"Amazing Grace" is a hymn first published in 1779 by John Newton, an Englishman who worked on slave ships. On one voyage, they came across a nasty storm and Newton thought the ship was going to sink. After they made it through, Newton became deeply religious and - after a few years of backsliding into his old ways and reaffirming his faith - became a minister. He wrote this based on his religious conversion, and how God saved him even though he was a "wretch."
The song fell out of favor in Newton's lifetime but was revived in the 19th century during the Second Great Awakening of religious fervor in America. It remains a popular hymn to this day.
Judy Collins' 1970 version, recorded at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University, spent 67 weeks on the UK chart, which is longer than any other single by a female artist. Her version reached #5 in the UK and #15 in the US. It was reissued as a single in the UK the next two years, reaching #40 in 1971 and #20 in 1972.
Singing in the choir on this rendition are a small group of friends and family Collins asked to help out. Among them are her brother Denver and the actor Stacy Keach, whom she was dating.
Other than the version by Judy Collins, the only other charting version of this song is a bagpipe-led instrumental by The Pipes And Drums And Military Band Of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, which went to #11 in America and #1 in the UK, where it was the biggest-selling single of 1972.
Joan Baez sang this to open the Philadelphia stage of Live Aid in 1985. There were over 100,000 people in the crowd, and most of them sang it with her.
Arlo Guthrie performed this at Woodstock in 1969.
What is a "wretch," anyway? Merriam-Webster defines the noun:
1: a miserable person : one who is profoundly unhappy or in great misfortune
2: a base, despicable, or vile person
This song is often evoked in times of senseless tragedy when words fail to express the sentiment. In 2015, after nine people were killed in a South Carolina church by a crazed gunman, President Barack Obama sang "Amazing Grace"
at a the funeral service for one of those killed, Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
The concept of Grace was the basis for the eulogy, where Obama said: "As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind. He has given us the chance, where we've been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and shortsightedness and fear of each other - but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He's once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift."
A portion of Obama's singing was later used in the Coldplay song "Kaleidoscope
Country star Josh Turner recorded a version of this for his 2018 gospel album, I Serve A Savior. He admitted it was quite a challenge to record something that stands out, given that "Amazing Grace" has been cut thousands of times. His solution was to do the first verse in 3/4 time with a string guitar, then transition to 4/4 with a full band.
Aretha Franklin did a stunning rendition of this song on January 13, 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles that was recorded for a documentary film and live album. Franklin's roots were in gospel music thanks to her father, the minister C.L. Franklin. At the time, Aretha was one of the most popular soul musicians in the world and a major force on the pop charts, but many had never heard her sing spirituals. Combined with another concert at Temple Missionary on January 14, the live album was titled Amazing Grace and released on June 1, 1972. Surprisingly, it crossed over to a secular audience and sold over 2 million copies in America, becoming the best-selling album of Franklin's career and the best-selling live gospel album of all time.
The planned film though, was shelved. Sydney Pollack, who later became an A-list director thanks to the movies Tootsie, Out of Africa and The Firm, shot the footage, but didn't complete the film. After Pollack died in 2008, the director Alan Elliott revived the project, but ran into two major roadblocks. For one, the audio wasn't synched to the video, so editing it together into a cohesive work was a major technical challenge. Also, Franklin didn't want it released and sued to prevent it from being shown. Soon after Franklin died on August 16, 2018, her estate signed off on the film and on April 5, 2019, it was released in theaters, 47 years after it was recorded.
Garth Brooks sang this at Joe Biden's inauguration on January 20, 2021.