Whether you know him as Reverend Al, The Ladies’ Pal, or simply one of the most talented vocalists in history, there’s no disputing the fact that Al Green is a legend. Like all great soul singers, Green gives you church when he’s singing songs of romance, and he gives you a tingle in the loins even when he’s singing about Jesus. The fact that the creamy tenor that first appeared on the scene in the late ’60s has barely lost a step in the forty years since is more than enough to qualify his status as one of the all-time greats.
You’ve seen The Definitive Greatest Hits before, sort of. Since Green’s Greatest Hits was released on CD in the mid-’90s, it has become one of music’s most consistent catalog sellers, with over three million copies having skipped past cash registers. This set revises the greatest hits ever so slightly, adding a couple of hits that came both before and after the time period covered on the original version. The real bonus here is a DVD that unearths a couple of mind-boggling old TV clips, giving Green props as an entertainer as well as a singer.
Before the music even starts, you can see the duality of Green right there in the CD’s booklet. In the centerfold, there’s a shot of Green at the peak of his powers. Shirtless, with an off-the-cuff playful pose, he exudes a confident sexuality. Flip forward a couple of pages to a more recent pic. Green has aged a little; he’s a tad grayer, a tad chubbier. His eyes are closed. He looks pensive, spiritual. Those two substantially different personalities lived in one body, and the struggle between the two was real (unlike the hammy, insincere likes of R. Kelly). It’s hard to listen to some of these songs and not scream “take me!”, although you might be unsure of whether you’re singing to a lover or the Lord — or both.
Of course, Green didn’t do it alone. Willie Mitchell and Green had an unreal producer-artist chemistry. Mitchell’s sound — country guitar licks, fat bottom, punchy horns and churchy organ licks — was the perfect match for Green’s voice … pleading, yet seductive in a way that few artists before or since have been, and topped off with a gentlemanly comportment. Green never had to raise his voice to get his point across. Songs like “Let’s Stay Together” and “I’m Still in Love With You” are almost whispered. It’s the musical equivalent of having kisses blown at you. While many singers past and present try to blow the door off the hinges when they woo you, Green understands the art of subtlety.
All of Green’s genius is evident even in the material included here that wasn’t on the first go-round of Greatest Hits. “Back Up Train”, credited to Al Green & the Soul Mates, is beautiful Southern soul in the tradition of “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay”. Green’s recasting of the Temptations classic “I Can’t Get Next To You” is stunning. Since The Temptations’ original version was a little too aggressive for his style, Green slows the song way down and commences to testifyin’ in the way that only he can. A couple of songs from Green’s recent reunion with Willie Mitchell (after a 25-year absence), are the icing on the cake, and sound better than any reunion of a couple who’ve been apart for a quarter-century should.
Then, of course, there’s the stuff most of us are already familiar with, still sounding as good as it did in the beginning. From the line “loving you girl — that’s where it’s at!” in the joyful “Look What You Done for Me”, to the song that most explicitly addresses his conflict (the painfully torn “Belle”), there’s very little here that doesn’t qualify as certified classic. Although fans could quibble that in order for this to be definitive, it would have to contain some of Green’s quality hits from the ’80s and ’90s , you can’t go wrong with what’s here. Personally, I’d love to have seen “Simply Beautiful” (the song that introduced me to the beauty of Rev. Al) and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (one of the greatest covers ever) … hmmmm … maybe this should be a TWO-CD set.
Let’s not forget about the DVD, which is an essential piece of viewing. Among the great footage here is a 1972 performance of “Let’s Stay Together” featuring Green sounding and looking great in blinding bling and a plaid suit and turtleneck. There’s also a beautiful performance of “Simply Beautiful” featuring Green on acoustic guitar at the VH-1 studios. The piece de resistance here, however, is a feverish performance of “Love & Happiness” from 1978. Abandoning many of the lyrics during this performance, a sweaty, Afro-ed Green spends six minutes coaxing all manner of beautiful sounds out of that throat and whipping his audience into a sensual/spiritual frenzy. It’s a performance that has to be seen to be believed, and is one of many reasons this might even be worthy buying if you already have the original Greatest Hits. If your Al Green collection is bare, let The Definitive Greatest Hits be the perfect excuse for you to correct that issue. Because they don’t make too many singers like this anymore.