Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I didn’t grow up with the music of soul/R&B/gospel legend Al Green. In fact, other than Stevie Wonder’s 1976 classic Songs In The Key Of Life (which was a life-altering record for me as a 10-year-old) my childhood & adolescence were soundtracked mostly by Top 40 radio and rock ‘n’ roll. Occasionally a soul song crossed over & I would buy the single (i.e. “Rubberband Man” by The Spinners; “Dazz” by Brick; “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” by Lou Rawls), but it wasn’t until my early 20s when I started delving into the catalogs of artists like Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye and James Brown that I finally opened myself up to a vast array of “black music.” One artist who didn’t make the cut, though, was Al Green, since I only knew him as a gospel singer from a couple of TV appearances (including a 1986 performance on Saturday Night Live) and was never impressed. My college band played “Take Me To The River” at nearly all of our gigs but that was based on the Talking Heads version, and a few other pop/rock covers introduced me to some of his other songs before I knew the originals.
Thanks to my good friend (and one-time work supervisor) Alan Cohen, who constantly pestered me about the greatness of Al Green throughout the late-‘80s, I finally dipped my toes into the water with a compilation cassette he made for me (you could say Alan “took me to the river” in this scenario) and I was immediately spellbound. I played that cassette many times over the next couple of years, and during a trip to the UK in 1995 I purchased several 2-LPs-on-1-CD collections that gave me access to 8 albums from his golden era. Being somewhat of a completest back then, I started buying other Al Green albums until I amassed a collection of over 20 titles…including several of his gospel releases and a few records released after his long-awaited return to the soul and R&B that made him a legend (and an inductee into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Gospel Music Hall Of Fame and Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame). Until recently I was under the impression that I owned all but a handful of his albums, but after looking at his discography it appears that at least 8 or 9 have slipped under my radar. Since I already have the key releases from all eras of his career, I think this should be a pretty comprehensive series in spite of those missing titles. I invite any Al Green aficionados to let me know if I’m missing anything essential, and by the time I wrap things up I hope to paint a pretty good picture of his influential body of work. I realize most fans are probably content with a “greatest hits” or other career-spanning anthology, but hopefully I’ll confirm that the individual albums are worth exploring.
Although Al Green is best known for his work with Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records, which I’ll get into below, he recorded one earlier album as Al Greene (his birth name was Albert Greene) called Back Up Train (1967) for Hot Line Records, a label started by two members of his old vocal group Al Greene & The Creations (later Al Greene & The Soul Mates). Curtis Rodgers & Palmer James also produced the record and did the majority of the songwriting (along with someone named Tiny Watkins). Green was only 21 years old when this record was released, and his vocal style was still developing; his debt to singers like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye and others is very obvious without ever sounding like a mere copycat. I didn’t own Back Up Train until recently and wasn’t expecting much, so I’m happy to report that there’s a lot to enjoy here. There are no undisputed classics like you’ll find on his subsequent albums, but more than half of these 13 songs are incredibly strong and shouldn’t be overshadowed by his later work.
• “Back Up Train” – Slow & sultry with call & response between Al (in the left channel) and backing vocals (in the right channel). His voice really pleads, a la Sam Cooke, at “Back up train…ease the pain…take me to my baby.”
• “Hot Wire” – Solid if a bit derivative, with a groove recalling Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike,” horn hits worthy of mid-‘60s James Brown and Jackie Wilson-esque vocals.
• “I’m Reachin’ Out” – Another one that reminds me of Jackie Wilson, especially his late-‘60s soul recordings. It has a cool, funky bass line and I love the way his voice can be both gritty & sweet.
• “Don’t Hurt Me No More” – Slower, groovier and more romantic, with great vocals at “You look in my eyes, you will realize.”
• “I’ll Be Good To You” – His vocals recall Otis Redding, and that’s a beautiful thing. Also, that funky groove is infectious.
• “Guilty” – A fast waltz with sweeping strings & a tender vocal performance. Has a different feel from the other songs, and I like how he’s admitting his indiscretions & asking for forgiveness (“Just put me on probation, loving you is more than infatuation”).
• “That’s All It Takes (Lady)” – The bright horns and bouncy groove indicate a Stax/Muscle Shoals influence. Nothing original here but lots of fun, and I especially love the creative drum fills.
Hooking up with producer/arranger Willie Mitchell, who ran Royal Studios and owned Hi Records in Memphis, led to one of the great pairings in modern music history: a perfect mix of the right people making the right music at just the right time. It’s important to note the contributions of the Hi Rhythm Section, who were as instrumental (no pun intended) in shaping the sound of the era-defining recordings to follow: the three Hodges brothers (Leroy on bass, Charles on piano & organ and Mabon aka “Teenie” on guitar), drummers Al Jackson Jr. and Howard Grimes, along with the Memphis Horns featuring Wayne Jackson & Andrew Love. The first fruits of their labor appeared on Green’s Hi debut, Green Is Blues (1969), which was a big success on the R&B charts and is highlighted by several interpretations of well-known songs. Although it doesn’t include any hit singles, the majority of its songs are excellent and it’s a little more musically adventurous than his later albums.
♪ “Talk To Me” – It’s immediately catchy with a memorable guitar figure and that slinky bass line. There’s a slow building intensity and the focus is all on the subtle arrangement.
♪ “Tomorrow’s Dream” – Co-written by Green & Mitchell, it’s carried along by a funky groove and another great guitar figure. Green’s voice is passionate as he pursues his woman (“Don’t put off tomorrow for what today might bring”), and I love the way he sings “To-niiight baby” along with those horn blasts.
♪ “Get Back Baby” – Written solely by Green, who delivers some James Brown-worthy grunts and “Get back! Baby!” exultations.
