in 1972, but was shelved by Warner Bros. (Wikipedia)

The film has not been seen since it was shot (and directed) by up and coming filmmaker Sydney Pollack.  Sydney had just come off of "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" and have obviously been influenced by the cinema verite' style of shooting. 
Mick's Dad hanging out with his son and me

(Mick Jagger is glimpsed, along with Charlie Watts and Billy Preston, who apparently stopped by while making "Exile on Main Street" but for some reason - none are ever in focus in the film. Every time the camera finds Mick, somehow they can never bring him into focus.) 

Sydney's film "Amazing Grace" is Amazing

Having a dozen or so cameramen filming allowed Sydney to capture the show in its rawness.  I would offer that since he wasn't familiar or used to shooting concert footage, there's some serious gaps in the footage - many out of focus shots, a sparing use of split screen that could have been utilized more often, barely any footage of the band, for example, who are amazing musicians. (Cornell Dupree – guitar, Kenneth "Ken" Lupper – Hammond, Pancho Morales – congas, Bernard Purdie – drums, Chuck Rainey – bass backed by Southern California Community Choir with Alexander Hamilton conducting.)  

But the film was eventually finished by producer Alan Elliott who took it over from Sydney once he passed in 2008.  Aretha blocked it from being shown for reasons unknown (going to court to stop even this version being seen). As a filmmaker, I would guess it is because she looks like she's seriously ill, has a cough - the first night of the two night concert, she didn't crack a smile, and night two she looks a little better, but at one point is literally held in place, (the way FDR was held up for his speeches) by James Cleveland.  

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A still from "Amazing Grace"

It's almost as if she wasn't well enough to be seen performing - and  yet somehow she gives one of the greatest performances of all time. It's as if she channeled this performance from somewhere deep in her soul, but didn't want people to see her that way.

Aretha blocked the showing of this film for most of her life. She's clearly suffering from something; perhaps flu, or a chest cold, and looks absolutely miserable when she takes the stage.  She's resplendent in a white dress covered with sequins - but since they're shooting in an non air conditioned church, everyone is soon drenched in sweat, she has to ask for water, and noisy air cooling fans were not anywhere to be seen. 

The only person who comes to Aretha's physical assistance is her father Reverend Franklin, who at one point mops her face dry while she's singing with her eyes closed.

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Aretha's father mopping her face
But it's the give and take between her and the Reverend James Cleveland that is the heart of the show.  We find out during the second night, that Aretha has been singing and playing with James Cleveland since they were children in Detroit. Aretha is feted by her father, the famous preacher C.L Franklin - who sits on the front row. He admits that Aretha had called him and asked him to come down at the last minute as he reveals he didn't sleep the night before, worrying about what he might say.

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How sweet that sound
The interaction between them is revealing and fascinating - when she attends to him, she's polite, but all business,and makes a point of scraping off a piece of lint on his pant leg.  He's sitting next to a famous singer who is introduced, and at some point during his brief introduction to his daughter, where he recalls Aretha singing when she was 6 or 7 in the living room, and then on tour with him at age 11.  

Even in his speech to his daughter, he can't help but say that she's "borrowed" her talent from others, clearly "learning from James Cleveland" from "Mahalia Jackson," and from "Clara Ward" (the woman sitting next to him, who Aretha "preferred to view strictly as his friend.") Even when her father talks about her, he can't give her the "props" she deserves - (and she fired her father as her manager) it's clear he still can't give her unconditional love.

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Aretha did not want people to see this film, or to see
her in it the way she's depicted.
The good reverend also singles out another singer in the audience, a woman wearing a white streaked hat, who overcome with something... (perhaps a need to share the spotlight) leaps up at one point and storms the stage, only to be tackled by those around Aretha, put back down into a seat (so she can't "interrupt the filming") Perhaps she just wanted to sing along, or dance along - and some folks do get up and dance.

Night two from the film
But none of this takes away from perhaps the greatest filmed recording of a singer at the height of her powers ever made.  

Watching her craft a phrase, is a master class in music - in counterpoint, in harmony, in syncopation, and in soulfulness...  She clearly is one of the greatest singers of all time (as if it needed to be said) but also perhaps the greatest gospel singer of all time. Not only for her ability to craft a song, but for the way she channels what she's singing from somewhere deep inside. 

