Aretha Franklin spent 76 years pretending to be mortal, and she almost got away with it, until she opened her mouth and began to sing. That’s when you knew without a doubt that you were in the presence of something absolutely angelic.
Mercifully, Heaven was generous. Franklin was allowed to walk this earth a good long time—long enough, at least, to leave behind a musical legacy so majestic that anyone who ever heard her sing couldn’t help but come away knowing what immortality sounds like.
Franklin started out as a child singing in her father’s church. You could argue that she never left. Of course, she made an entire career out of singing secular songs, but if you don’t pay attention to the words, if you just listen to the spirit inside the music, you can easily hear that she was always singing gospel.
It’s even easier when you turn it around and listen to her performing gospel songs. It’s all there: The call and response, the medium-grade sandpaper melisma, the absolute lock with the rhythm section, and the ability to take a lyric anywhere and everywhere she pleased—when she jumped from the church choir to Top 40, Franklin didn’t change a thing. (Yes, it’s a little more complicated than that, but let it suffice that Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler saw what Franklin’s producers had not during her dismal years at Columbia. They tried, with only occasional success, to make her a star by making her sound like other people. Wexler saw right off that the way to get the best out of Aretha Franklin was to let her sing the way she sang growing up.)
The last great album Franklin cut for Atlantic was Amazing Grace, a gospel album recorded live in 1972 (right on the heels of the magisterially funky Spirit in the Dark  and Live at the Fillmore West ). The set list is full of gospel mainstays like the title cut, “Precious Memories,” “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “How I Got Over.” But I dare you to find a scrap of difference between those traditional church songs and other material included in the performance like “You’ve Got a Friend” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (Do I believe in miracles? Why, yes, I do: Franklin got me to listen to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” all the way to the end and she made me like it.)
The highlight of this album that’s almost all highlights is the absolutely transcendent performance of “How I Got Over,” a popular gospel song written in 1951 by singer and composer Clara Ward, who was in the audience for this performance. It is a song with some history, having been performed in Washington, D.C., in 1963 by Mahalia Jackson before Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. According to her sister, Willa, Clara Ward wrote the song after she and other members of her gospel group were attacked by a gang of Southern rednecks offended by the fact that a group of black women had the temerity to travel in a Cadillac.
With the entire Southern California Community Choir for backup singers, Franklin starts off in high gear and never lets up. There are very few singers who can match an entire choir for intensity, and this choir is singing full out, nothing held back, and still she dominates, kicking the intensity higher on every chorus until you honestly think you’re going to levitate. All that’s left for a listener who manages to hang on for the whole ride is to punch replay as soon as the song is over.
Mahalia Jackson’s mid-tempo versions of this song are impassioned but restrained, at least when compared to what Aretha Franklin would do with it. I’ve never been entirely sure of what being “possessed by the Holy Spirit” means, but I’d like to think it resembles this performance by a woman plainly consumed with exultation.
As sung by Franklin, who takes it about twice as fast as most performers do, “How I Got Over” is joy itself, hers to share, ours to receive. It’s joy buoyed by an almost unimaginably childlike innocence, and yet somehow it’s also anchored in a very adult sense of things as they are. There is, in other words, something to transcend, and it’s the singer’s ability to remove us from the woes of this world that makes the song so magical.
I don’t have a lot of In-Case-of-Emergency-Break-Glass songs, but this one would top any list I’d make. It has hauled me out of the emotional ditch too many times to count, because every time I hear it, I’m reminded of just what the human spirit and the human voice can do. As someone whose only faith is in this world, I’d have to say that if I harbor any idea of heaven, it’s Aretha Franklin singing this song. That’s all I know of heaven and all I need to know. Amen.