Alexander Hamilton, RIP: Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’ Choir Director/Arranger Remembered by Documentary Producer
Alexander Hamilton, who died Jan. 28 at age 77, was a conductor and arranger who was able to add “movie star” to his credits in the last years of his life. His work on Aretha Franklin’s 1972 “Amazing Grace” album — certified as the bestselling album of her career — was heard by millions over a period of almost five decades before Franklin fans actually got to see as well as hear Hamilton’s handiwork as the arranger and conductor of that music. When the film rendering of that recording finally came out in 2018, Hamilton loomed as nearly as large a personality on-screen as its ostensible stars, James Cleveland and Franklin herself.
The producer of the “Amazing Grace” film, Alan Elliott, shares his memories of Hamilton with Variety.
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Until the discovery of the film of “Amazing Grace,” the genius of the work of Alexander Hamilton was not as well known as it is now. For those familiar, Hamilton’s co-starring role conducting the choir is pure joy. Great music and great records often seem as if they’ve always existed. We take it for granted — it’s like air or water. And like a Michelangelo sculpture, listeners might assume that the recording comes out almost as a whole. But getting a great recording: that magic is rare.
Alex’s loss to popular music and to the gospel community is immense. Alex played, conducted and arranged scores for numerous music icons, including Lola Falana, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Lou Rawls, the Staple Singers, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, Natalie Cole, Etta James, James Cleveland, Bessie Griffin, Shirley Caesar and Mahalia Jackson. He also co-wrote the gospel hit “He’s a Miracle Worker” with Eddie Kendricks.
And… Aretha Franklin and the Southern California Choir.
With “Amazing Grace,” Alex invented a language of music that a generation grew up with as if it were sacred and holy — because it is.
That album blended in to become a part of the fabric of popular music. Like the air we breathe, we take for granted that an arrangement like “Mary, Don’t You Weep” or “How I Got Over” just exists, because how could it not? Without Alex, our ears and our souls would not have known what we were missing! As choir member Mary Hall said, “Alex created the sound of ‘Amazing Grace.’ He was incredible.”
Jerry Wexler [co-producer of the “Amazing Grace” album] said, “I took a profane rhythm section and put it in a sacred place.” Alex was Jerry’s inverse, taking his sacred voicings, voices, rhythms, interpretations and energy and incorporating that profane rhythm section of Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Poncho Morales, Cornell Dupree and Kenny Luper.
Alexander Hamilton is a star in our film, Alex urges, cajoles, teases the choir — and the cameras (he knew how to perform!) — to exultancy. Riding the crest of musical energy like a zen surfer, Alex brought out the best in his choir and in doing so revealed a common healing musical experience that brought the world together.
I met Alex shortly after getting the rights to “Amazing Grace.” We met at a piano. How I was thrilled to watch his hands play these voicings that I grew up with. Alex and his wife Alicia became family. We traveled to the Telluride Film Festival where Meryl Streep fan-girled Alex and, through many dangers, getting Alex’s masterpiece of “Amazing Grace” into the public consciousness…
“Amazing Grace,” the film, took the patience of 47 years of waiting to come out. When I met Alex, it was year 36 of waiting for his close-up. He showed up at many of the film screenings as we tried to raise money, invariably unsuccessfully. We passed the hat and it usually came back with lint. Alex was patient. He was a man of faith and good humor. He had the solidity of knowing.
He was the good Alexander Hamilton. When Lakers coach Phil Jackson met Alex at a screening, Phil noted that Alex looked nothing like he did on the $10 bill.
Alex’s connection with his choir — the Southern California Community Choir, which Alex conducted for James Cleveland — continues. It’s expected to say that it is eternal, because the trope is a trope, and also because it is true. The choir had lunches together almost 50 years after “Amazing Grace.” The laughter and the intimacy continued.
Without question, the highlight of the “Amazing Grace” rollout, back when movies played in theaters three years ago, was the premiere in Los Angeles, back at the original church. The existing choir members came together. The L.A. City Council gave the church historical designation, and the choir finally got its movie premiere.
Alex, battered by a series of strokes that had robbed him of his movie-star strut, came down the aisle in his wheelchair to lead the choir back in this most sacred space. The one-time movie house turned Baptist church once more was graced by the remaining Southern California Community Choir.
As Alex conducted and commanded the choir as they sang two songs prior to the screening, the joy of these moments felt overwhelming.
However, this was only a preview. When the film started, the choir, like a Baptist choir version of “Cocoon,” watched themselves from 47 years prior.
The choir talked amongst and to themselves, now and 47 years before. And when the music started, the seated choir members started to sing. Loudly. As if they were there 47 years before.
And the tears and the laughter and the fourth-dimensional feeling of the presence of something larger engulfed the church. “We Are on Our Way,” sang the choir.
Because we were being led by Alex.
In 2019, Alexander Hamilton was recognized by Los Angeles County with a special proclamation, as Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas commended him for “a long-lasting and outstanding career in the music industry, and for all that you have done and continue to do in the lives of musical artists all over the world.” Hamilton began playing piano at 4 and began his professional career at 9 when he played organ on a gospel recording. His gigs over the years ranged from serving as Lola Falana’s conductor for 10 years to conducting the New York Symphony at Carnegie Hall forJames Cleveland. For 45 years, Hamilton served as the director of such ensembles as the Voices of Inspiration community choir, the New Generation Singers and the Immanuel Gospel Community Choir. Most recently, he had pastored the Philadelphia Church Fellowship of Los Angeles. ““I strive to take my show business expertise and apply it to gospel music,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “The message will be the same. But with the right production values, it can cross over all barriers and reach more people.”
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