I’m not a believer. But when I listen to songs like Mahalia’s “Come Sunday” or this week’s selection, Aretha’s cover of Marvin’s “Wholy Holy,” I understand why so many do believe. I feel the spirit. Performing along with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community choir, Aretha sang this version of “Wholy Holy” in 1972, only one year after Marvin released his own version of the song as part of the What’s Going On suite. Aretha's version is on her best selling Atlantic album, Amazing Grace. marvin~gaye.jpg Marvin performs his tune using the same passionate yet reserved style that Sister Mahalia uses for “Come Sunday.” Backed tastefully by strings and piano, Marvin sticks closely to the main melody—there’s very little in the way of vocal histrionics, very little of what they used to call ‘worrying the notes.’ The power of Marvin’s performance is in the lyrics and the awesome beauty of his clear, clean tenor. aretha franklin 02.jpg As for Aretha, you know she wasn’t going for any of that ‘tasteful’ and ‘reserved’ stuff. The pianist and choir begin with a brief, quiet intro, but the moment the pianist plays the first notes of the main melody, the audience breaks into applause. They know what’s coming. Aretha begins her performance with a five-syllable, scale-climbing enunciation of ‘holy’ and sings the word ‘power’ with so much passion and conviction you’d think it was onomatopoeia. We’re barely out of the first minute and Sister Girl has already kicked off her shoes and let down her hair. A couple of minutes later, the choir lets loose a series of those chair-rattling, rafter-raising ensemble notes (“Love. Love. Love! LOVE! LOVE! LOVELOVE! LOVELOVELOVE!!!”) that gospel choirs are known for; Aretha responds with a few of those so soulful and so perfect shrieks of her own. When the audience breaks into applause again, I feel like applauding along with them. For me, what’s most interesting about this record is how similar it is—both in sound and execution—to Aretha’s love songs. Anyone familiar with Aretha’s music will recognize the choir’s angelic chants of ‘Holy’ as the type of thing that Caroline (Aretha’s sister and backup singer) usually does. Aretha too, sings Marvin’s devotional lyrics in exactly the manner she usually sings lyrics of love, longing and loss. The curious thing is how obvious it is that Aretha isn’t singing the gospel in the style of a love song; it was that she’d been singing her love songs for all these years in the style of the gospel. Listening to “Wholy Holy,” I can understand why church people were so incensed when Brother Ray created what we now call ‘Soul’ music by singing the blues with the passion, style and instrumentation of the Black church singing. Frankly, it seems almost sacrilegious. And like I said, I’m not even a believer. There’s a place somewhere          Mtume, you may not be a believer in Christianity, but you are a believer, a believer in Black culture. At the center of our cultures (I use the plural because I am talking about the commonality found in diverse African heritage cultures and not just what is happening among those of us in the United States), at the center is an intense longing that often sounds like simple sadness, but is actually far, far deeper than woe-is-me, it be the sound of us longing to be whole again. Whether you taste it in Cape Verdean mourna or Brazilian saudade, or at its most pronounced in the blues and gospel of the USA’s deep south, there is this sound of worry-ation that pervades our musics. Now, when you take that pervasive sound and push it through other styles of music you get a spirituality that can catch you by surprise, especially because within the United States a deep spirituality is ipso facto thought of as a believe in the Christian god, but it ain’t necessarily so, even though that’s the way we are most familiar with how spirituality go. Which brings us to Aretha, I just want to share a Broadway show tune, “Somewhere,” which was written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for West Side Story. You don’t have to know a thing about the recasting of the Romeo & Juliet story to appreciate how Aretha delivers the selection. aretha franklin.jpg Aretha was obviously influenced by Mahalia Jackson, but she also had a bunch of Dinah Washington up in her, and as such she had a profound affinity for jazz (check out her piano solo to dig just how deep her jazz leanings were). “Somewhere” is from one of her jazz albums, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) which was arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones who co-produced the album with Aretha. Additionally, and of major importance, during the early Seventies, Aretha consciously identified with the Black Cultural movement of that era. So here we have a pop tune filtered through jazz with a deep-spiritual/ conscious-political orientation. Just check it out. Beautiful. Enough said. —Kalamu ya Salaam

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4 Responses to “ARETHA FRANKLIN / “Wholy Holy””

Adia Blackmon Says:
December 27th, 2005 at 10:59 am

Kalamu, your opening statement "I am not a believer. . ." made me think of a haiku you wrote and sent through edrum about black people believeing in God and you believing in black people. I’ve been searching my hard drive and journal for it and I cannot find it would you please post it here again? Thank you.

      Mtume says:     

Actually, Adia, that was me (Mtume) who wrote the Aretha piece. As for the haiku you refer to, here it is:

black people believe
in god, & i believe in
black people. amen



Qawi Says:
December 27th, 2005 at 1:58 pm

Well Mtume, I am a believer. I’m not here to proselytize in this forum though. However, whatever you believe, we ALL are spiritual people. The Creator made it so! Oftentimes our spirituality is expressed in our works…in this case through music — Aretha and Marvin’s singing of ‘Wholly Holy’. And you don’t have to be an ethnomusicologist to realize that the way African-Americans in particular typically express their spirituality is in a passionate bluesy form. And that is probably why the song sounds sacreligious to some. Aretha doesn’t sing it in the tradition of Marvin Gaye or in the successful formula of Thomas Dorsey. Yet, I’m thankful that Aretha covered it as some audiences may not be suseptible to Marvin’s original version. Aretha’s rendition is refreshing in a sense that the same message (lyrically and litterally) has been expressed. Some may like Marvin’s version, but not Aretha’s. Some may like both, and some may not like either. In any case, the message is still the same, being “Wholly Holy.”

Kalamu said it best, “at the center is an intense longing that often sounds like simple sadness, but is actually far, far deeper than woe-is-me, it be the sound of us longing to be whole again.”

This singing is a method of empowerment to the singer as well as some listeners.

Evelyn Todd Says:
December 30th, 2005 at 3:46 pm

My dear, I am not a literal believer either, nor am I black, but have been exposed to jazz and black artists most of my life, they are part of my cultural experience, and Aretha is a lovely singer. Her Somewhere will entice me to get that album, I could listen to that daily

brittney lightfoot Says:
April 5th, 2007 at 9:51 am

hey this is a great way to give people advice because that shows how us black people feel

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