Back Up Train was Al Green’s first album, recorded before he met Willie Mitchell, began recording for Hi Records in Memphis, and racked up a long string of hits in the early ‘70s. By no means does this brief, half-hour album musically measure up to Green’s unparalleled work with Mitchell, but because Green became the artist he did, it’s an interesting document nonetheless.
Originally issued in 1968 and first reissued in 1972, Back Up Train is most interesting in what it suggests about Green’s career and the careers of so many aspiring pop stars. When he started recording this album with his high school friends Palmer James and Curtis Rodgers, Green was barely 21 years old. Like the thousands upon thousands of unknown rock and soul musicians who record first albums every year, Green and his friends were undoubtedly looking for a hit. Only a small handful of records by new artists ever hit the charts, but their single “Back Up Train” did, reaching #5 on the Billboard‘s R&B chart. What followed was even more typical: Green and his friends unsuccessfully tried to repeat the success of “Back Up Train” by recording the songs on this album. There’s a reason why the term “one-hit-wonder” is so commonplace. Dead broke, Green was perhaps headed towards the same obscurity that is the fate of so many one-hit-wonders when he met Willie Mitchell, who was already a very successful producer, at a Texas club in 1969. The rest, as they say, is history. Would Green’s astounding talents have catapulted him to stardom, no matter what? Or were there other, just as talented singers out there who just didn’t have the luck to be in the right place at the right time? Who knows.
Stylistically, Green, James, and Rodgers did here what many young, unknown musicians do: they wrote and performed songs that sounded like music they were familiar with. Thankfully, the sounds of the day were good ones, well worth copying. The sheen of sophisticated, symphonic soul that covers much of the album points to the work Gamble and Huff were doing with Jerry Butler and the O’Jays at the time. “Back Up Train” calls to mind the balladry of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. “Let Me Help You” and “That’s All It Takes” are proto-funk in the style of James Brown or Dyke and the Blazers. “Get Yourself Together” tips its hat to Marvin Gaye, and “Hot Wire” is a shake-and-shimmy dance number similar to many Albert Collins hits. “I’m Reachin’ Out” resembles the straight-ahead gospel Green sang as a teenager, but with secular lyrics. The album’s closer and its finest song, “What’s It All About,” offers a fine slice of organ-drenched, bluesy Stax balladry.
Most of the songs on Get Back Train are pleasant enough, but insipid lyrics and poor arrangements make it difficult to listen to at times. Unharmonious background vocals, stray flutes, overwhelmingg congas, and misplaced violi lines serve as major distractions. Even Anthony Heilbut’s liner notes for this reissue admit that the album’s production “is so generic that it resembles karaoke”.
Yet these faults are interesting in light of Green’s later success. Sometimes, the imperfections of an unrealized record can throw the sublime aspects of a masterpiece into high relief. More than anything, Back Up Train points to the quality of Green’s team on his best records: producer / songwriter Willie Mitchell, backing musicians the Hodges brothers, background vocalists Rhodes, Chalmers, and Rhodes, and ace drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Listen to records that team made together and you’ll hear one thing: pure perfection.
For the most part, Green rises above Back Up Train’s musical morass, and he does sound here like the Al Green we know and love, but his vocal persona isn’t fully fleshed out the way it would be on later recordings. The young Green is good, even very good, but not quite ecstatic. It’s debatable whether he possessed in 1967 the range and skills that later made him so deservedly famous, but it’s incontestable that recording with James and Rodgers simply didn’t elicit from him the superior performances he put on wax at Hi.
If you aren’t familiar yet with Green’s classics, forego this album in favor of Greatest Hits (on Right Stuff) or the two-CD set Take Me to the River (also on Right Stuff). But if you do know Green’s music well and are curious about his beginnings, then Back Up Train may be worth your while.