I've made a point of visiting the Gospel tent in New Orleans whenever I make it to the Jazz Fest and I've heard some of the greats Gospel choirs - but nothing like what is depicted in this film.

Alexander Hamilton leads the choir

She is so raw and real in this film, at one point she is transported - clearly in some kind of zone, where she's singing without even being aware that there is no microphone near her, calling and responding from a place deep within her heart. 

Thankfully James Cleveland moves the mic in front of her. This moment is something to behold - because all of the songs are about where she is now.

On the flipside.

She sings that she longs to be in that place "where there is no age."  She longs to be "back home" where unconditional love exists. She longs to be with Jesus. She longs to be in the light of unconditional love.

She sings it over and over again - but with such ferocity, such tenderness, that the audience is transported to where she is now.  The queen of soul, is also the queen of gospel, and she's also the queen of the flipside.

Jennifer Shaffer and I have interviewed Aretha, as well as a number of her associates and friends on the Flipside. We spoke to Ray Charles (who appeared in my film "Limit Up" playing God) and Ray jokes about how out of focus much of the movie is - "They would have done better to have me shoot it instead!"  (He can joke about that now, because, well - he can SEE the film now.)  

Everyone that is part of our group has weighed in on this film, this performance - "Transcendent" "Why there is a heaven" "Timeless" "Beyond Sound" "Channeling from the Ethers" to "she's why it can be so much fun back home."

Here's an excerpt of the interview that Jennifer and I did which will appear in "Backstage Pass to the Flipside; Talking to the Afterlife with Jennifer Shaffer" (Book Three)

This is a combination of two interviews with Aretha. My comments and questions are in italics, Jennifer’s replies are in bold.  The first was conducted just after her elaborate funeral.

Richard: Does Aretha want to talk to us?
Jennifer: "Yes." She says “She’s having a blast, she’s having so much fun... I feel like she’s still learning how to learn how to heal herself... I felt her doing that. (Listens) Does she have a sister? I feel like she’s up there with her... there are two up there with her... one is... down here?
(Note: All of Aretha's sisters have crossed over, but she may be referring to someone who “feels like a sister” that is still here, as she says later.)
I don't know. I did read that she didn’t leave a will. 
She says “She does have a will but they don’t know where it is.”
It’s not with an attorney?
It’s very old. It could be an old email. Was she married a lot, or did she have a lot of relationships? Five?
(Note: Wikipedia reports she was married twice, but had “five long term relationships.”

I don’t know.
She’s laughing... she’s trying to give me a timeline.
Roughly what year was your will written?
(Note: Asking again, later, she said she hand wrote it in 1979, and that it was later typed up, and remains in a box of "old newspaper clippings" in a distant relatives home)
The person you were married to in 1982 will know where it was or his heirs?
"No, they won’t know where it is." It it feels like one of her sisters does, or someone who is like a sister to her. “She won’t know but she will know.” She’s explaining that she won’t know... but that she should know. It could be like an email archive.
What’s her name?
Something with an S.
(Note: I tracked down this person with an S in her name, who is her niece, and is currently overseeing the estate.) She's telling me she watched over Whitney Houston.
(Note: This is accurate as well, Aretha worked with Dionne Warwick, Mavis Staples, and Cissy Houston, who began singing with Franklin as members of the Sweet Inspirations. Cissy sang background on Franklin's hit "Ain't No Way". Franklin first met Cissy's daughter, Whitney, in the early 1970s. She was made Whitney's honorary aunt and Whitney often referred to her as "Auntie Ree". (Wikipedia)

Okay, you want me to write about this?
She wants you to write about it... (Jennifer aside) I can’t believe I’m talking to Aretha! I just have to go with it. I’ve never heard her voice up close.  She’s putting me in a sweat... Hold on... She says “She wants to go back to the will. Feels like it’s in a house back in the 1980’s.”
Did she write it on a computer and save it? What’s the file called?
“Will.” But it’s not her house.
(Note: I've been told she didn't use a computer. This was written last fall when no will had been found, and Forbes was writing how that is a problem. (Don’t forget to write a will.)

