Saturday, September 23, 2006

Aretha Franklin - What A Friend We Have In Jesus

What A Friend We Have In Jesus

Well folks, I'm not sure if you noticed this, but over on our 'B' side post of Bobby Womack's A Lonesome Man, soulbrotha left this in the comments:

"Wait one cotton-pickin' minute!

"A Lonesome Man" is "What A Friend We Have In Jesus"! Every Baptist church sings this hymn to this day. I was raised on this song. The writers are Joseph Scriven & Charles Converse. It's funny how Bobby got mad about the Rolling Stones snatching his song, but he then goes and lifts the entire melody of another song and just changes the words. Hmm...

By the way, "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" has a fascinating history behind it! Would you believe that this is the most popular song in Japan? (23 million Japanese sing it every year!) Somebody needs to send "A Lonesome Man" over there. Bobby could make a fortune!"

So, I checked out the song's history at the great link he provided, and then started searching around. Sure enough, the Womack tune seems to be pretty much a note by note transcription of what has become a traditional Southern Baptist hymn (not to even mention the whole Japanese angle). It's been covered by everybody from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Leontyne Price, The Pilgrim Travelers and even Merle Haggard!

It is this Aretha Franklin rendition, however, that may be the most loved.

At the height of Aretha's reign as Atlantic's "Queen Of Soul", it was Jerry Wexler who put together the Amazing Grace project. Over the course of two days in early 1972, Aretha joined forces with her former piano teacher and vocal coach, James Cleveland, to create what many consider to be her greatest work. The concerts, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, featured Cleveland's incredible Southern California Community Choir along with Atlantic session stalwarts like Cornell Dupree, Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie. Warner Brothers filmed the proceedings, and the resulting double LP (with production assistance from Arif Mardin), sold over two million copies, broke into the top ten on Billboard's Pop album chart, and won Aretha her second Grammy that year (for 'Best Soul Gospel Performance'). A single from the record, a cover of Marvin Gaye's Wholy Holy, made the R&B top 50.

Franklin's 'Gospel roots' came roarin' back, and proved, as she herself had always maintained, that she "never left the Church".

This awesome version of the Baptist hymn that you're listening to is as fine an example of the "mass choir" Gospel style as you're likely to find. Reverend Cleveland, known by then as the "Crown Prince Of Gospel", had taken the lead in the development of the 'sound', and is at the top of his game here. That's him playing the piano as well. Aretha, in addition to delivering one of her all time greatest vocal performances, is also playing the celeste! Powerful stuff, man. I love the way they come building back up there at the end to deliver the knockout punch... Lord have mercy!

Anyway, I agree with ol' soulbrotha that, yes, The Womack lifted the melody wholesale. I'm kind of surprised that Leonard Chess didn't pick up on it, I mean they had their own Gospel division at Checker and everything, but then again, I'm sure the hymn had passed into the "public domain" by then...

Good lookin' out, brotha, thanks!


Blogger soulbrotha said...

Hi Red, it's me soulbrotha!
I want to thank you for giving me props on both sites. I am extrememly flattered. I tried to write sooner but unfortunately I was having a problem with as they "lost" my soulbrotha account. So after several unsuccessful attempts to get it back, I had to start fresh with a new moniker.
I look forward to more good stuff and thanks again.

Soulpeeps (the blogger formerly known as Soulbrotha)

12:12 AM  
Blogger T-Bird said...

What a wonderful post this is. On the bullseye of the target.

I featured both versions of Wholy Holy earlier this year on this post.


11:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Overorchestrated and oversung - a bad example of taking a simple tune and clubbing it to death. Fall of false crecendos and the odd shriek but signifying nothing. A waste of a good voice and a misguided attempt to jazz up a down-to-earth melody. People have fried in Hell for less.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

People may have fried in Hell for leaving anonymous flaming comments as well, my friend...

who knows?

7:29 PM  
Anonymous learnfrenchwiththebible said...

There are a few more details about the history of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" at this link.

11:16 PM  

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