Al Green

TrackAlbum
Tired Of Being AloneGets Next To You
Let's Stay TogetherLet's Stay Together
Old Time Lovin'Let's Stay Together
Let's Get MarriedLivin' For You
Love And HappinessI'm Still In Love With You
Take Me To The RiverExplores Your Mind
God Blessed Our LoveExplores Your Mind
L-O-V-E (Love)Is Love
BelleThe Belle Album
Georgia BoyThe Belle Album

Al Green photo 1

 

 

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Al Green playlist

 

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Having written about one transcendent pop soul singer recently in Smokey Robinson, it seemed to me the time might be right to focus on another; in this case, Al Green. Indeed, Green is one of the few singers who can bear comparison with that great artist. Several of the terms I used in the piece about Robinson’s singing – including the reference to his “remarkable honey-like smoothness” – are equally applicable to The Reverend’s voice. Like Smokey, Green can also sing with a remarkable purity which is key to the inspirational quality of his finest songs. What marks Green out as a performer, however, is the relentless perfectionism and the attention to detail which characterises his best work.

In the studio, his almost obsessive pursuit of the highest possible vocal standards has become quasi-legendary. In “Sweet Soul Music”, Peter Guralnick claims that in the later stages of his career, Green “would spend more than a hundred hours on a vocal part, putting together, note by burbling note, each little comment and countercomment” on every track he recorded. Green’s singing was also remarkable for its range, going all the way from what Kara Manning has described as “almost guttural groans” to a sweet as honey Smokey-style falsetto. In his musical approach, Green also eventually reached a type of middle ground between the soul-pop of Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke (two of his earliest and longest-lasting musical heroes) and the Motown artists and the grittier down-home feel of the great Stax artists like Otis Redding and Johnnie Taylor. Like those latter artists, Green’s music was also deeply influenced by his early immersion in gospel music. Over time, the tensions between his spiritual and secular leanings were to become ever more acute.

To quote regular Toppermost contributor, Dave Stephens, like “most self-respecting soul singers” Al Green began his career singing in his local church. Indeed, Green himself later stated that he had been “raised on Gospel music” and that it was “put in … [ his] cornbread” as a young child. From singing in the nearby church (the family’s closest church was in the small town of Dansby, Arkansas), Green graduated to performing with his father’s gospel group, the Greene brothers (Al only dropped the final ‘e’ from his name when he moved to Memphis in 1968). This eventually led to him forming his own group, the Creations, which performed secular music almost exclusively. Green’s father strongly disliked this apparent defection from gospel music. His subsequent discovery of Al’s copy of Jackie Wilson’s single, Baby Workout (which he saw as an immoral song), proved the final straw which led him to expel his son from the family home.

Now left to his own devices, Green’s obvious musical talent meant that his choice of future career was a largely self-evident one. His decision to follow a musical path was further confirmed in 1967 when Back Up Train – the record he made with two former members of the recently disbanded Creations – Curtis Rodgers and Palmer James – reached No.5 on the Billboard R & B chart:

Its primary interest now lies in hearing Al Greene (as he still was at that time) before he met Willie Mitchell and became one of the greatest and most commercially successful pop/ soul singers of all time. In its own terms, it is an excellent vocal performance and displays the grittier style he favoured before signing to Hi Records. In my opinion, there is also a strong Johnnie Taylor influence on his singing at this point.

Unfortunately for Green, he was unable to follow up on the success of Back Up Train and was soon back singing on the ‘chitlin’ circuit’ (as it was known). In an interview with Kristine McKenna of the Los Angeles Times, Green later defined the circuit “as a lot of dumpy clubs you’d never go to featuring entertainers you’d never interview”. At this point, however, serendipity stepped in to transform Green’s career. It did so through his meeting with the record producer Willie Mitchell at a club in Midland, Texas in 1968. By this time, Mitchell had already developed a reputation as both a talented trumpeter/bandleader and as an innovative producer. He had already made several very fine records with O.V. Wright, one of the best ‘gutbucket’ soul singers of all time. He had also recently begun to produce records by a talented young singer called Ann Peebles, with whom he went on to make masterpieces like I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down and I Can’t Stand The Rain.

