In the Washington Post of August 17, Chris Richards declared that the performance by Aretha Franklin of the title cut on her 1972 gospel-soul album, “Amazing Grace” “deserves to be compared to everything Michelangelo ever painted.” Now I am not prepared to go that far, but when I learned she had died, it as this particular song by her on that album (which I have in vinyl from when it first came out) that I wanted to hear and played prior to seeing this over-thee-top remark by Richards.
Nevertheless, it is an incredible performance. She has been underappreciated for some time partly because she has been so widely imitated for so long. Her basic sound has become simply what most singers, especially female ones, do all the time, with even the cheesy pop Idol shows turning what has become a cliche into a joke.
So her great innovation was to introduce into US pop music melisma, the making multiple notes out of a single syllable of text. This has become an overdone cliche. But it was Aretha who moved this standard of gospel music with its African origins into pop music, with possibly only southern Indian Carnatic vocal music matching this tradition.
In any case, Aretha’s 1972 album version of “Amazing Grace” is the ultimate expression of gospel Melisma, far beyond what anybody else has ever done, even if it does not quite match “everything Michelangelo painted.”