Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Al Green: Green, Blues & Soul

Al Green
Al Green Al Green Al Green Al Green: Green is Blues 40th Anniversary Edition

“A young man who is a red-hot Rhythm & Blues singer with a difference that is gonna be greatly dug by all who tune an ear to the variegated tones and shades of this album”… Stated the original liner-notes to Al Green’s now-iconic 1969 LP ‘Green Is Blues’.

Significant for matching for the first time Green’s soulful, refined vocal brilliance with the skilful production of co-writer/producer Willie Mitchell and the tight arrangements of Memphis’ renowned Hi Rhythm Section, said album ushered in a new era for “The Memphis Sound” - effectively kick-starting a studio partnership between Green and Mitchell that would see Al go on to become the premier soul superstar of the early Seventies - and arguably the last great Southern soul singer, period.

Now available as a digital deluxe package for the first time (including a full, downloadable digital booklet ), the current release of ‘Green Is Blues’ is also simultaneously accompanied this month in the market-place by a brand-new ‘Most Sampled’ compilation, which features a selection of the many Al Green tracks sampled by today’s hip hop generation. All of which marks a fitting tribute to the enduring influence of Green, whose seductive singles for Memphis’ aforementioned Hi Records in the early Seventies effectively bridged the gap between traditional deep soul and the more sophisticated sounds of the day.

Indeed, with Al’s charismatic vocal performances incorporating raw elements of gospel (stylistically injecting his seductive on-record performances with wild moans and wails), his records nevertheless boasted immaculate production that rolled along with a tight beat, sexy backing vocals and lush strings. Which in turn resulted in no less than 26 US hit singles between 1970 and 1979 (more than 20 of these reaching the R&B Top Three); while an impressive six chart-topping albums confirmed his all-time soul superstar status. All of which finds Al currently positioned as officially the Twentieth biggest R&B/soul artist of all time.

Nevertheless, while it was the once-in-a-lifetime combination of Green, producer extraordinaire Willie Mitchell and Hi Records that led to a 40-million-selling, multi-Grammy-winning singing career, the roots of Al Green the vocalist can actually be traced way back to his early days in Forest City, Arkansas. Where he was born the son of a sharecropper in April 1946 and, at age nine, formed a gospel quartet with three of his siblings (Robert, William and Walter). As The Greene Brothers, the foursome toured throughout the South in the mid-Fifties: “Yeah, music was always important in our home and family”, begins an immediately-personable Al: “We’d get together sometimes on Sunday evenings.... I mean, my grandparents sang, my dad sang, my mom sang, my brothers sang... EVERYBODY sang! You know, my mom and dad were basically just kind of local homebodies who didn’t know that much about music - but they could really SING! And, when I formed the group, it was actually my brother Bob who was the lead vocalist.”

With the family later moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, The Greene Brothers continued performing in their new Mid-West environment - until a teenage Al got kicked-out of both the group and the family home by his father for listening to secular music! “Yeah, that is TRUE! I got thrown out for listening to (soul superstar-of-the-day) Jackie Wilson singing ‘Baby Work Out’ by my OWN FATHER - the dirty rat!”, chuckles Al good-naturedly: “But, you know, I didn’t take it TOO bad. I ended up going to live with a friend of mine, Lee Virgins - and that’s when I got REALLY introduced to pop music and R&B music. So, at 16, I formed an R&B group called Al Greene & The Creations, and at first we’d meet every day around three or four o’clock to rehearse.”

With two members of The Creations (Curtis Rodgers and Palmer James) founding their own independent record company Hot Line Music Journal, in 1967 - after changing their name to Al Greene & The Soul Mates - the outfit recorded their first single ‘Back Up Train’, and naturally released it on Hot Line. With the hauntingly soulful ballad becoming a surprise hit - climbing to Number Five on the US R&B chart in early 1968 - the group then went on to record an album (the only LP release on Hot Line) and release a few more singles. Yet sadly, their initial success with ‘Back Up Train’ was never repeated.

Al, meanwhile, today has mixed memories of his time performing with the group: “We’d start off the evening by doing those little seven o’clock doo wop shows for the High School kids with their little bobby soxx and black-and-white shoes”, he recalls: “You know, they’d be 17 years old, dancing with their partners... Then at 10 o’clock the bars and clubs would open. So we’d go to the THOSE venues and do two sets THERE till like two o’clock... Then, from there, we’d go to some after-hours joint about 60 miles away, where we’d go onstage about three/four in the morning - and get out around seven/eight o’clock - when the sun would be shining really bright and there’d be thousands of people on their way to work! You know, we were out all night EVERY night! You had to work real hard on the chitlin’ circuit back then!”

“And, though we started out as a group, Al Greene & The Soul Mates didn’t actually last as a long as it took to put the ALBUM out!”, he laughs: “You know, in that kinda situation where things were constantly growing all the time, I ended up playing many dates that The Soul Mates weren’t able to make - because they had jobs, they had wives, they had family, they had responsibilities... I mean, it got to the point where only Al could go - and so I just got used to doing dates as just ‘Al and the band’ and singing a lot of jazz and stuff.”

