Aretha Franklin: A Los Angeles Tribute to the “Queen of Soul”

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin, the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir convened in Los Angeles and recorded “Amazing Grace,” a groundbreaking album that is still one of the nation’s best-selling gospel recordings.

On the evening of August 30, 2018, the person who managed the production of “Amazing Grace” – along with 20 of the choir members who performed on the recording – took part in a musical tribute to the late Aretha Franklin at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles (CAAM).

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas flanked by members of the L.A. chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America and the Southern California Community Choir Alumni. Photos by Aurelia Ventura / Board of Supervisors

The event – hosted by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, CAAM and the L.A. County Arts Commission – featured a mass choir that included the L.A. chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America and the Southern California Community Choir Alumni. The mass choir performed selections from “Amazing Grace.”

Aretha Franklin was saluted for her social justice activism as well as her music. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was an important supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the national organization headed by Dr. King. As a young woman, Aretha travelled with Dr. King in the South during some voting rights campaigns.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, former executive director of the Los Angeles SCLC chapter, led the effort to create the tribute.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas speaks to a standing room only audience at the tribute. Photo by Aurelia Ventura / Board of Supervisors

“We honored her for her service to human rights and we paid tribute to her talent by listening to some selections of Amazing Grace,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.

The recording was co-directed and arranged by the Rev. Alexander Hamilton, retired pastor of the Los Angeles-based Community Baptist Church and former music director for the Voices of Inspiration choir. He was among those who prepared the mass choir for the tribute.

“As Aretha Franklin’s co-music director and arranger with Reverend James Cleveland on the ‘Amazing Grace’ album, this was the apex of my 60 plus years in the music business,” said Rev. Hamilton. “She was a singer’s singer and a musician’s musician. The hard work, effort and musical precedence of this landmark production transcends anything imaginable or envisioned. It will always garner Aretha Franklin R-E-S-P-E-C-T!”

(left to right) LA County Arts Commission Executive Director Kristin Sakoda, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Avis Ridley-Thomas, Marian Wright Edelman, and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. Photo by Aurelia Ventura / Board of Supervisors

Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer, senior pastor of the Inglewood-based Faithful Central Bible Church, was among those who attended the recording of the 1972 performance.

“To watch in spiritual amazement the anointed collaboration of the Lady Aretha Franklin, the ‘Queen of Soul’ and Reverend James Cleveland, the ‘King of Gospel Music,’ coupled with the musical creativity of the choral arrangement of Maestro Alexander Hamilton was to be in the presence of artistic royalty,” Bishop Ulmer said.

That recording was highlighted in “How Sweet the Sound: Gospel Music in Los Angeles,” a CAAM exhibition that closed August 26.