[Al Green – “Talk To Me”]
Other Notable Tracks:
• “One Woman” – This album opener is slow, muted & sparse, and features a great vocal at “Loving arms are there to greet me, tender lips are there to meet me.” What starts off sounding like an ode to the woman he loves eventually reveals itself to be a cheating song (“One woman’s making my home, the other girl is making me do wrong”).
• “My Girl” – A cover of the Temptations hit with an added southern soul groove. It’s not definitive but a cool interpretation, and I love Green’s restrained vocals.
• “The Letter” – A deep soul version of The Box Tops’ #1 hit from 1967. The original was also recorded in Memphis, and their lead singer went on to form ill-fated power-pop legends Big Star.
• “Gotta Find A New World” – A song about the state of the world, in a similar vein to Curtis Mayfield’s best work. Features a pulsating, driving funky groove.
• “Get Back” – The follow-up track to the aforementioned “Get Back Baby” is a cover of The Beatles song released earlier that year. It’s relatively straightforward with a handful of soulful touches.
• “Summertime” – A cover of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess perennial in slow waltz time, with Green letting the notes linger. Musically it’s not my favorite version of this tune but his vocal performance is outstanding.
Al Green Gets Next To You (1971) streamlined the sound introduced on the previous album, settling on a smoother set of grooves but still offering plenty of diversity…and his first cross-genre hit single. This album is every bit as strong as its predecessor, and with Green contributing more original songs it showcases his blossoming talent as a great all-around artist. He & Mitchell also display a strong knack for cover material, as Green starts making some of his versions as definitive as the originals.
♪ “I Can’t Get Next To You” – You can’t really surpass The Tempations’ original hit single, released two years earlier, but this version nearly matches it with a brilliant vocal performance and killer horn chart. The insistent rhythm, those “oh…I” backing vocals and Green’s soaring falsetto in the outro combine to make this a winner.
♪ “Tired Of Being Alone” – His first Gold-certified single was an R&B Top 10 and huge Pop hit as well. It’s an absolutely perfect blend of music, lyric, arrangement, voice & production. His vocal at “Show we where it’s at, baby” and “Honey, love me if you will” is stunning.
♪ “I’m A Ram” – Green co-wrote this with guitarist Teenie Hodges, and it’s a great showcase for his understated guitar prowess. Green’s vocals are a little grittier than usual, and the guitar refrain (3 notes + 6 notes) is an amazing hook.
♪ “All Because” – The guitar work borders on psychedelic while Green grunts & moans like a preacher crossed with James Brown. There’s a killer riff carried by the bass and (I believe) an electric piano. My only complaint is that it fades too quickly, as I wish they could have vamped on that groove for a few more minutes.
Other Notable Tracks:
• “Are You Lonely For Me Baby” – Written by Brill Building legend Bert Berns and originally a Top 40 hit for Freddie Scott in 1967. The tight & bouncy arrangement and his voice (along with female backing vocals) help to make the song his own.
• “God Is Standing By” – A midtempo gospel-tinged soul song written by Johnny Taylor, with great playing on the keys (by Charles Hodges) and controlled vocals by Green (“I’ll…be standing by”).
• “Light My Fire” – He’s not the only R&B artist to re-work The Doors’ modern classic but his take is unique: slow & bluesy with half-spoken vocals in the first verse. It’s a great reinterpretation that never loses sight of the original melodic hooks.
• “Right Now Right Now” – Written solely by Green, it has a cool sparse arrangement as he repeats the title numerous times. Eventually settles into a funky groove, and I love the wah-wah guitar.
Let’s Stay Together (1972) was Green’s first #1 R&B album (it was also Top 10 on the Pop chart) and the title track reached the #1 spot on both singles charts. This was the point where Al Green became a superstar and a household name (well, everywhere except my house at the time, apparently). Green wrote or co-wrote 7 of the album’s 9 songs, and once again Willie Mitchell and the Hi Records musicians provided their usual inspired contributions. With all of this in mind, I don’t think the album is quite as strong from start to finish as the previous two, but that’s hardly a criticism as it contains two phenomenal performances and a handful of other excellent songs. It certainly earned its reputation, yet I urge anyone who loves this album but hasn’t gone further back in his catalog to do some exploring. You won’t be disappointed.
♪ “Let’s Stay Together” – A perfect rhythm track, awesome horns, pretty & subtle guitar work and a perfectly controlled vocal performance make this one of the most important songs ever recorded in any genre. Until this week I hadn’t noticed that the lyrics veer from him declaring his love to pleading with his woman to stick with him through difficult times. I had previously thought it was just a straight-up love song. Either way, his voice conveys a range of emotions and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of hearing this song.
♪ “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” – Years before The Bee Gees were disco icons they released a string of great melodic pop gems as well as tender ballads like this one (a #1 hit in 1971). This is a rare instance where one artist takes another artist’s song to new heights, and as great as the original is this one’s even better: a 6+ minute tour-de-force of emotion. Green’s hushed, whispery vocals blend with sweet strings for a record of utter beauty. Also as a point of comparison, the slow waltz tempo and chiming guitar pattern remind me of Chicago’s “Color My World.” I can’t stress enough how incredible I think this recording is.
This was an incredible batch of albums to spend a week with, and an impressive way for an artist to begin his career. Knowing that he followed these up with several more legendary albums makes me even more excited to move forward with his discography. I should point out that, even though I only highlighted the songs that I consider my favorites, there’s not a bad one on any of these albums. His debut includes a few forgettable tracks, but once the Hi Records team came into the picture their quality control was impeccable. Even if the melodies or lyrics didn’t make a huge impression on me, every song contains some little instrumental flourish that invites the listener back. Now it’s time for me to give some attention to his next few records, which I’ve already begun playing. I expect to have a lot of positive things to write in my next post. Until then, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the audio clips included above.