Al Green is a complicated figure. I could write about his upbringing and the early, less successful stages of his career, his long turn to the church after being assaulted by his girlfriend, or his return to (secular) form in 2003 and the years that followed. But I won’t, because none of that is as interesting as Al Green on Hi Records in his prime, when he was the greatest soul singer alive — maybe even the best ever. That’s the Al Green who released I’m Still in Love with You 50 years ago, right in the middle of his trifecta of soul perfection (after Let’s Stay Together and before Call Me).
Back in 1972, the appeal of I’m Still in Love with You was enormous, and its reach was vast. Before the music market became so segregated, it wasn’t a shock that a record like this one would reach number four pop, the highest chart position of any of Green’s classic albums (it’s the only one of them to be certified Platinum). Of course, it also hit number one on the R&B chart and stayed there for five weeks. The album’s two primary singles, “I’m Still in Love with You” and “Look What You Done for Me”, both reached top five pop (number three and number four, respectively) and R&B (number one and number two, respectively). Each was certified Gold, outperformed among Green’s singles only by the epic, ubiquitous “Let’s Stay Together”, released just a few months earlier, in late 1971.
Green created this music in a narrow window of time, between “Tired of Being Alone” in 1971 and “Full of Fire” in 1975. It came after Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, so these records don’t have as much hopeful buoyancy as most 1960s soul. It was recorded when strings in soul were ascendant — thanks to Isaac Hayes up the street at Stax Records and Gamble, Huff, and Bell in Philadelphia. It pre-dates Green’s abandonment of soul for gospel and the murder of drummer Al Jackson, Jr. A few other, slightly later developments — like the dominance of disco and the new technology that flooded R&B in the 1980s — firmly closed the door on this era.
One key to Green’s Hi classics is their unmistakable sound. Unlike the giant Stax Museum just a mile away, Royal Studios at 1320 Lauderdale in Memphis isn’t a major tourist attraction. Still, this small, unassuming building is where Green, producer and studio owner Willie Mitchell, the Hodges brothers, Jackson, and others made all of Green’s classic albums. The setup at Royal in the 1970s was deceptively simple by today’s standards: few mics, even fewer effects, analog tape, and analog instruments. But there’s an almost indescribably rich feel to the sound that came out of the place, which is why everyone from Keith Richards and Rod Stewart to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars has recorded there.
Like the original Stax studio, Royal began its life as a movie theater. Mitchell didn’t change the theater’s sloped floor, and according to author Peter Guralnick, he used to say that did two key things: made the music sound bigger and separated its constituent parts. That separation is an essential ingredient in Green’s classic sound. The leading elements in his music — his voice, Jackson’s drums, the horns, the guitar, and the string section — each inhabit their own separate space in the mix, but at the same time, everything feels intimate and immediate, as if it’s right on top of you.
Like so much soul music, especially after the 1960s, Green’s songs were all about people’s personal lives, particularly romantic relationships. Unlike some of his peers, Green mostly sang about long-term, complex, adult relationships, not puppy love or one-night stands. Many early 1970s soul artists sang about cheating, but listening to this album, it’s hard not to think about what happened to Green in 1974, not long after he recorded it when his girlfriend Mary Woodson doused him with a pot of boiling grits and then shot herself.
Though she was already married to someone else, she wanted him to commit to her entirely, and she took it badly when he wouldn’t. In writing these songs two years earlier, Green perhaps was prescient, or there was already a lot of drama in his love life (maybe both). It’s tough to listen to a song as well-known as “I’m Still in Love with You” with fresh ears, but its charms haven’t faded (as Disclosure fans found in 2016 when it became the basis for “Feel Like I Do”). Jackson’s loping beat propels the intro forward, and his snare and hi-hat carry the verses in conversation with a jazzy chord progression from Teenie Hodges on guitar. Lyrically, the message in the chorus is simple: Green still loves the woman he’s with through “all the years” (both past and future, presumably). But looking more deeply at the verses, it’s not so straightforward. He “can’t explain” his love very well to the woman he’s with, which hurts him. It also hurts that she has to share with him how she feels (that “love is really real”) when he can see as much just by looking into her eyes.
Charles Hodges on organ delivers the melody on “I’m Glad You’re Mine” with his distinctive, descending riff, but the song is known today mainly for Jackson’s drum intro, which has been sampled over a hundred times. Most prominently, the Notorious B.I.G. — born the year this album came out — used those drums on two tracks for his 1997 album, Life After Death. The key to the drums, and the song, is Jackson hitting his open hi-hat instead of his snare on the eighth beat, pulling back to create a pregnant pause in the rhythm. Here, Green’s love interest is an “angel” who will never let him down, even when his friends have forsaken him. But there are still dark clouds in the background, as Green wonders “why did it take so long”, and in a bizarre double negative, sings that she’ll never hear him say he’ll turn his back and “walk away”.
“Love and Happiness” was released as a single only five years after this album came out, and in 1977, at the height of disco, it barely charted. Though it was never technically a hit, the song has remained beloved for decades (on one streaming service, it’s listed as one of Green’s most popular tracks, with more than 75 million plays). It’s the only original on this album that was ever credibly covered by another artist (Philly’s First Choice in 1973), and the answer to anyone who thinks Al Green had gotten too soft. Brothers Teenie and Charles Hodges, on guitar and organ, respectively, bring the funk, and after 90 seconds, the bridge arrives, with its killer horn riff and chant from the three backup singers, Rhodes, Chalmers & Rhodes.