Willie Mitchell had already begun to develop a vision for a new type of soul music, one which combined the grittiness found in the traditional variety with a sophistication derived from the jazz music which was his first love. Hearing Al that night, Mitchell believed he had found a vocalist who could achieve the type of fusion he was aiming for. This would come only after a period of training at the maestro’s own hands. Mitchell had already assembled a superb group of musicians at Hi Records, the Memphis record label for which he worked. Indeed, in 1970, he became Vice President of that organisation, following the death of its founder, Roy Harris. These musicians included the brilliant Al Jackson on drums and the brothers Teenie, Charles and Leroy Hodges on guitar, keyboards and bass.

Mitchell supplemented these musicians with a group of equally gifted brass players, including Jack Hale Sr. on trombone, Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Andrew Love, Ed Logan, Lewis Collins and James Mitchell on sax (Love and Jackson later trademarked the name, the ‘Memphis Horns’, a move which subsequently generated some controversy). For the next year and a half, Green and this brilliant group of musicians gradually worked their way towards developing what was to become his trademark sound. Like Green himself, they were an extremely versatile set of musicians who were equally adept in a range of musical styles including funk, soul, gospel, and pop.

One of the first signs that they were on the right path was this brilliant version of The Temptations’ I Can’t Get Next To You, which Green released in 1971:

It replaced the Temptations original silkiness with a kind of heavy funkiness, which was to be one strand in the musical synthesis Green developed over the next few years. The layered vocal also set the template for the extraordinarily complex singing style that was a hallmark of his work at Hi.

At this point, Willie Mitchell was also trying to convince Green that he should sing more softly and make greater use of his remarkable falsetto. This advice bore fruit on the next single, the classic Tired Of Being Alone:

It had a kind of slinky silky smoothness which set the tone for many of his later records. Al’s vocal also floated over the musical background in a way it had not quite done up to that point. He also began to make use of a range of non-verbal tics, gong all the way from squeals to gurgles to whelps and yelps. Along with his extraordinary melisma (in his classic book, “Sweet Soul Music”, Peter Guralnick defines ‘melisma’ as “the stretching of a single syllable over the course of several notes or measures”), this technique did not, however, simply allow him to show off the brilliance of his vocal technique (although, on occasion, it undoubtedly did). It also enabled him to add extra-feeling to lines in his songs which on paper appeared comparatively banal or prosaic.

As good as ‘Tired’ was, it was not quite in the same rank as my next selection, Let’s Stay Together. Put simply, this is three minutes twenty seconds of pop perfection. It also saw the first use of strings (tastefully arranged and understated of course) on an Al Green record:

As Peter Guralnick has argued, the record also “conveys the same decorative filigree, the same sort of layered elegance with which Willie Mitchell and Al Green would soon take soul music – real, unabashed, wholehearted soul music – to quiet, luxuriantly appointed places it had never been before.”

By contrast, Al Green’s gospel roots are reflected in my next choice, Old Time Lovin’, which owes an obvious debt to older songs like Old Time Religion. It is also an example of the delicacy and subtlety which Green brought to his renditions of slow ballads (for more examples of his sublime skill at such songs see the ‘Covers’ section at the end of this piece).

The more up-tempo side of Green’s work is reflected in my next three selections, Let’s Get Married, Love And Happiness and Take Me To The River. All three songs show Green’s supreme mastery as a singer but they are also underpinned by the understated, but brilliantly effective, contributions from the Hi musicians, especially the brass section. Although the first two appear on the surface to be straightforward celebrations of L-O-V-E, on a closer inspection they show a clear undercurrent of unhappiness.

