Monday, October 15, 2018

Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, and the Lord’s Prayer

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By Tom Smucker, author of Why the Beach Boys Matter

Every Sunday at my church we recite the Lord’s Prayer. With minor variations, it’s the most commonly shared liturgy across Christianity and the most familiar direct quote from Jesus in the Bible. It’s also the only lyric recorded by both the greatest vocalist of my generation, Aretha Franklin, and my favorite pop group, the Beach Boys.

Aretha’s voice is such a vast container that her first syllable, “our” sums up all the blues, struggle, faith, and triumph explored in the rest of “The Lord’s Prayer” track from her 1987 live gospel album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. This is the product of skill and musicianship, of course, but it’s something more. Aretha’s singing voice was unique, and when she chose to she could call upon a richness and depth that could sum up the entire history of American music, and to my ears, the entire history of America itself, in one syllable.

So begins this musical prayer, but Aretha is soon at work pulling the phrases apart, altering pitch, timbre, volume, and phrasing, looking for meanings and building the drama. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” through recitation and repetition, has settled into many a Christian’s consciousness as nothing more than a nicely balanced couplet, but Aretha lands on the word “will” and embellishes and repeats the transitional “as” demonstrating a master class of gospel music improvisations, making the earthly struggle for heavenly righteousness a human desire that cannot be taken for granted or ignored. “As it is in heaven” has been reconfigured from a pleasant reassurance to a desperate—and successful—existential search for transcendence.

A similar drama is built into the debtors/sins/trespasses couplet. Aretha lingers on the transitional “who” in “who trespass against us,” pulling an ongoing confrontation with the demonic into the center of this prayer, and again, to my ears, making this King James translation from the book of Matthew a profoundly African American, and therefore American, prayer.

The tension builds as we get to “deliver,” repeated three times, three different ways, before she sings the whole phrase “deliver us from evil.” It is as if Aretha and the choir are moving us out of Egypt to the edge of the Red Sea. When they get to “glory” and the “for” in “forever,” the waters are parting, and we are crossing to a place beyond goose bumps, maybe beyond words, where faith is an achievement wrestled from despair. Aretha, the choir, the song, and the prayer stay at this mountaintop of emotion and spirituality and musical chops for a while, and then settle us back down to earth at the end, a descent that requires at least two Amens.

The Beach Boys’ version of “The Lord’s Prayer” first appeared on the flip side of their Christmas 1963 hit single, “Little Saint Nick,” but it did not reappear on an album until 1983 and, as far as I know, has never been performed in public. Before the era of the CD box set and internet-connected collectors, it was nearly impossible to locate. Back in 1972, when I wrote a two-part article about the Beach Boys for Creem magazine, I had never heard it. Now easily streamed, it maintains its reputation as the high point of Beach Boys acapella harmony, matched only by the wordless vocals of “Our Prayer” from Smile and their sentimental concert staple “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring.”

Recorded in November 1963 shortly before the JFK assassination, and released with “Saint Nick” shortly after that event, this “The Lord’s Prayer” captures a confident New Frontier piety laced with a wistful Beach Boys suggestion that something might be slipping away. Moving around inside the melody, the harmony explores a sophistication, sincerity, and depth in what might otherwise strike some as smug midcentury Caucasian Christianity.

Here Brian Wilson has arrived as the master composer of complex five-part harmony with the Boys as master singers. Drawing from doo wop, pop jazz, girl groups, and mainstream Protestant congregational hymn singing, the Beach Boys musical vocabulary was in place by the time the “Saint Nick/Lord’s Prayer” single was released. For them, a lyric is emphasized when the highest voice in the harmony, most likely Brian, goes even higher, into an expressive falsetto. That peak is reached on the “forgive” of “forgive us our debts.”

In the later, countercultural 1960s, seeking forgiveness may have sounded like a guilt trip sprung by organized religion, but I prefer to hear their 1963 prayer in the context of Aretha Franklin’s version from 1983, hear the white church of New Frontier, Los Angeles suburbia through the music of African American, Reagan-era Detroit. Same prayer, same lyrics, different emphasis. One on forgiveness, the other on deliverance, to my American ears, two pieces of one social, political, religious, racial, and musical puzzle.

Aretha’s first live gospel album, Amazing Grace, recorded in Los Angeles in 1973, was a concert and a celebration from the peak of her cultural power and sold two million copies. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, recorded ten years later back in Detroit, post-civil rights, pre-Obama, is a church service and was not a commercial success. A people and a city are under attack, and the long night of de-industrialization is settling across the rust belt, but Aretha celebrates and calls upon the rich legacy and resources of African American spirituality and politics: preachers, politicians, and other gospel singers and musicians.

Unique, it seems to me, among American pop stars, Aretha was able to cross back and forth between secular soul and sacred gospel without incurring the disproval of the saved or the disdain of the defrocked. This says a lot about the breadth of her artistry and the political, religious, and musical pedigree of her family, but it also speaks to the social flexibility inside much of American Black Christianity.

The Beach Boys didn’t inherit a similar institution. The white Protestant Christianity they grew up in proved too brittle to maintain its utility through the turbulence of the next twenty years. But they extracted a valuable resource from this inheritance, the deployment of a wordless vocal chorale that added dignity, maybe even transcendence, maybe love and mercy, to everything from teenage songs about cars to songs about growing old and summer coming to an end. “The Lord’s Prayer” without words, so to speak, would prove to be a piece of white middle-class, midcentury Protestantism applicable to the larger pop culture of the last fifty-plus years, and a recognizable part of the Beach Boys musical signature.

Removed from this religious inheritance, their music, especially their lyrics, can sometimes be misunderstood as simple-minded, shallow, too optimistic. Heard in full, however, they can remind us that an average life contains the sacred and that great art can help us hear that. From different but not disconnected traditions, Aretha Franklin and the Beach Boys draw us towards that wisdom.

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