When Rolling Stone named Al Green as one of their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time they wrote “people are born to do certain things, and Al was born to make us smile.” With his peerless run of hit singles between 1971 and 1974 Al certainly did this. With time, consideration of the work on his LPs & perhaps, the triumph of style over substance in African-American commercial music, his music proves to affect the heart and the head not just the hips and facial muscles. First up, here is one of the classic hits so…smile away !
Al took time to hit his stride, I remember a minor 1967 hit “Back Up Train” by Al Greene. It was not until he hooked up with Willie Mitchell, the new head of Hi Records in Memphis, that he was encouraged to merge the influences of his idols into his own extraordinary voice. “Tired Of Being Alone” was the 5th single released from a 1971 LP & the first to make the Top 20. The great soul idols were addressing the social issues of the time through their albums. There was a gap for a handsome black man who sang about “lurve”. Al Green, aided by the superb productions of Mitchell, hit a run of 8 gold records and confidently became the new sex symbol of soul.
He started slowly on “Soul Train” too. The clip for “Tired” is embarrassing as he lip-synchs the hit dressed in the worst pimp threads ever. He was soon singing live on the show, “Here I Am” slides smoothly and brilliantly along as Al, broken arm and all, shows that he belongs with the great soul singers. The inheritor of the tradition of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye & Stevie Wonder. It was these hook-laden, irresistible singles we heard on the radio. In 1972 a version of the Bee Gees “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” has such a perfect emotional resonance which despite its use in some inferior movies (“Notting Hill”, “The Book Of Eli”, “Sex & the City”) still hits the spot.
So now it gets serious and wonderful and seriously wonderful. It was Al’s touch of gospel which made his smooth, soft-soul formula more attractive than, say, the Stylistics. “Take Me To The River”, a classic and not a single, has the singer celebrating the physical and the spiritual. If he had always had one foot in the door of the church this raw testifying moves him closer to the pulpit. Now I love the music of Talking Heads, love their version of “River”. I am not going to say that they got 3 LPs out of this funk classic, I will say though that they did not better the original of this song.
In 1975 Al Green’s success faltered. In October 1974 a girlfriend threw boiling grits over the singer, causing severe burns, before committing suicide with Al’s gun. This caused Al to get both feet into that church. In 1976 he was ordained as a pastor, the Reverend Al Green of the Full Gospel Tabernacle. The death of the master drummer, Al Jackson, a pivot of the Memphis sound, was a great loss. It may have been that the reliance on a hit recipe meant that the music seemed less distinctive. The Reverend Al continued to record though no longer struck gold. He split from Mitchell to make a record on his own.
“The Belle Album” (1977), self-produced & the most personal of his records is the last secular work Al Green made for some time. It is a lovely thing, not just this title song. Perhaps not as an introduction to the singer but as a work by a mature artist, who knows what he wants and how to get it, it is his “What’ Goin’ On”.
The duality of the Southern thing is at the heart of this modern music that we love. Elvis Presley (“Good Rocking Tonight”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls Of Fire”), Little Richard (“Good Golly Miss Molly”), even Buddy Holly (“Oh Boy”), all good Southern boys, celebrated the carnality of the physical world while knowing that this shit may be good but is probably wrong. The thrilling tinge of guilt is part of the attraction of “the road to sin”. Never, not even in the songs of that beautiful doomed boy from Georgia, Gram Parsons, has the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane been articulated as perfectly, as beautifully and as succinctly than it is by Al Green in the song “Belle”.
There are live, contemporary, versions of “Belle”. Al’s vocal gymnastics are on a Comaneci scale, intricate, difficult and perfect. I have stuck with the recorded take because it is so, so great. Al Green has made his choice between his (Southern) Belle & his God. “Oh, it’s you I want but it’s Him that I need”, the assurance, the fortitude resulting from having made this decision is transmitted in this slow-burning delight. I could go on, just listen…you get me ?