There is a kind of ‘searching’ element to them and a sense that Green is looking for some kind of intangible something that is missing from his life. The possibility this quest might take a spiritual turn comes through strongly in Take Me To The River. This is one of the greatest songs that Green ever wrote, but it also demonstrates a level of internal conflict (the classic soul music conflict between the secular and the sacred) which not long afterwards led him back to the Church.

God Blessed Our Love is another example of Al Green’s transcendent ability as a singer of slow ballads. The song had previously been recorded to superb effect by O.V. Wright (it can be heard here), but Al’s version is equally good. It also has a refined delicacy to it which O.V.’s lacks. Here’s a magnificent live version on “Soul Train” – watch out for a brilliant guitar solo by the late Larry Lee.

By contrast, L-O-V-E (Love), is one of the last of Green’s great pop-soul songs. It came close to the end of his period with Willie Mitchell as his producer. During that time, they had managed to combine sustained commercial success with the maintenance of a high standard of artistic excellence. Along my selections here, I also strongly recommend all of the great albums they made together between 1971 and 1976, from Al Green Gets Next To You to Have A Good Time in 1976. During this time, they barely recorded a track which was anything other than of the highest musical quality.

What eventually broke up that fantastic musical partnership was religion or, more specifically, Al’s determination to move to recording gospel music. This decision had been a long time coming, with its origins lying, as we have seen, in his early life. In 1973, Green had also had a ‘born again’ experience after playing a concert in Anaheim, California. In the following year, he also experienced a crisis in his life when an estranged ex-girlfriend poured boiling grits (although other accounts say porridge) over his back at his house in Memphis. After fleeing from the room, she then committed suicide, allegedly using one of Green’s guns. The exact details of this incident remain somewhat obscure but there is no doubt that it had a profound effect on his subsequent life. It also helped to inspire his decision to shift to recording solely religious music. For Willie Mitchell, this was a step too far as he had no interest at that time in producing albums of that kind.

In consequence, Al Green’s next long player, The Belle Album (1977), was self-produced. It also had a much sparer sound than most of his previous records. He played guitar throughout with Reuben Fairfax playing bass and Fred Jordan keyboards and an early form of synth described as the ‘polyphonic orchestra’. Perhaps surprisingly, Belle turned out to be a masterpiece, which ranks very high among the finest records Green made in his career. In my opinion, the title track is his greatest song and ranks among the best songs ever written. It is also possibly his most profoundly personal song. It tackles, head on, the conflict between his religious impulses and his attraction towards what George Harrison called the ‘material world’ (‘It’s you that I want but it’s him that I need’). His vocal on the song has a haunting beauty to it which, for me at least, is unique in his work:

The vocal is beautifully complemented by the brilliant bass line played by Fairfax. The final selection, Georgia Boy, is by contrast a funky track with a kind of free association lyric which ranges over the whole of Green’s life. Like the rest of Belle – apart from the title track – it has a lovely relaxed spontaneous feel to it which is very different from the Mitchell sound at Hi.

After Belle, Al Green eventually moved on to devoting most of his time to his religious work (since 1976 he has run his own church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis) while also recording some very high-quality gospel albums. In more recent years, he has also recorded some secular music and has even performed some of his classic hits from the Hi years live. He also recorded again with Willie Mitchell, although the results were not on the same level as those classic early recordings. However good his subsequent work, he will always be best remembered for that magnificent body of work he recorded in the 1970s. It was during that time that he established himself as one of the greatest soul singers who has ever lived.

 

 

FOOTNOTE

For those wanting to find out more about the details of Al Green’s life, I recommend Jimmy McDonough’s book, “Soul Survivor: A Biography Of Al Green” (Da Capo Press, 2017). There is also a brilliant short account of Green’s career in Peter Guralnick’s classic book, “Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm And Blues And The Southern Dream Of Freedom” (Canongate, 2002 edition).

