Hi and mighty, a lasting soulgospel genius. By Geoff Brown.
“THE TROUBLED PULL BETWEEN BODY AND SOUL IS AT THE CORE OF HIS ARTISTRY.”
Not a screamer like Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding, nor a grunter and good Goder like James Brown or testifier like Teddy Pendergrass, as a soul singer Al Green was a complete one-off who, despite obvious influences, sounded like no soul singer before or since. Many have based careers on imitating James or Otis, Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson, even Luther Vandross, but I can think of none who’ve been able to approach the delicacy of phrasing, the underlying groove and drive, the troubled pull between body and soul, that is at the core of Al Green’s vocal artistry. Born to sharecroppers near Forrest City, Arkansas in April 1946, Albert Greene sang in a family gospel group and via radio developed a liking for Jackie Wilson. In 1955 the family moved north to Grand Rapids, Michigan where in his teens Al and friends formed a secular act, The Creations. Later rechristened Al Greene & The Soul Mates, an entrepreneur among them started a record label and, astonishingly, recorded a hit, the fairly rough-and-ready Back Up Train. It was not like the Al Green who would become a soul icon. With no follow-up hit, Greene found himself in a club in Midland, Texas, in 1968, second on the bill to a man plugging his instrumental hit Soul Serenade. Willie Mitchell, on Hi out of Memphis, was taken with his support act and asked Greene to look him up when he felt ready. They made a magnificent team, dropping that final ‘e’ and giving us a last great Southern soul man. Famously pulled twixt sex and sermon, the latter won Green’s allegiance, not after the notorious 1974 incident that saw a girlfriend pour boiling grits on him then kill herself, but in 1979 following an on-stage epiphany in Cincinnati. Reverend Al’s gospel LPs are sung well but lack that soulful edge. These don’t. From a generous supply of hits sets, pick Greatest Hits: The Best Of…, a 2-CD 42-song soul survival pack, or higher up the market, A Deeper Shade Of Green, 3-CDs as a book: an imaginative, less hits-obsessed collection.
10 Al Greene Back Up Train ARISTA IMPORT 2005, CD £12.39 You Say: “Superb early material.” Phil James, via e-mail
This is a CD of 1967’s Hot Line vinyl LP (see above) that introduced the 20-year-old Al Greene [sic] to the wider world outside his Arkansas stomping ground when the title track, released as Al Greene & The Soul Mates, unexpectedly became a hit single. As such, it’s the voice in which Willie Mitchell heard such potential, and highlights what a good producer/A&R man he was, because this is not the voice of the Al Green who would come to thrill and delight women around the world, or indeed have male soul fans nodding in wise approbation. No, this is the Al Greene who hasn’t yet flung off his influences – Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and, all too plainly, James Brown. But there are clear hints of the maturer Green style: the hurt, doubt and joy of a soul great.
4 Al Green Let’s Stay Together HI 1971, CD £9.87, VINYL £15.08 You Say: “Unbelievable originals and covers.” Stephen Garcia, via e-mail
Super-quick follow-up to Gets Next To You, this LP moved Green’s songwriting front and centre. In addition to the title track (his first US pop Number 1), La-La For You and Old Time Lovin’ brought sunshiney soul; So You’re Leaving sorrowed, What Is This Feeling uplifted and It Ain’t No Fun To Me was solidly grounded by the funk laid down in the Hi rhythm section engine room. Two cover versions also grab the attention. He recalibrated the Bee Gees’ How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, arguably his most complete cover ever, with great delicacy, exquisitely teasing out the heartbreak and loss in Barry and Robin Gibb’s classic. Meanwhile, from across Memphis Eddie Floyd’s I’ve Never Found A Girl also gets a weighty reworking.
9 Al Green
The Hi Singles As And Bs CREAM/HI 2000, CD £5.75 You Say: “The Mitchell Years, anthologised.” Tim Lomax, via e-mail
A 2-CD, 43-song collection of Willie Mitchell productions (ie, no Belle Album tracks), this walks you through Green’s 45s from 1969’s surprising debut – a cover of The Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand – up to 1976’s Something (not the Harrison song), the B-side to I Tried To Tell Myself, arguably one of only two good tracks on that year’s misnamed Have A Good Time (you won‘t). After the Fabs cover, Mitchell/Green broke into the R&B charts in ’70 with chunky driver You Say It, the first of five sides from … Gets Next To You to chart as with Mitchell‘s guidance Al the soul love-man was ‘created’. A fascinating work-in-progress, it moves from uptempo stomps (You Say It, Right Now Right Now, Driving Wheel) to Tired Of Being Alone’s romance.
3 Al Green
I’m Still In Love With You HI 1972, CD £10.57, VINYL £15.12 You Say: “For me, his peak.” Peter Garner, via e-mail
His biggest-ever US pop album, reaching Number 4, there isn’t a trace of heartbreak, betrayal or solemnity to be heard on I’m Still… as Green confirmed his arrival as the early ’70s’ freshest soul sex symbol. Again dominated by the songs he writes with producer Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson Jr, the title track, a Number 4 US pop hit, in fact did less well than its predecessor as a single, Look What You Done For Me, from the same songwriting team. Odder still, in the UK neither single climbed higher than 35 as his sales here stalled. But Green’s Love And Happiness, soon to be covered by Graham Central Station, Etta James et al, and Simply Beautiful are lasting delights and Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman is given a convincing reinterpretation.