Then, in its second half, the song takes off with an extended breakdown, as Teenie Hodges and drummer Howard Grimes lock into a ferocious groove, and Green adlibs, moaning for love. But as we’ve already seen, love can be challenging in Green’s world. There’s love gone right when Green and his lady friend “walk away with victory”. After all, there’s “nothing wrong with being in love with someone”. But Green also hints that he may be cheating when he says that love can “make you do wrong”, and the song begins with “something going wrong” at “three o’clock in the morning”. It’s not a simple situation.
“What a Wonderful Thing Love Is” is an ethereal soul symphony in two parts. Leroy Hodges’s bass riff anchors the first, and in the second, an extended coda, the strings take off, riding high on Jackson’s ride cymbal, and Green cuts loose with vocals that soar into the stratosphere. The lyrics don’t hang together, nearly veering into the moon-spoon-June territory, but the music is so gorgeous that it hardly matters. The next track, “Simply Beautiful”, inhabits a similar lyrical and musical space. Green isn’t saying much here, but his vocalizations — and the guitar work of Teenie Hodges — sound terrific.
One inescapable feature of Green’s early 1970s unbeaten streak was his mastery of cover songs. Like his other up-tempo covers of that period (“I’ve Never Found a Girl”, for example), his version of “Oh, Pretty Woman” here is satisfying but not as impactful as his up-tempo originals. Instead, where he shines is covering ballads. Earlier in 1972, on Let’s Stay Together, Green put his stamp on “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” by the brothers Gibb, and in 1973, on Call Me, he owned Willie Nelson‘s “Funny How Time Slips Away”. But Kris Kristofferson‘s “For the Good Times”, on the second side of this album, is the best of all.
On Ray Price’s original, which hit number one on the US country chart in the summer of 1970, the vocal is nearly monotone, but in Green’s hands, this song comes alive as a heartfelt meditation on loss. His singing telegraphs a grasping, desperate desire for life and love in the face of a relationship’s demise. Though he sings that “life goes on” and the “world keeps turning,” it’s hard to believe that he means it, as he so passionately craves just one…more…time with the woman he’s singing about. He wants to connect, even if he knows it won’t (and can’t) last. As she makes believe she loves him, as they stay together in the present and “don’t say a word about tomorrow,” that “one more time” together will somehow last “forever and ever and ever and ever.” A single, sustained note on the violin — 37 seconds out, right before the fade — brings the song to its emotional peak.
Right when you think the album can’t reach any higher, after “For the Good Times” comes its most compelling track, “Look What You Done for Me”. I’m not alone in holding this song in high regard: Hi issued it as I’m Still in Love with You’s lead single in March 1972 (before the album was released and before “I’m Still in Love with You” came out as a single). The first 11 seconds feature one of Green’s best wordless intros, a hypnotizing conversation between the horns, the strings, and Jackson’s ride cymbal. In the verses, Teenie Hodges picks and strums, filling the space beneath the strings, as his brother Charles adds organ accents, and Jackson’s rock-solid beat provides the floor on which it all rests. Those drums become much more insistent on the choruses, punctuated by the horns, and the oohs and aahs of Rhodes, Chalmers & Rhodes carry the bridge. The last minute or so is all chorus, with a sweet guitar lick from Teenie Hodges ratcheting up the intensity. Lyrically, love here is yet again fraught. Green sings that the “only thing” he can do is give this woman the best of his years, that she has set his heart free. At the same time, this commitment isn’t going to “come overnight”, and after admitting he sometimes still wants to leave her, he asks her to forgive him if he does wrong because he hasn’t “been a true man for so long.”
“One of These Good Old Days” closes I’m Still in Love with You, following roughly the same formula as “Look What You Done for Me”. Here, we hear about even more conflict in Green’s love life. The woman in the song hurt him, has been talking foolishly about lies, and caught him by surprise. At the same time, she has loved him for years, he has wanted her to be his “friend” time and again, and he will love her until the end. Musically, there’s the instrumental intro, building momentum over successive choruses and a crescendo right at the end. What’s different here is a massive Jackson drum fill in the final seconds — one of his few on this album — and, notably, in a preview of what was to come, Green’s voice on two overlapping tracks (so he’s essentially duetting with himself).
We could argue for days about whether I’m Still in Love with You or Call Me, the following one, is Green’s high point. They both have great strengths and were recorded in the same year, in the same place, with the same personnel. There are two significant differences between the two: Call Me includes an explicitly religious song (“Jesus is Waiting”) while this album doesn’t, and Call Me features many more double-tracked vocals (a mighty thing with a singer as masterful as Green). On some days, I prefer the songwriting on Call Me (the title track, “You Ought to Be with Me”, and “Have You Been Making Out O.K.” are standouts), but that doesn’t detract from the brilliance of I’m Still in Love with You.
As a young music fan growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I doubted I’d ever hear new soul music matching the quality of Green’s work during his classic era (which ended not long after Call Me). But in 2000 — when I was 26, the age Green was when he recorded I’m Still in Love with You — I was in for a surprise. I hadn’t been a massive fan of D’Angelo‘s Brown Sugar, preferring Maxwell’s debut album, so when Voodoo came out, I didn’t pay much attention. Then, someone gave me a ticket to see D’Angelo’s Voodoo tour at Radio City Music Hall. It was the best live performance I’ve ever seen, like finding out something that felt almost mythical (the music created by Green and his contemporaries decades before) was not only real but still alive and well.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Green’s best album since the 1970s — Lay It Down, released in 2008 — was produced by Questlove, the drummer in D’Angelo’s Voodoo band. D’Angelo and his group weren’t just imitating their forefathers, like many others. They were truly walking in their footsteps. As I’m Still in Love with You makes clear those were huge shoes to fill.