How Al Green Became Al Green
It was 1968 and Albert Greene Jr. was stuck in Midland, Texas. His vocal trio, the Soul Mates, had had a fairly big hit with “Back Up Train”, but he hadn’t been able to follow up on that, and the group was pretty much nowhere, and he was $1,500 in debt back in Flint, and he was supposed to open for bandleader Willie Mitchell in a club, and didn’t really think he’d ever be a star after all. Mitchell’s brother James started to rehearse Greene for the night’s show, and noticed a little something in his voice. James called Willie over, and they listened to the 22-year-old sing, and Willie (at this point also an increasingly successful producer for Memphis-based Hi Records) heard that something too.
After the gig, the Mitchells gave Greene a ride in the van. Albert asked Willie if he could be a star, and Willie said that yes, he could, if he worked hard enough. Greene said he needed money to pay off his bills in Michigan, and Mitchell dropped him off in Memphis with the money. Greene promised to be back in a week, but didn’t show up. Then, six weeks later, at 6:00 a.m., he appeared, long hair and hungry look and all, at Willie Mitchell’s door, saying, “Don’t you remember me? I’m Al Greene!”
Mitchell got him to drop the final “e” from his last name for simplicity, and made simplicity the watchword for everything else to follow. Jackson took Green into the Hi studio, a former movie theater with the control room in the projection booth and a nasty decaying carpet on the stage, and hooked him up with his house band of the Hodges brothers—Teenie on guitar, Charles on organ, Leroy on bass—and Howard Grimes on drums (alternating with Stax stud Al Jackson, Jr.). And that’s where this story begins.
The reissues of Green’s first four albums for Hi are hugely important, especially as Green is now thought of (thanks to overflogging of “Let’s Stay Together”) as just a great singer who made a few perfect singles (all of which fit nicely onto two hits discs) who then got religion and quit for a decade. I’m really hoping that now everyone can understand what really happened: Green and Mitchell were up to something more important and more radical than that—that they actually wanted to try to reform and reassess black soul music, and that they largely succeeded.
Green Is Blues is a much better album than it is usually given credit for, even by Green and Mitchell themselves. The biggest problem with it is that no one involved had any idea what kind of dynamite they were playing with. Green Is Blues is a collection of cover songs ranging from R&B (“My Girl”, “One Woman”) to pop (“The Letter”, “Get Back”) and left-field choices like the Gershwin classic “Summertime”, and he sings the hell out of all of them, which makes it immensely listenable. To hear him testify his way through “I Stand Accused”, emoting over the churchy strains of Charles Hodges’s organ, is to hear a master class in how to sell a song, and there is nothing at all less than perfect about his version of “Gotta Find a New World”. (Sadly, the reissue’s booklet is sorely lacking in details; whoever the female vocalist is on that track—Ann Peebles?—is not given any kind of credit, and we’re apparently supposed to already know which drummer plays on which track or not care.) Green’s oft-derided first single on Hi, a jumped-up version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, is included as a bonus track, and only goes to prove that Green could make anything funky and soulful. (Another bonus track that proves that point here is the unreleased studio-goof cover of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee”, which is almost unrecognizable in its phrasing but is still strangely moving.)
But two tracks here point the way to the future. “Tomorrow’s Dream” is the first songwriting collaboration between Mitchell and Green, and it’s a lost classic for its unusual chord structure and its catch-and-release dynamic; here, Green gets to be not just a great singer of other people’s songs, but also someone selling his own somewhat hippie-fied song. We get to hear him switch from the smooth mystical verses (“I look back now, girl / On tomorrow’s dream / Distant things are happening / Not as bad as they seem”) to the straightforward sexy yelp of the chorus (“Don’t look away now girl / Things are looking bright / Don’t put off tomorrow girl / What’s in store TONIGHT, BABY! / TONIGHT!”) And we also get Green’s first solo song, a hardcore funk workout called “Get Back Baby”, which has no real structure, only one chord, and a too-heavy debt to James Brown and which is absolutely mesmerizing anyway.