 

 

TEN BEST COVERS

Talk To Me (Little Willie John) – Green Is Blues
Driving Wheel (Roosevelt Sykes/Junior Parker) – Gets Next To You
For The Good Times (Kris Kristofferson) – I’m Still In Love With You
How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (Bee Gees) – Let’s Stay Together
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams) – Call Me
Funny How Times Slip Away (Willie Nelson) – Call Me
Unchained Melody (Righteous Brothers) – Livin’ For You
Together Again (Buck Owens) – Full Of Fire
Amazing Grace (Mahalia Jackson et al) – Higher Plane
A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke) – Ali (OST)

 

 

Al Green facebook

Al Green on Hi Records

“Take Me to the River: An Autobiography”
– Al Green (Chicago Review Press, 2009)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Al Green (1995)

Al Green biography (AllMusic)

Willie Mitchell (1928–2010)

Larry Lee (1943–2007)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Read the toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Sam Cooke, Miracles, Junior Parker, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Temptations

TopperPost #877

7 Comments

  1. Alex Lifson
    Jun 17, 2020

    Thank you for posting about one of my favourite singers, who I feel that sometimes gets forgotten. A great track list. I also love the added covers list. Thank you for posting.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Jun 18, 2020

    I tend to think of Al Green in the following manner: the first of the truly great soul balladeers was Solomon Burke who took what Ray Charles, James Brown and Sam Cooke plus a few others like Clyde McPhatter and Little Willie John had discovered, the usage (and glory) of gospel singing in a secular format; took it and shook it and made it his own. Otis Redding and the Stax team then upped the ante by intensifying the whole experience, amplifying the light and shade. The Reverend, aided and abetted by the great Wille Mitchell added tone, timbre and timing; the word “refined” might do him justice but I’m not sure; he seems to find more in songs than others do. You made me reflect on all that in your excellent Topper. Sure, Al might not have ascended to the throne of the last of the great soul men without those predecessors– and notice I’m in no way challenging what Aretha achieved – but surely a talent like his would still have broken through. Fine selections too. Thanks Andrew. Corny to say it but if this Topper makes a few people visit or revisit Al’s music, it’s achieved its purpose.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Jun 18, 2020

    Alex & Dave, thanks for the kind words.
    Alex – Yes, I agree that Al’s work does not get the attention it should.
    Dave – Thanks for the very thorough comment. Made me think about that incredible symbiotic relationship between Al and Willie Mitchell. Both brought such a blend of unique skills that it is very difficult to separate out their individual contributions. And, yes, Al seemed able to take what on the surface sometimes seemed relatively banal songs and imbue them with a huge significance – largely through the power of that transcendent voice.

  4. Colin Duncan
    Jun 19, 2020

    Thanks, Andrew. I bought many Tamla Soul singles as they charted back in the day. Sadly, they were given away, but I still play them on compilations. I was in my twenties when I first heard of Al Green. I still play the greatest hits and the first two songs on your list are brilliant. I have learned much in your post and will investigate the run of classic albums that you highlight. Well written as usual. Many thanks, Andrew.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Jun 22, 2020

    Colin, thanks for the kind words. And enjoy the Hi albums – Al and Willie and that brilliant group of musicians produced so much music of the very highest quality.

  6. Cal Taylor
    Jul 3, 2020

    This is a really good, well written Toppermost on Al Green. Thank you, Andrew.
    I bought Al Green records in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s and this article brought back many fond memories. I was also lucky enough to be able to see Al perform in 2010.
    With artists that have very long careers it is impossible to cover everything they do in detail on this site, as space would not allow. However, Andrew has done a great job and it is an excellent introduction if you did not know Al’s work.
    There is no doubt in my mind that Al’s best recordings were when he worked with Willie Mitchell the first time, between 1969 and 1976, as Andrew says. There is so much material there including ten studio albums. If Andrew has whetted your appetite, these ten albums are all available on Spotify. If you listen to any or all of them I’m sure you will not be disappointed.

  7. Andrew Shields
    Jul 4, 2020

    Cal, many thanks for this and glad the post brought back some good memories. And, as you say, the Hi albums with Willie remain the Gold Standard – such a sustained run of music of the very highest quality.

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