Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
As I worked my way this past week through the batch of Al Green albums I’ll be discussing here, I was reminded that the greatness of these records had as much to do with Green’s one-of-a-kind voice & songwriting as the Hi Records team of producer/arranger Willie Mitchell and musicians Leroy Hodges (bass), Charles Hodges (piano/organ), Mabon “Teenie” Hodges (guitar), drummers Al Jackson Jr. & Howard Grimes and the Memphis Horns. On the surface many of the songs sound strikingly similar, and often it takes a few listens before subtle nuances reveal themselves, so much of the credit goes to all of the aforementioned gentlemen for making each album a unique experience when, in lesser hands, they could have come across as repetitious. I can honestly say that there’s not a single bad song on any of these records, but as always there are some that stand apart from others; songs with instantly memorable melodies, killer horn charts, catchy guitar refrains, perfectly placed string sections (many featuring all of the above). Of course, the one constant throughout it all is the vocal prowess of Al Green. Even when he’s begging his woman for forgiveness after an indiscretion, the sincerity in his voice always has us rooting for him to win her back. More often than not, though, he’s romancing his woman…and the listener…with a voice that can shift from gritty to gorgeous in a split second. All of this might sound like hyperbole, but the fact that all four of these albums were certified gold or platinum and reached #1 on the R&B charts (and cracked the upper echelons of the Pop charts) means that there are millions of people who feel the same way.
I’m Still In Love With You (1972) takes what was great about its predecessor (Let’s Stay Together)…killer grooves, subtle yet powerful vocals, strong original material & a slow-burning cover version…and amps it up a few notches. There’s not a weak song here; even the ones not included on the lists below, such as his funky reimagining of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” make for strong album tracks and are simply missing a hook or other element needed to make them special. What did make the lists are all dynamite tracks, several of them among the best soul/R&B songs of all time (including a couple of Top 5 singles).
♪ “I’m Still In Love With You” – An intro with horns & a pulsing groove gives way to a mellow, almost jazzy rhythm with subtle hi-hat accents and Green’s tender vocals. Other notable elements are the tasty strings, clever arrangement & female backing vocals. His falsetto is a thing of beauty, and I especially love the vocal at “Well it seems to me that I’m wrapped up in your love.”
♪ “Love And Happiness” – The semi a capella intro, where he intones “Something that can make you do wrong make you do right…looooove,” is an incredible way to begin this song before foot tapping leads into a steady groove that continues throughout the rest of the song. The tight horn chart after the initial chorus, which reminds me of Afrobeat horns, is a highlight of this track for me.
♪ “Simply Beautiful” – Apparently this tune has been very popular for sampling; it’s slow & sparse with whole & half notes on the bass and simple guitar strumming (sounds like a nylon string acoustic). It’s not far off from the music of Bill Withers, offering sheer beauty in its simplicity, and I love the repeated 4-note descending guitar pattern.
♪ “For The Good Times” – Like his cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” from the previous album, the longest song here is also a cover, this time showcasing the talents of Kris Kristofferson. It’s been covered many times over the years, but it was still a relatively new song at the time. Green’s version is a midtempo waltz that gets its strength from the subtle arrangement & tight drum pattern, as well as the lyrics about a relationship coming to an end. It’s slow & sophisticated, and Green’s voice is gorgeous, never more so than when he sings, “Lay your head…on my pillow.”
Other Notable Tracks:
Somehow he managed to return less than a year later with an even stronger album, Call Me (1973), where the majority of its songs would be worthy contenders for a career-spanning anthology. Like its predecessor, 7 of the 9 songs are originals while the other 2 are covers (of country songs). Ray Charles may have popularized the combination of country and soul/R&B a decade earlier, and those recordings are the gold standard, but Green & Mitchell should also be recognized for their contribution to this musical hybrid that conceptually shouldn’t work but sounds amazing once you hear it. As for the originals, they didn’t mess with the formula here, carrying on the sound of the previous few albums. Song-for-song it’s probably his strongest album so far.
♪ “Call Me (Come Back Home)” – It sounds similar to a lot of what came before it, but the slightly off-kilter call-and-response vocals of “call me (call me)” and the stellar string arrangement really lift this song to greatness. I also love his delivery at “Losing your love, acting foolishly.”
♪ “Have You Been Making Out Okay?” – A slow jam that keep things tight & light, with pretty string swirls and awesome hushed harmony vocals in the intro & chorus. It’s stunning & slightly sad as he sings to his ex, wondering how she’s doing with her new man. I really enjoyed the organ/electric piano solo and his delivery of “on your ooooown” is excellent.
♪ “Here I Am (Come And Take Me)” – A huge Pop and R&B hit that might be even better known via the 1991 cover by UB40, but the original is by far the stronger record. It’s super tight & funky and his delivery of “I can’t believe that it’s real, the way that you make me feel” is one of many hooks here. I love the way it opens up for the chorus, with that ascending 6-note horn part.
