Alexander Hamilton, who died on January 28 at the age of 77, was an orchestra conductor and arranger who was able to add a “movie star” to his track record in the last years of his life. Her work on Aretha Franklin’s 1972 album “Amazing Grace” – certified as the best-selling album of her career – was heard by millions over a span of nearly five decades before fans Franklin could not actually see and hear Hamilton’s work as an arranger and conductor. of this music. When the cinematic rendition of this recording was finally released in 2018, Hamilton was on screen as big a personality as its ostensible stars, James Cleveland and Franklin herself.
‘Amazing Grace’ producer Alan Elliott shares his memories of Hamilton with Variety.
Until the discovery of the film “Amazing Grace”, the genius of Alexander Hamilton’s work was not as well known as it is today. For those familiar, Hamilton’s co-starring role leading the choir is pure bliss. Good music and good records often seem to have always existed. We take it for granted — it’s like air or water. And like a Michelangelo sculpture, listeners might assume the recording comes out almost whole. But getting a good record: that magic is rare.
Alex’s loss to popular music and the gospel community is immense. Alex has played, conducted and arranged scores for many 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 musical language that a generation grew up with as if it were sacred and holy – because it is.
This album has melted into becoming part of the fabric of popular music. Like the air we breathe, we take it for granted that an arrangement like “Mary, Don’t You Weep” or “How I Got Over” simply exists, because how could it be otherwise? Without Alex, our ears and souls wouldn’t have known what we were missing! As choir member Mary Hall said, “Alex created the sound of ‘Amazing Grace’. He was amazing.
Jerry Wexler [co-producer of the “Amazing Grace” album] said, “I took a secular rhythm section and put it in a sacred place.” Alex was Jerry’s inverse, taking his sacred vocals, vocals, beats, renditions and energy and incorporating that secular rhythm section of Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Poncho Morales, Cornell Dupree and Kenny Luper.
Alexander Hamilton is a star of our film, Alex pushes, cajoles, teases the choir — and the cameras (he knew how to act!) — to exultation. Riding the peak 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 I got the rights to “Amazing Grace”. We met at the piano. How delighted I was to see his hands playing those voicings I grew up with. Alex and his wife Alicia have become a family. We traveled to the Telluride Film Festival where Meryl Streep fan-girled Alex and, through many dangers, brought Alex’s masterpiece, “Amazing Grace”, to the public consciousness…
“Amazing Grace”, the film, took the patience of 47 years of waiting to be released. When I met Alex it was a 36 year wait for his close up. He showed up at many film screenings as we tried to raise funds, always without success. 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 firmness to know.
He was the Well 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 is expected to say that it is eternal, because the trope is a trope, and also because it is true. The choir had lunch together almost 50 years after “Amazing Grace”. The laughter and intimacy continued.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the “Amazing Grace” rollout, when the films hit theaters three years ago, was the Los Angeles premiere, Back at the Church of origin. Members of the existing choir came together. The LA City Council gave the church historic designation, and the choir eventually had its movie premiere.
Alex, battered by a series of blows that had robbed him of his movie star leg, rode down the aisle in his wheelchair to lead the choir back to this most sacred space. The former movie theater turned Baptist church was honored once again by the rest of the Southern California Community Choir.
As Alex led and commanded the choir as they sang two songs before the screening, the joy of these moments was overwhelming.
However, that was just a preview. When the film started, the choir, like a Baptist choir version of “Cocoon”, had watched itself for 47 years.
The choir spoke among themselves, now and 47 years ago. And when the music started, the seated choir members started singing. Loudly. As if they were there 47 years ago.
And the tears and the laughter and the fourth dimensional sense of the presence of something greater engulfed the church. “We Are on Our Way,” sang the choir.
Because we were led by Alex.
In 2019, Anthony Hamilton was recognized by Los Angeles County with a special proclamation, as supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas congratulated him on “a long and outstanding career in the music industry, and for all that what you have done and continue to do in the lives of musical artists around the world. Hamilton started playing the piano at age 4 and began his professional career at age 9 when he played organ on a gospel recording. His gigs over the years have ranged from conducting Lola Falana for 10 years to conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall for James Cleveland. For 45 years Hamilton led ensembles such as the Voices of Inspiration Community Choir, the New Generation Singers and the Immanuel Gospel Community Choir. Most recently, he had served as pastor of Philadelphia Church Fellowship in Los Angeles. “‘I strive to take my expertise from show business 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 break through all barriers and reach more people.