8 Al Green I Can’t Stop BLUE NOTE 2003, CD £12.50 You Say: “If he couldn’t, why did he(again)?” Alan Lowe, via e-mail
Reunited with Willie Mitchell 18 years after their previous work together on gospel albums, I Can’t Stop was a stunning, albeit temporary, return to top form in the secular field. His voice sounds remarkably unchanged from the glories of the early ’70s, and he sings with a freedom, joy, power and determination to connect that gives some idea of the uplift he’d been giving congregations at the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis. Stand-out track is Rainin’ In My Heart, an astonishing ballad performance of gradually revealed emotion via gospel shrieks, soul shouts and a heart-stopping climax. Not Tonight, a ballad of gentler insistence, is not far behind. Hi stalwarts Teenie and Leroy Hodges drive uptempo tracks that joyfully secularise gospel.
2 Al Green Call Me HI 1973, CD £10, VINYL £34.85 You Say: “Runs the gamut from the profane to the sacred.” Conor Bendle, MOJO Facebook
In the see-saw subjective world of ranking LPs, Call Me is always going to be Top 3, and often 1, in any discerning list of Al Green albums. Even setting aside the three Top 10 US singles – title track, Here I Am (Come And Take Me) and R&B Number 1 You Ought To Be With Me – there’s hardly a weak moment or a vocal misstep. There is an exquisite remake of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry; his take on Willie Nelson’s Funny How Time Slips Away isn’t far behind. Although he always seems most comfortable at ballad and mid-tempos, the driving Stand Up satisfies the need for a gospel stomp. Final track Jesus Is Waiting points to the road Green would soon take, away from the temporal to the spiritual path.
7 Al Green Tokyo Live! CREAM/HI 1981 £9.98 You Say: “The hits that matter, live.” Geoff Prowse, via e-mail
Recorded at the Nakano Sun Plaza in Japan’s capital city on June 23 and 24, 1978, here is Al Green at the crossroads, still, trapped between the soul god of the early ’70s and the man of God of the ’80s and onward. The concert was actually part of the Tokyo Music Festival, an alleged competition (Al won Grand Prize for Best Vocalist; Blondie, Kate Bush and Debby Boone among his adversaries). This resultant live album has 14 tracks, all the hits you’d want to hear, rendered by his welldrilled road band including MD Fred Jordan, bassist Reuben Fairfax Jr and drummer John Toney. Songs from The Belle Album, his most recent – Dreams, All ’N All, Belle – are among the weakest, although its I Feel Good has a pounding groove that simply won’t be denied.
6 Al Green
Explores Your Mind HI 1974, CD £10.78, VINYL £15.17 You Say: “Extraordinary vocal prowess.” Ruth Nathan, via e-mail
In assessing Green’s career, Livin’ For You, Explores Your Mind and Is Love are mid-’70s albums said to be at the cusp of his waning enthusiasm for soul stardom, yet all have moments that can stop the clocks, and none more so than Explores… Even ignoring the gentle good vibe of Sha-La-La (Makes Me Happy), his highest placing (Number 7) US pop hit since 1972, there is the first version of his wonderful, much- covered, gospel-drenched Take Me To The River. Written with Hi guitarist Teenie Hodges, Green uses church-based imagery of renewal through watery baptism against a typical Royal studios rhythm of ineffable drive. Uplift, too, from the poignant romance of God Blessed Our Love and School Days’ gossamer reverie.
5 Al Green Gets Next To You HI 1971, CD £1.98 VINYL £33.49 You Say: “More raw-sounding and less polished than his later LPs.” Sander Geerdink, MOJO Facebook
Two years after scowling from the cover of 1969’s Hi debut Green Is Blues, Al looks as flamboyant and happy on the front as he sounds on the 10 tracks. Tired Of Being Alone reveals him as a songwriter of exceptional potential, but his covers point to a rare ability to take a song apparently the sole property of an established artist and totally reinvent it, creating a new set of emotions through fresh interpretations of lyric and melody. Motown and Stax (The Temptations’ I Can’t Get Next To You, Johnnie Taylor’s God Is Standing By) are upstaged; his take on Freddie Scott’s Are You Lonely For Me Baby is lovely. Hard-driving originals – I’m A Ram; You Say It; Right Now, Right Now – are slightly less successful, but the Hi template and sound are set.
1 Al Green The Belle Album HI 1977, CD £10.24, VINYL £16.35 You Say: “I listened to it three times today.” Alan Heffelfinger, MOJO Facebook
Dropping both producer Mitchell and the Hi rhythm team, Green and God reconnected on this unexpected self-produced return to top form. The greatest gospel artists can make anyone delight in their singing, no matter what the message is. Thus opener Belle addresses the body/spirit conflict that tugs at the heart of his best music, while Loving You sets lambent verses against highsteppin’ choruses. He evokes changing seasons (in Feels Like Summer sun dapples, snow falls) and the South (Georgia Boy, though he’s from Arkansas), and as ever, finds a real expressway to your feet in I Feel Good.