ARETHA FRANKLIN / “Wholy Holy”
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 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. 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 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
This entry was posted on Sunday, December 25th, 2005 at 1:10 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
4 Responses to “ARETHA FRANKLIN / “Wholy Holy””
Leave a Reply
| top |