Sunday, December 14, 2014

God Rock Sunday: Two Early '70s Charting Versions of "Amazing Grace"

Judy Collins - "Amazing Grace" (Billboard #15, entered 12/12/70). Arranged and Adapted by Judy Collins. Produced by Mark Abramson. 45: "Amazing Grace"/"Nightingale I" (Elektra 1970). LP: Whales and Nightingales (Elektra 1970).

The Pipes and Drums and  Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards -"Amazing Grace" (Billboard #11, entered 5/20/72). Written by (Traditional; the UK and other international versions credit "Collins"). Produced by Pete Kerr. 45: "Amazing Grace"/"Cornet Carillon" (RCA Victor 1972). LP: Farewell to the Greys (RCA Victor 1972).

Often pointed to as evidence of early '70s radio listeners' quirky tastes, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards' 1972 version of "Amazing Grace" caught fire in the UK on late night BBC radio after which it marched into the American Top 40. Less of a reflection on any public hankering for bagpipe music, the record had everything to do with the Jesus Movement, which would send an unprecedented number of religion-themed songs to the top of the charts. (Efforts by the Scotsmen to advance on the Harry Simeon Chorale's traditional Christmas chart turf with their own version of "Little Drummer Boy" fell short.)

The words for "Amazing Grace" were written by English poet and Christian clergyman John Newton and first published in 1779. In 1829, an American Baptist song leader named William Walker merged Newton's words with the familiar melody "New Britain," and it was under this title that certain 19th century versions of "Amazing Grace" were published.  It's tempting to connect the "New Britain" title with the song's stirring suitability for bagpipe music and assume British origins, but no evidence seems to take it farther than the USA.

In late 1970, folk singer Judy Collins paved the way for the Royal Scots' invasion by releasing an a cappella version of the song backed by a choir which she took to #15. ("Amazing Grace" had become a staple among sixties folk revivalists.) It appeared on her Whales and Nightingales album, which also included her human voice + humpback whale version of the British folk song "Farewell to Tarwathie," backed by humpback whales. The unique relationship of the Judy Collins and Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recordings of "Amazing Grace," one being voice-only and the other being music-only, begs for a mashup. 

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