Indeed, it was during this period - in 1969 - that, while on tour in Midland, Texas, Greene (as his surname was then still spelt!) met the man who, within three years, would make him an international superstar - bandleader, producer and Hi Records vice-president Willie Mitchell. Impressed with Al’s voice, Mitchell signed the then-upcoming singer to Hi, began collaborating with him on the ‘Green Is Blues’ album... And the rest, as they say, is history!

“Yeah, I first met Willie Mitchell while doing - quote-unquote - ‘another show’! You know, it was basically just one of those things that happened,” relates Al: “Because back then I had THOUSANDS of shows - whether it was with Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions; or at The Apollo with The Staple Singers and Wilson Pickett… So at that time meeting Willie Mitchell, after he’d hired me as a vocalist for a Texas show with his musicians, was to me just meeting another band! The afterwards he asked me to come to Memphis to, as he put it, ‘see the studio’… And I’ve been looking at that studio ever SINCE!”

Mitchell predicted stardom for the young singer, and immediately set about coaching him to find his own, unique voice at a time when Al had previously been trying to sing like his heroes - Jackie Wilson, Wilson Picket, James Brown and Sam Cooke. Thus, under Mitchell’s guidance, Albert Greene morphed into ‘Al Green’, with his aforementioned first LP for Hi Records - ‘Green Is Blues’ - showcasing the signature sound he and Willie would become famous for - a sinewy, sexy groove highlighted by horn punctuation and string beds that had Green showcase his remarkable falsetto: “Oh, to me Willie Mitchell is the master!”, gushes Al of his long-time studio mentor: “He’s a magician! He knows what he wants to hear, and he’s not satisfied until he HEARS it! So, as a producer, that means he’s a pain-in-the-arse! ‘Cause he’s not gonna stop until he hears whatever that something is that’s in his head AND in his heart! You know, he’s my father, he’s my brother, he’s my friend, he’s my enemy, and he’s my try-to-get-you-the-right-way type of guy! He’s my EVERYTHING!”

While the ‘Green Is Blues’ album didn’t produce any hit singles, it nevertheless was well-received and unquestionably set the stage for the breakthrough success of its follow-up - 1971’s ‘Al Green Gets Next To You’. Which significantly spawned Green’s first international hit single, in the shape of the plaintive ‘Tired Of Being Alone’ - which even peaked at an impressive Number Four on the UK Pop charts. Meanwhile, Green’s next album - 1972’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ - proved an even greater success. Its classic title track in particular providing Al with his first US Pop Number One and his second British Top Ten smash.

Looking back today on the landmark soul track - which is now considered his signature tune - Al laughingly recalls how the chart-topping success of ‘Let’s Stay Together’ changed his life almost overnight: “Oh man, I came home from a month-long tour of Europe in early l972 to find the US audiences - especially the female fans - suddenly going CRAZY about me! They were running to feel me, hug me, kiss me... And I was like ‘What are they DOING? Why are they ACTING this way?’... And the promoter was like ‘It’s because of this new song you got out!’… You know, I’d come back home to ‘Let’s Stay Together’ being Number One in America! But, because I’d been overseas for 28 days in England, I didn’t have an IDEA how big it was in my homeland!”

Indeed, with Al scoring further Top Three US Pop singles during 1972 with ‘Look What You Done For Me’, ‘I’m Still In Love With You’ and ‘You Ought To Be With Me’ (all three from the Top Five US album ‘I’m Still In Love With You’), by the time of release of his fourth Hi album - 1973’s ‘Call Me’ - he’d become known as both an established hitmaker and an artist who released consistently engaging, frequently excellent, critically-acclaimed albums.

Throughout all the mass-adulation, however, Al insists he kept his feet firmly on the ground: “Yeah, I never let success change my life. I refused to do that. I’d still go to the grocery store, and I’d still say hello to the people, hug them and kiss them, and then go about my business. You know, I’ve never tripped on the Al-Green-40-millon-seller-nine-Grammies-type fame thing. And I think a lot of that was really down to the strict influence of my father. You know, he’d be like ‘Did you see that programme on TV about you, boy? Well, it don’t mean a DAMN THING! Don’t believe a WORD of it!’… And, though he passed away in 1977, I’ve kept that feeling in my heart to this very day.”

But, while Al’s hit-making streak continued throughout the next two years - with ‘Call Me (Come Back Home)’, ‘Here I Am (Come And Take Me)’ and ‘Sha-La-La (Makes Me Happy)’ all becoming Top Ten Gold-selling singles - personal tragedy would nevertheless strike in October, 1974. When Green’s already-married former girlfriend - Mary Woodson - broke into his Memphis home, pouring boiling grits on the singer as he was bathing, and in turn inflicting second-degree burns on his back, stomach and arm - before killing herself with Al’s own gun. Interpreting the violent incident as a sign from God that he should enter the ministry, by 1976 Green had bought a church in Memphis and become an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle.