Richard: Aretha who was there to greet you when you crossed over?
Jennifer: Prince says he was there (to greet her) with Ray Charles.
(Note: Prince began showing up in our work since “Hackingthe Afterlife.” I directed Ray Charles in a film called “Limit Up” – we talked to him as well (in “Backstage Pass to the Flipside” where he detailed who greeted him when he crossed over.)

Is there anything we should pass along for your friends Miss Franklin?  Or family?
“They’re fine.” (Tell them) “I have no pain.”
Prince has her in his arm and he’s walking her up the aisle.
Anything you want to say about your funeral?
So who greeted you when you crossed over? Prince is telling us he was there, but who were you first aware of?
She just showed me dancing with this guy – he brought her into a memory.
Stevie Wonder said he went to see you before you passed.
“Two days before,” she said.
What did he say to you?
She says that he said “It’s okay, she’s got a lot of friends up there.”
Some of whom are in our class. So Miss Franklin, who have you been visiting with?
"Everyone." (Jennifer aside) They’re all laughing.
There’s a video of you playing “Nessun Dorma” for your granddaughter; quick question, I was wondering if you were you an opera singer in a past life?
What era?
"16th century... somewhere in Paris. And she married somebody Italian."
Let me ask you a musical question, so the coloratura which you had in your voice, which is so unique -- which you carried throughout your life... was that related to your previous lifetime?
“Yes, yep.” She’s showing me, as an example, my work – showing me my brain and what I’m doing here, and how my ability to use this ability to talk to people on the other side is something I’ve carried through all of my lifetimes. Its more accepted now, and I would be struggling now if I hadn’t figure it out.
Is that true most musicians carry their frequency from life to life?
Who did you admire as a singer or performer?
"Sammy Davis Junior."  Sammy showed up earlier... (he’s) hanging out with Prince.
You know Michael Jackson, don’t you?
She’s like “Of course I did, that’s such a stupid question.” She loved him.
(Note: We talked to Michael later, after the HBO film came out, and his interview was unusually revealing and complex, which I’ll share at a later date.)
What do you want us to pass along to your friends and family?
"They’re still looking for the will." She said “Tell them to breathe.”
You said it was on a computer that your sister once had – all your sisters are on the flipside now.
Then it’s someone who was like a sister to her.
So it’s on her desktop, in a file somewhere that’s named “will?”
I asked her: “Is it supposed to be found?” I’m getting it might never be found. She says they’re “still not looking in the right place.”
Things could change...
I think they’re going to find something – and (then) I think it’s going to be contested...
You met some great singers back in grade school in Detroit... they interviewed Smokey Robinson for example, he was talking about listening to your dad Reverend Franklin on the radio, and when they heard you’d moved into the neighborhood, everyone went to see and meet him.  That’s when he first heard you playing and singing in your home.  Smokey said “her voice never changed; I heard her when he was 5!” What was it like being born into such a famous reverend’s family?
She says “He wanted to change the world like Martin Luther King; it felt like he might have gotten corrupt a little bit – she saw (him do) a lot of things that just didn’t make sense.
(Note: I'm told that Reverend Franklin and Aretha were close, and there's no evidence of any malfeasance or wrongdoing when he managed her career. But as always; "we are just reporting.")
But in terms of choosing the family and neighborhood to be born in...?
“That’s what she charted,” she says. “That was her math.”
(Note: This is consistent in the reports from the flipside that I get from people under deep hypnosis. They claim that we all choose our lifetimes, and work out the “story points” in advance of what we’re going to accomplish, as well as who is going to participate in that journey.  “Charting” is a way of saying “Planning.” The term “math” refers to the complex math involved in having people react at the particular time they’re supposed to, like planning out the math of a pinball game in advance, and already knowing where the ball is going to hit... but that giving it that “extra English” you’re able to influence events.  Not that a lifetime is “locked in stone” or destiny is already planned – because we have free will (to screw things up if we want to) but in general, she’s saying she “did the math” of the equation that would bring her to fame by being born into the family of C.L. Franklin.)

