There are singers who rely on years and years of marvelously honed technique, but the greatest American pop singer of our time, Aretha Franklin, works mostly from instinct. She is one of those rare creatures whose pathways between impulse and voice are straight and unblocked -- when she's inspired, she offers an astonishing window on her internal life as each emotion erupts into thrilling notes.
Her natural gift was shaped into this musical/emotional openness in the choir of her father's church, the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. So the news that she returned there this past July to record a double live album aroused great anticipation among fans of American singing. Unfortunately, the resulting album, "One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism" (Arista, AL-8497), offers far too little Aretha Franklin. She produced the album herself and emphasized the event rather than the music.
Franklin has included three long sermons and tributes to herself by attending ministers; she has even included the introductions of her family -- as if a fan wants to wade through all that talk every time he plays this record. She managed to fit only 10 songs on the four sides of the album, and only three of those are Franklin solos.
What music there is is mostly wonderful. The album begins with a traditional hymn, "Walk in the Light," which Franklin takes at a deliberate pace. She eases her way into the song, as if she were warming herself in the light of the Lord; as she warms up, her relaxed, humming voice eventually bursts into eye-opening shouts of praise. "Ave Maria" becomes a stunning showcase for her vocal control: She surrounds her own voice with so many resonating overtones that it's as if she were a one-woman choir.
She completely transforms "The Lord's Prayer" with the kind of inspired improvisations that are her trademark. She sends certain words spiraling off into the stratosphere and then comes swooping back down to pick up the melody before it slips away. In the same line, she shifts her tone from a breathy whisper to a strong shout to an overcome moan, as if the spirit had approached her, seized her and left her in ecstasy.
Franklin pays tribute to her biggest influence by singing three of Clara Ward's songs. The first, "Jesus Hears Every Prayer," is marred by some rambling talk about gospel music history, but "Surely God Is Able" finds Franklin joined by her sisters Carolyn, Erma and Brenda in a rocking, shouting hymn that no sooner climbs one peak than it climbs yet another. The album ends with Mavis Staples, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Franklin and her sisters singing Ward's "Packing Up, Getting Ready to Go," the kind of grand finale that works better in person than on record.
The two duets between Staples and Franklin are a special treat. Staples' earthy alto is the perfect foil for Franklin's eaglelike soprano. As they trade phrases on the long, long tag to "Oh Happy Day," they egg each other on to some of the best improvised shouts of either career. Almost as good is the high-speed version of "We Need Power," arranged by Franklin and pianist Nick Johnson, whose fast gospel chord changes verge on boogie-woogie.
Any time Franklin chooses to record a gospel album, it's an event. It has only happened twice before: in 1956 when she was a 14-year-old prodigy singing gospel standards in her daddy's church, and in 1972 when she was the queen of soul, singing pop and traditional hymns with the James Cleveland Choir. That prophetic first album, "Aretha Gospel," was recently reissued, and the second, "Amazing Grace," is an acknowledged classic. This new album isn't consistent enough to match the triumph of "Amazing Grace," but one still suspects that the definitive Franklin gospel album is yet to come.
'Wintley Phipps' Gospel singer Wintley Phipps, who lives in Columbia, Md., attracted national attention when he followed Jesse Jackson's emotional speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention with a rousing version of the spiritual "Ordinary People." His new album, "Wintley Phipps" (Word, 7-01-903610-4), showcases the same deep, booming baritone and the classical control that reminded TV viewers of Paul Robeson.
There's little of the rhythm 'n' blues feel that informs the music of Franklin and most black gospel singers -- instead Phipps relies on the consistently rich tone of his big voice and the exquisite precision of his phrasing and diction. Most of the songs are contemporary compositions backed by drummers and synthesizers, but the two best are simple piano arrangements of the traditional hymns "Here's One" and "Coming Again," which allow Phipps' voice to gather its stately dignity slowly but surely.
Little Cedric: 'I'm Alright Now' North Carolina's Little Cedric & the Hailey Singers have successfully applied the bubble-gum-soul sound of the Jackson 5 and the New Edition to gospel on their new album, "I'm Alright Now" (GosPearl/Atlanta International, PL-16035), which was recorded in Maryland. Like the young Michael Jackson, 18-year-old Cedric Hailey is a charismatic prodigy who walks the fine line between a childish exuberance and an adult ecstasy he can barely understand.
In this case, the ecstasy is spiritual rather than romantic, but the approach is much the same. A sharp soul band lays down exciting danceable rhythm tracks; Hailey's two older brothers and three neighbors add classic Motown harmonies. Little Cedric purrs, squeals, growls and croons with contagious pleasure about the joys of religion.
Randolph Lee wrote the slow, bluesy title hymn that shows off Hailey's broad vocal vocabulary and maturing improvisatory skills. The group's first tenor and guitarist, Timothy Moore, has written some catchy pop-gospel songs, including two, "It Must Be Love" and "Look in the Mirror," that could easily cross over to the pop charts. No matter what the lyrics are about, this is one of the best soul albums of the year.