Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
By the mid-‘70s, Al Green had already released eight studio albums and was arguably the biggest soul/R&B artist in the world. With the assistance of producer Willie Mitchell and the Hi Records studio band (all of whom I mentioned in my two previous posts), his records boasted a singular sound that combined all the best elements of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, the Philly Soul sound of Gamble & Huff and other contemporary artists while never sounding like anyone but Al Green. Five of those albums reached the top spot on the R&B charts and were huge Pop hits as well. It’s hard for any artist to keep up that pace, and Green was no exception, although he still had one more chart-topper and continued releasing quality records through the end of the decade. Eventually his music would take a turn toward religion as he was ordained as a minister & delivered regular services to his congregation in Memphis. Some of the songs he recorded for the albums I’ll discuss here took a much more spiritual lyrical approach, so in many ways this period in his career could be seen as a bridge to the solely religious albums he released in the ‘80s. That shouldn’t scare off any potential fans, as he still had plenty of classic smooth soul & funky R&B to offer through the end of the ‘70s; only the hit-to-miss ratio wasn’t as strong as it had been during the first 7-8 years of his recording career.
Al Green Is Love (1975) was his last album to reach #1, carrying on the sound of its immediate predecessors and offering a number of new classics. It’s one of those albums that might have less impact because it doesn’t quite measure up to what came before, but it’s every bit the equal of his previous work (or close to it) and nearly half of its songs would be worthy inclusions on a career-spanning anthology.
♪ “L-O-V-E (Love)” – A #1 RB and Top 20 Pop hit with a driving steady groove & sweet strings providing the melody. It’s about love in all its guises: “a flower in my soul…a story that just can’t be told.” It’s perfectly arranged, and once you hear this song it’s hard to get it out of your head.
♪ “Rhymes” – A bluesy song with a cool little 4-note guitar figure, a tight funky groove and great horn blasts & organ splashes. I especially love the female vocals: “I can’t let it get me down, change my smile into a frown.”
♪ “Could I Be The One” – A slow, slinky rhythm with brushed snare drum and Green cooing the lyrics to this beautiful love song which could double as a marriage proposal (“Trust me with your dreams, I’ll make them all come true, for the rest of my life I’ll be grateful to you”; “Let me be the one in your life at the end of the rainbow”). His falsetto is truly awesome here.
♪ “I Wish You Were Here” – A stunning ballad with some of the most controlled singing of his career. The way he goes in & out of the falsetto is incredible, and the chorus…where he soars along with the strings…is lovely. I also love the tasteful keyboard work. This is probably in my top 5 Al Green songs, and only gets better with age.
[Al Green – “I Wish You Were Here”]
Other Notable Tracks:
The front cover image of a smiling Al Green on Full Of Fire (1976) perfectly captures the upbeat nature of this record. There are still a few examples of the slow-burn soul that we’ve come to expect from him, but the advent of disco & the boundless creativity exhibited by Stevie Wonder at that time were clearly an influence on this welcome change of direction. I only consider one of the album’s nine tracks to be essential, yet the majority of the record is infectious. Even if a particular song isn’t great, there’s always some interesting musical contribution that makes it special.
♪ “Full Of Fire” – The title track is chugging & funky with some fantastic horn charts. The rhythm track is danceable but not quite disco, and I love the way Green does his own call-and-response vocals, alternating between full-throated & falsetto.
Other Notable Tracks:
Green’s final album with Mitchell & the Hi Records musical crew, prior to a reunion 25+ years later, was Have A Good Time (1976). Whether it was Green’s desire to move on or complacency setting in with the producer & musicians, something didn’t quite work here. There are a handful of excellent songs, of course, since that combination of talent is always going to strike some gold, but for me it’s his least essential album to date. Also, the noteworthy songs all show up at the beginning, and the second half is chock full of songs I noted as “good but nothing special.” Maybe fans got spoiled after ten records of inspiring & groundbreaking music, and we can’t expect them all to be winners, but there’s clearly a sense of an era coming to a close. On its own Have A Good Time is an enjoyable record, but that’s not the case in the context of the vast catalog that came before it.
♪ “Keep Me Cryin’” – A Top 5 R&B hit that also cracked the Top 40 Pop chart, it opens with a stomping beat & staggered rhythm before the horn section introduces the melody via a fanfare. It’s upbeat, dance-y and super-catchy: “Don’t you know they keep me cryin’ all the time?” The disco influence is obvious, along with hints of Philly Soul.
[Al Green – “Keep Me Cryin'”]
Other Notable Tracks:
With eleven albums under his belt, ten of which were collaborations with Mitchell, Green decided to try something new with The Belle Album (1977). Not only did he act as his own producer, he also played all acoustic & electric guitars and co-wrote all eight songs with two of his new musicians: keyboard player Fred Jordan & bassist Reuben Fairfax Jr. According to the liner notes, “Al says he wants his new music to ‘make you shout for joy,’” and it’s hard to argue with that even though the same could be said for almost everything he’s ever released. There’s a more overtly religious tone to many of the songs while always remaining firmly rooted in soul/R&B, and several new musical elements are introduced by this group of musicians. Although it reached the R&B Top 30 it was his lowest charting album since his 1967 debut, and by this time the Pop audience had moved on. A couple of songs were hits but nothing on this album had me truly excited. Some fans probably consider this his career peak but, after playing it numerous times this past week and hoping it would grow on me, I don’t think that’s the case…yet it’s certainly an improvement over its predecessor.
The following year he performed a couple of shows in Japan to support the release of The Belle Album, bringing most of the studio musicians from that record with him. The highlights of these shows were documented on the excellent Tokyo…Live (1981, reissued on CD in 1995). Of the 14 songs included, 4 are from the new album while the remainder spans 7 earlier releases, and the set list is a virtual “greatest hits” collection. The musicianship is top-notch and even though they occasionally lack the nuances that the Hi Records team brought to the studio recordings, they breathe new life into almost every song with a modern funkiness (especially the slap bass). I love the way he conducts the horn section during “Let’s Get Married,” a la James Brown. He adds some of “Unchained Melody” (not listed in the packaging) into “God Blessed Our Love,” confirming the comparison of the two songs I made in my previous post. I’m glad he acknowledged The Righteous Brothers (who popularized “Unchained Melody”) in his introduction. There’s a cool percussion solo at the end of “You Ought To Be With Me” that was a pleasant surprise. My only complaint about this live album is that “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” lasts less than three minutes, as compared to the incredible 6+ minute studio version. Tokyo…Live is not an essential concert recording but as the only officially-released live document of Al Green in his prime I’m glad I own it.
I’m curious to find out if anyone feels more strongly about some of these albums than I do, or if the general consensus is that the quality isn’t quite as high here as it had been. He released one more secular album with Hi Records (Truth N’ Time) in 1978 before shifting to sacred releases throughout the next decade. I never got a copy of that one so I have no idea if it’s any good. If anyone can recommend it (or avoiding it) I’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts on that or any of the albums discussed here in the Comments section below. In my next post I’ll be discussing the five Al Green gospel albums I own from the ‘80s.