♪ “Funny How Time Slips Away” – This Willie Nelson song from 1961 has been covered by many artists, but Green’s version was my first exposure to it 20 years ago and it’s always had a special place in my heart. The midtempo waltz rhythm is romantic & soulful, and the metronomic hi-hat clicking moves it along as his voice weaves around the beat. Thematically it’s similar to “Have You Been Making Out Okay?” so its inclusion here is not a surprise.
[Al Green – “Funny How Time Slips Away”] [audio http://k007.kiwi6.com/hotlink/e0qh2t1ba6/Funny_How_Time_Slips_Away_Al_Green_.mp3]
♪ “You Ought To Be With Me” – A more propulsive, upbeat song with a driving (but still slightly muted) beat. There’s great tasteful guitar work interspersed throughout. Strings & horns work in tandem to build the drama on top of the steady groove. “I’m trying to realize you being with some other guy, I don’t know the reason why, you ought to be with me until I die” is an especially strong lyric.
Other Notable Tracks:
I wouldn’t call Livin’ For You (1973) a misstep, but it is a slight step backwards because there aren’t as many truly incredible songs as the last two albums. It was another commercial success, especially on the R&B charts, but the Pop audience didn’t respond as strongly this time. Musically it’s a little more adventurous than the few records that preceded it, including the longest song he had recorded up to that time. In fact, although the album is only 4-5 minutes longer than his others, it feels even longer than that. Of course, these are just minor complaints since the musicians continue to deliver sympathetic accompaniment and Green’s voice is impressive as always.
♪ “Livin’ For You” – The biggest hit single from the album, it’s also the one that sticks closest to the successful formula of his previous hits: tight groove, controlled vocals, lush strings & tasty horns. The melody in the verses is inviting (“You think of a reason why, that you should make me cry…”) and the song seems to get better with each listen. I found it interesting that the chorus doesn’t appear until past the 2-minute mark, and then continues through the fade-out.
♪ “Let’s Get Married” – The other hit single, although not quite as successful as the title track. It has a more insistent groove than we’ve heard in a while. The backing vocals (when they sing the title) blended with the horns makes for a great hook as he sings around them. He’s pleading with his lover, trying to convince her that he’s changed his ways (“I’ve got to stop fooling around”) but ultimately failing (“You don’t believe me”). His falsetto, especially singing the last two words of “I can wipe all your tears away” is something to behold.
Al Green Explores Your Mind (1974) might be my favorite of the four albums covered in this post. It may not have quite as many essentials as Call Me but nearly every song is a winner. It’s very short at less than 31 minutes and packs a lot of punch in that time. It’s also more musically diverse than any of his previous albums and the upbeat nature of many of its songs makes it stand out in his catalog. I was also pleased to re-discover a lesser-known song that I loved when I first got into his music two decades ago, which I’ll discuss below. Even though it featured only one hit single, this album is very strong from start to finish and every bit as classic as anything that came before it.
♪ “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)” – This tune is full of joy with an upbeat rhythm, sweeping strings and a pulsating groove with accents provided by a cabasa (a Latin percussion instrument). The lyrics are simplistic but the emotion is clear, his voice is heartfelt & sincere and the music is killer.
♪ “Take Me To The River” – The first Al Green song I was ever aware of, via the well-known Talking Heads version from the ‘80s. The original is still the best, of course, with its down & dirty groove. Even in falsetto his voice is powerful, but he also adds some grit in the verses, and the horn part (4 notes ascending then 4 notes descending) is as important as the melody.
♪ “God Blessed Our Love” – A dramatic slow waltz that’s not far removed from The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” a song Green covered on his previous album that I didn’t think was worth noting in that discussion. This original is a much better representation of what he can do with this kind of material. It’s intense, uplifting & sweet, and could be a wedding standard; a perfect combination of gospel & soul.
♪ “Hangin’ On” – This is the album track that impressed me so much when I first heard this album, but I had forgotten it in the intervening years. When it came on my stereo for the first time last week I was immediately reminded of how much I loved it. The pizzicato string embellishments and Green’s amazing falsetto in the chorus (“It’s all because of you, I keep haaangin’ on, just keep haaangin’ on”) are just two outstanding aspects of this track. How he can sound like the good guy even as he professes love for one woman while he’s with another is a testament to his vocal prowess: “I still belong to someone like you, I don’t know what to do.”
[Al Green – “Hangin’ On”] [audio http://k007.kiwi6.com/hotlink/jnsfhqt25r/Hangin_On_Al_Green_.mp3]
Other Notable Tracks:
I have nothing more to add about these four albums. While many people will be content with owning his greatest hits, anyone wanting to dive more deeply into his catalog would likely be pleased with any or all of these. I don’t remember much about the albums I’ll be listening to for my next post but, although they signaled the beginning of his commercial decline, I have to imagine that there will be plenty of great music to enjoy. I’ll let you know next time if that was the case.