[3 October 2003]
On a clear, sunny day in Memphis last June, a friend and I drove by Royal Recording Studios. Royal, which once upon a time was a movie theater, is located smack dab in the middle of one of the nation’s most impoverished neighborhoods, Soulsville. We got out of the car, and my friend took a photo of me standing in front of the building. Why did we go there that day? Because Al Green made all of his greatest records there.
Nearly all of those records can be found on this box set, which tells the rise-and-fall story of the last great Southern soul singer. Despite this, I do not recommend buying the set, for nearly half of it consists of recordings Green made after he was past his prime.
At his peak, Green was, simply put, just about the greatest soul singer of them all. With its honest passion, strength and vulnerability, his music possesses something almost more real than earthly reality, a sense that Green has actually reached out and touched God, harnessed divine energy, and channeled it into his music.
Though Green is the nearly supernatural force at the center of his best music, there is more to that music than his contributions. Green’s creative partner at Hi Records was the label’s proprietor, bandleader and producer Willie Mitchell, who had himself amassed a string of instrumental soul hits. Green and Mitchell crafted Green’s sound together, along with a third genius, Al Jackson, Jr. A drummer, songwriter and producer, Jackson—the backbone of Booker T. & the MGs—remains one of the most under appreciated musicians in all of pop music history. After recording with Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Don Covay, Johnnie Taylor and many other stars, Jackson co-wrote and played on many of the biggest hits on these four CDs. The Hi house band, composed of the three Hodges brothers and drummer Howard Grimes, was another essential element. Guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges deserves special mention both for his songwriting (“Love and Happiness”, “Here I Am”, “L-O-V-E”) and for his tasteful use of complex chords and chord progressions more often heard in Jazz than in R&B. Like Green’s vocals, Teenie’s chords often touch places deep inside me that I did not even know were there.
This box set is filled with covers, but that is not the kind of problem for Al Green it might be for another artist. Though some of them (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “Summertime”, “I’ve Never Found A Girl”) are merely passable, many others (“Light My Fire”, “Oh Pretty Woman”, “Driving Wheel”) bring something new and significant to the originals. Then there are no fewer than six cover songs that Green simply owns. On each of these recordings, it seems as if the songs in question were written for Green, not for the original artists who recorded them. Green injects “Are You Lonely for Me Baby,” which had been a hit for Freddie Scott, and “God Is Standing By”, originally recorded by former Soul Stirrer Johnnie Taylor, with all the fervor of a Sunday morning at his church in Memphis. He takes the rave-up “I Can’t Get Next to You”, which had just been a hit for the Temptations, turns it into a mid-tempo burner, and adds a pleading, gutbucket vocal that could only have come from below the Mason-Dixon line. His work is even more breathtaking on the ballads he covers. You can easily forget about the brothers Gibb after hearing Green’s version of their composition “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart”. Similarly, he fully inhabits Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” and Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, completely embodying the essence of each song as he records it. Oddly, the one significant track missing from this box is yet another cover, Green’s unbelievable version of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times”, which is, in my book, his greatest performance on record.
Though much has been made of the difference between the rough Southern soul of Otis Redding and the smooth sounds of Al Green, by the time Green started recording for Hi, a smoother soul sound was already on the rise: Stax was using strings, Motown added more soul to its smooth Black pop, and Gamble and Huff were beginning to come into their own in Philadelphia. The first series of records Green recorded (1967-1968) is generally interesting, though there was little need to include missteps like “Ride, Sally Ride” and “Get Back, Baby” on this set.
The best music from Green’s prime comes from five albums, Gets Next to You (1971), Let’s Stay Together (1972), I’m Still In Love with You (1972), Call Me (1973), and Livin’ for You (1973). Songs from these records comprise most of this set’s first two discs. Green’s breakthrough, “Tired of Being Alone”, hit #7 R&B in July of 1971, and was followed in the Top 10 R&B by “Let’s Stay Together”, “I’m Still in Love with You”, “Look What You’ve Done for Me”, “Call Me (Come Back Home)”, “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)”, “You Ought to Be with Me”, “Livin’ for You”, and “Let’s Get Married”. In addition to these hits and the aforementioned covers, the box set also wisely includes essential album tracks like “La-La for You” and “Jesus Is Waiting.” The unedited, 15-minute version of “Beware”, from Livin’ for You, is a particularly fascinating look at what Green sounded like when unbounded by the constraints of the highly-structured three- or four-minute songs he usually recorded.
Unfortunately, much of the material from Green’s later period on Hi (1974-1978) is terribly disappointing. Why? There are many theories. First and foremost, Green was badly burned in 1975 when Mary Woodson, apparently Green’s girlfriend at one time, poured hot cream-of-wheat over him. Woodson then promptly shot herself. Following that incident, Green became much more interested in recording gospel music, a change that created a rift between him and Willie Mitchell. That same year, Al Jackson, Jr. was murdered in cold blood. On top of all that, disco was climbing the R&B charts, indicating that tastes of many of Green’s listeners were changing. Putting all this aside, maybe, just maybe, Green’s moment had simply, inexplicably, passed.
Regardless of the reason or reasons for Green’s decline, there is little to enjoy about the last two discs of this box. Most of the decent tracks on them—“Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)” and “Belle”, to name two—can easily be found on less comprehensive compilations. Most of the rest of the material on these two discs consists of weak funk, insipid disco and pale, passionless imitations of the Green at his peak.
So, despite the wonderful music it includes, its excellent remastered sound, and its great liner notes by Colin Escott, this box should stay on the shelf, since just about half of it is not worth listening to. This, of course, does not mean refraining from buying Al Green music. The remastered Al Green Greatest Hits (Right Stuff) is a good place to start if you currently have no albums by Green in your collection, as is the two-disc set Take Me to the River (Right Stuff). The Right Stuff reissues of Green’s individual albums are also worthwhile, particularly Gets Next to You, Let’s Stay Together, I’m Still in Love with You, and Call Me.
As this box set is being released, Green is back at Royal Studio, recording a pop record with Willie Mitchell for the first time in many years. Perhaps they can recover some of their old magic. We can always hope.