However, though had had begun to seriously pursue religion, Al did not immediately give up singing R&B and released three other Willie Mitchell-produced albums - ‘Al Green Is Love’ (1975); ‘Full Of Fire’ (1976); ‘Have A Good Time’ (1976) - after the incident. Nevertheless, his albums were beginning to sound increasingly formulaic, and by the end of 1976 his sales had started to slip, with disco music trends of the time cutting heavily into his audience. Breaking away from Willie Mitchell, in an attempt to recover from his sales slump, in 1977 he released the critically-acclaimed - though relatively-poor-selling - LP ‘The Belle Album’ before, in 1979, a serious onstage fall (which he again interpreted as a message from God) led to Al turning his back on secular music altogether, and putting all his energies into pastoring his church and gospel singing.

Throughout the Eighties, Green released a series of gospel albums, garnering eight Grammy Awards along the way and also - in 1992 - appearing alongside Patti LaBelle in the Broadway musical ‘Your Arms Too Short To Box With God’. Nevertheless, the end of the decade saw him tentatively returning to R&B - his duet with Annie Lennox ‘Put A Little Love In Your Heart’ (recorded for the Billy Murray comedy film ‘Scrooged’) returning him to the US Pop Top Ten in 1988; while his work with electro/hip hop producer Arthur Baker in 1989 yielded the international hit ‘The Message Is Love’. Meanwhile, fast-forward to 1995 and Green - who was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame the same year - delivered his first secular album to be released in America since 1978 with ‘Truth And Time’.

While his mid-Nineties comeback R&B album (the aforementioned ‘Truth And Time’) did not attain major sales, nevertheless Al’s music has lived on through the past two decades with his old records being constantly sampled by the modern-day hip hop generation. Indeed, the aforementioned new ‘Most Sampled’ compilation highlights this by featuring no less than 19 Al Green recordings from the Seventies which have been sampled by contemporary acts ranging from bona fide New York rap icons Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G.; to hip hop/soul Queen Mary J. Blige, acoustic soul singer/songwriter India.Aire, and even Bristol, UK trip hop pioneers Massive Attack. Interestingly, Al has nothing but positive feelings on the whole modern-day sampling movement.

“I look upon it as a true acknowledgement by the hip hop community that my music has had a strong influence on their lives”, he replies without hesitation: “And I think they’re doing a fantastic job WITH it. I mean, just yesterday I met this hip hop kid who was like ‘Hey man, I grew up with your music and I think it’s THA BOMB!’! And while, when he said ‘bomb’ I got back in the car and closed the door - ‘cause I didn’t know whether he meant BOMB bomb or ‘it’s really outasight’! - all joking aside, I think it’s really fantastic the way this has all turned out in terms of the sampling that’s going on today. You know, whenever Willie Mitchell and I get together, we kinda just look at each other, grin and LAUGH! Because we don’t even know OURSELVES how that music that’s endured for so long came OUT of us - and to me that’s what makes it all so wonderful!”

The Noughties, meanwhile, have seen a definite resurgence in Al’s secular R&B recording career. Following his signing to EMI’s legendary jazz label Blue Note in 2003, his first album for the company - the critically-acclaimed ‘I Can’t Stop’ - found him reunited once more with his old sparring partner Willie Mitchell, who also contributed to its follow-up - 2005’s ‘Everything’s OK’. Meanwhile, other recent activities have included singing a duet with actress/singer/rapper Queen Latifah on her LP ‘The Dana Owens Album’ plus being inducted, in 2004, into the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame.

Meanwhile, the 2008 release of Al’s latest album - ‘Lay It Down’ - found him recording in New York’s legendary Electric Ladyland Studios with Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson (of super-credible Philadelphia hip hop group The Roots) on production and duetting with soulful contemporary vocalists like John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton. All of which spectacularly resulted in Al’s first US Pop Top10 LP since 1973!

Indeed, today finds the now-63-year-old Green - with most of his original contemporaries having long since disappeared from the scene - continuing to tour and record with the enthusiasm of someone half his age: “Yeah, there were over 55,000 women watching me at The Superdome the other day - and that is a LOTTA WOMEN!”, he chuckles in typically-mischievous Al Green fashion: “And when I started to sing ‘Lay It Down’, I fell down on the floor, stuck one leg up in the air - and the whole ARENA stood up! I mean, these girls were jumping up on the stage so fast that SECURITY had to get them! You know, the band kept on playing, and the girls just kept on COMING! And all that comes from me working with The Roots and all those boys up there in Philadelphia and New York! And to me, ‘Lay It Down’ is just a part of the canvas, or oil painting work, that is yet to come! Because my motto is ‘If you don’t keep GOING, you don’t keep GROWING!’!”

“I mean, I’m meeting with Willie Mitchell at 1:30 today and, knowing Willie Mitchell, we’re gonna talk about MUSIC! You know, it’ll be a miracle if we DON’T! Because Willie is just like me - in that, whatever the next thing is, he wants to MOVE on it! So right now we’re definitely planning the next phase of this whole THING! We’re not just looking at the next album, but we’re looking at the WHOLE AL - the personality, the dress, the songs, the music… EVERYTHING!”

The digital albums ‘Green Is Blues 40th Anniversary Edition’ and ‘Most Sampled’ are both out now through Demon Digital. Official site

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