Who was your biggest influence?
Okay, but on the planet – that you want to give a shout out to?
He was white – (Jennifer aside) I'm trying to figure out who it is..
A singer?
From Detroit?
New York. Feels like.  He believed in her and also he kind of saved her from her own family. (Jennifer aside) I don’t know anything about her family.
Who’s the friend from New York?
She’s dancing with him... She met him when she was like 14.  Her dad wanted control over her though, (which caused friction) they reconciled later though.
(Note: If I was to hazard a guess, she would be talking about Columbia record producer John Hammond who signed her after hearing a demo recorded in NY at 16. Her father was her manager at the time. From an interview with John: “I’ve always been a freak for gospel music. So one day a songwriter named Curtis Lewis came in with a demo of about five of his tunes. The third tune was a thing called “Today I Sing the Blues,” and it was just this girl on piano. And I screamed! I said "For Chrissakes who is this?" He said: “She’s a 17 year old girl from Detroit.” And I said "Can she do anything else?" And he said she was a gospel singer who sang with her father’s choir with Sam Cooke.”  That was Aretha.)

Her dad was a nationally famous preacher – who left buffalo and moved to Detroit. I saw her in a show in Pittsburgh once when she had a Charley horse and had to limp offstage.
“Shit happens,” she says.
So what was your favorite song? Everyone asks.
She says “Somewhere over the rainbow.”
That was your favorite song?
She loved the one you mentioned earlier – she showed me that she’s holding a flower (when singing it) That song that you saw her sing (on YouTube), she’s mentioning that.
“Nessun dorma?” Lovely. Kind of a metaphor for the flipside. The lyrics are so amazing.
She’s saying “(the words) they’re so very important.”
It means “No one’s asleep or no one sleeps” in Italian. A metaphor for the afterlife; as “no one dies.”  Nessuno dorma.
She said she had a premonition before that... when she was going to pass.
Luana, is this exciting for you to meet Aretha or have the Queen of Soul in our class?
Luana says, “There is no hierarchy (on the flipside) but she definitely adds spice to the class.”

Well that’s an understatement. And you can say hello to Sydney Pollack; he’s in our class as well. You’re always welcome to chat with us Aretha.  Thanks for coming!
Jennifer was at the Chateau Marmont recently when she met Dave Chappelle. Or rather; Dave met Jennifer. When she told him she was a medium, he said (paraphrasing) "There's one person I'm thinking of, that I miss."  Jennifer said "It's Aretha."  He nearly fell over as indeed, that's who he was thinking of.  

She went on to tell him and his associates that they were on their "way to a meeting where it would be decided that they would go to Japan."  They were floored by this detail, as they were on their way to a meeting and had no idea what was in store. Yesterday Jennifer received a text message from one of his associates who was there when they met, who wrote: "We just landed in Japan. And we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you."

Dave uses Jennifer's camera for a selfie at the Chateau Marmont
You just never know where messages are going to come from. Try to stay open to them.  And whatever you do, run, jump, walk, swim to the theater (or when it's on cable) and see this film about Aretha.  It's the most unbelievable singing I've ever heard.

During our next session, I asked folks on the flipside about who had orchestrated Jennifer's being at the Chateau. We were told it was folks who "hang out there" including one who died there.  So we asked Aretha to weigh on, and what her connection to Dave Chappelle might be and Aretha said she once "sang in his ear."  (I don't know if she literally did this, or he had a dream about it). I asked "What song did you sing to Dave?"   

Jennifer said "She's showing me an image of you playing the piano."  I thought "That's funny - I play, but I don't know any Aretha songs except..." and I said "Does she mean "Amazing Grace?"  And Jennifer tapped her nose; her way of saying "that's it."  

I had uploaded a version of Amazing Grace - based on the original story of the song, how it has a flipside element to it, and posted it on youtube.  By putting an image of me playing the piano in Jennifer's head, I was able to figure out what song Aretha was referring to.  And it happens to share the name of this amazing film.

In the film, Aretha's version of Amazing Grace is so powerful that James Cleveland bursts into tears and has to leave the piano to sob in the seats behind her.  (When he introduces the song, he mentions that when she sang it during rehearsal, he remembered what their lives were like 20 years earlier (1952) when they met. And he's overcome at the impact of her version.) 

She is transcendent when singing this song - as if she is channeling something beyond time and space to accomplish what she does in the film.  

Once you hear her version, you will never hear the song again without thinking of Aretha Franklin.

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