Which leads us to Gets Next to You, which is where everything came together for real. Here, Green gets credit for writing or co-writing half of the album’s ten songs, and it shows in the care he takes with those songs. “Tired of Being Alone”, a #7 R&B and #11 pop hit in the summer of 1971, is in some ways the first “real” Al Green song. Here, he created the desperately yearning and curiously vulnerable persona that we think of when we think “Al Green”: “I guess you know / That I love you so / Even though / You don’t want me no more” is about as nakedly sung and heartfelt as anything that had ever hit the radio, and his falsetto slides are not done in James Brown-“look at me” style, but weirdly understated—you can hear him back away from the microphone so as not to yell, not to give it away, not to broadcast his pain, which comes through even stronger for all that. This shows that Mitchell’s approach—he kept trying to persuade Green to sing softer and higher, convincing him that he’d stand out more for it—was starting to pay off.
The Green songs here are certainly a mixed bag, though. “Tired of Being Alone” is the only original that can be thought of as “smooth”; the rest are all incredibly funky and hard-edged. “All Because” and “Right Now, Right Now” sound like Isaac Hayes and Sly Stone, and “You Say It” is right out of the JB catalog. And then we have “I’m a Ram”, my favorite song on the album, definitely the most unusual song in Green’s repertoire, a slow-burner where Green works the ramifications of being a Taurus (and therefore “horny” although the word doesn’t feature in the song) with the Biblical allusion to the creature with its horns stuck in the bush that was sacrificed by Abraham instead of Isaac. I mean: what the hell kind of drugs was he ON, anyway?
And then there are the silky covers: “I Can’t Get Next to You” transplanted from Motown territory to pure Green/Mitchell Memphis slowjam stomp, “God Is Standing By” as a full-on gospel slurp, the Doors’ “Light My Fire” as a recitative bursting into flower in its chorus. And the version of Roosevelt Sykes’ “Driving Wheel” is shocking in how modern it sounds—sexy and Staxy, to be sure, but also desperate and churchy and bluesy and kinda rocky and funky and everything all together.
And that’s the approach taken on Let’s Stay Together. I know you know how great the title song is—the most successful soul single of the 1970s, nine weeks on top of the R&B charts, #1 on the pop charts, endlessly anthologized and soundtrackized and namedropped but still fresh and vital to these ears thirty-one years later. “Let’s Stay Together” is probably the champion of soul love songs, and cannot be improved with all the words I could pour out, so I shan’t try. Except to say that this song came out when I was six years old and I remember how it just leapt off the radio and made me feel all wrapped up in syrup and butter. How many of you were conceived to “Let’s Stay Together”? Ask your parents, you 30-year-olds . . . you might be surprised.
But the rest of the record does not pale in comparison when you actually listen to it. The delicate cooing doo-wop vocals and Green interjections and hardcore horn stings that pop up in odd places in “La-La for You” are shockingly avant-garde. The band’s finest moment might be on “I’ve Never Found a Girl”, with its tight/relaxed groove and downward-spiraling organ and guitar riffs that echo each other, and Green singing through some kind of filter in the main vocal. “Old Time Lovin’” could not possibly be slower and more languid, like Memphis in July. “What Is This Feeling” has a jaunty 6/8 lope and some angelic riffs from Teenie Hodges. “Judy” is the sound of heaven with a whispered performance that ranks among Green’s greatest.
Again, though, there is some STRANGE stuff here. A six-minute workout on the Bee Gee’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”? Perfection. The detachment of the lyrics on “So You’re Leaving” should be in the passive-aggressive Hall of Fame, and the tossed-off vocal improvs at the end are out of left field completely. But still way ahead of its time, make no mistake, still one of the greatest soul albums in history and perhaps the best.
As for the fourth reissue, Still in Love with You (which might be better even than Let’s Stay Together), I defer to my colleague Oliver Wang. Read what he wrote about this album—I can do no better than that.
// Notes from the Road
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