Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1084

Welcome to B&S

BRINGING YOU THE STORIES BEHIND MUSIC + ESSENTIAL NEWS, REVIEWS AND INTERVIEWS...

Feature

Al Green: Green, Blues & Soul

Al Green @bluesandsoul.com
Al Green @bluesandsoul.com Al Green @bluesandsoul.com Al Green @bluesandsoul.com Al Green: Green is Blues 40th Anniversary Edition

âA 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 albumâ⦠Stated the original liner-notes to Al Greenâs now-iconic 1969 LP âGreen Is Bluesâ.

Significant for matching for the first time Greenâs soulful, refined vocal brilliance with the skilful production of co-writer/producer Willie Mitchell and the tight arrangements of Memphisâ renowned Hi Rhythm Section, said album ushered in a new era for âThe Memphis Soundâ - 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 âGreen Is Bluesâ is also simultaneously accompanied this month in the market-place by a brand-new âMost Sampledâ compilation, which features a selection of the many Al Green tracks sampled by todayâs hip hop generation. All of which marks a fitting tribute to the enduring influence of Green, whose seductive singles for Memphisâ 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 Alâs 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: âYeah, music was always important in our home and familyâ, begins an immediately-personable Al: âWeâd 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 didnât 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.â

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! âYeah, that is TRUE! I got thrown out for listening to (soul superstar-of-the-day) Jackie Wilson singing âBaby Work Outâ by my OWN FATHER - the dirty rat!â, chuckles Al good-naturedly: âBut, you know, I didnât take it TOO bad. I ended up going to live with a friend of mine, Lee Virgins - and thatâs 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 weâd meet every day around three or four oâclock to rehearse.â

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 âBack Up Trainâ, 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 âBack Up Trainâ was never repeated.

Al, meanwhile, today has mixed memories of his time performing with the group: âWeâd start off the evening by doing those little seven oâclock doo wop shows for the High School kids with their little bobby soxx and black-and-white shoesâ, he recalls: âYou know, theyâd be 17 years old, dancing with their partners... Then at 10 oâclock the bars and clubs would open. So weâd go to the THOSE venues and do two sets THERE till like two oâclock... Then, from there, weâd go to some after-hours joint about 60 miles away, where weâd go onstage about three/four in the morning - and get out around seven/eight oâclock - when the sun would be shining really bright and thereâd 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 chitlinâ circuit back then!â

âAnd, though we started out as a group, Al Greene & The Soul Mates didnât actually last as a long as it took to put the ALBUM out!â, he laughs: âYou know, in that kinda situation where things were constantly growing all the time, I ended up playing many dates that The Soul Mates werenât 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 âAl and the bandâ and singing a lot of jazz and stuff.â

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 Alâs voice, Mitchell signed the then-upcoming singer to Hi, began collaborating with him on the âGreen Is Bluesâ album... And the rest, as they say, is history!

âYeah, I first met Willie Mitchell while doing - quote-unquote - âanother showâ! You know, it was basically just one of those things that happened,â relates Al: âBecause 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 heâd 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, âsee the studioâ⦠And Iâve been looking at that studio ever SINCE!â

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 Mitchellâs guidance, Albert Greene morphed into âAl Greenâ, with his aforementioned first LP for Hi Records - âGreen Is Bluesâ - 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: âOh, to me Willie Mitchell is the master!â, gushes Al of his long-time studio mentor: âHeâs a magician! He knows what he wants to hear, and heâs not satisfied until he HEARS it! So, as a producer, that means heâs a pain-in-the-arse! âCause heâs not gonna stop until he hears whatever that something is thatâs in his head AND in his heart! You know, heâs my father, heâs my brother, heâs my friend, heâs my enemy, and heâs my try-to-get-you-the-right-way type of guy! Heâs my EVERYTHING!â

While the âGreen Is Bluesâ album didnât produce any hit singles, it nevertheless was well-received and unquestionably set the stage for the breakthrough success of its follow-up - 1971âs âAl Green Gets Next To Youâ. Which significantly spawned Greenâs first international hit single, in the shape of the plaintive âTired Of Being Aloneâ - which even peaked at an impressive Number Four on the UK Pop charts. Meanwhile, Greenâs next album - 1972âs âLetâs Stay Togetherâ - 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 âLetâs Stay Togetherâ changed his life almost overnight: âOh 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 âWhat are they DOING? Why are they ACTING this way?â... And the promoter was like âItâs because of this new song you got out!â⦠You know, Iâd come back home to âLetâs Stay Togetherâ being Number One in America! But, because Iâd been overseas for 28 days in England, I didnât have an IDEA how big it was in my homeland!â

Indeed, with Al scoring further Top Three US Pop singles during 1972 with âLook What You Done For Meâ, âIâm Still In Love With Youâ and âYou Ought To Be With Meâ (all three from the Top Five US album âIâm Still In Love With Youâ), by the time of release of his fourth Hi album - 1973âs âCall Meâ - heâd 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: âYeah, I never let success change my life. I refused to do that. Iâd still go to the grocery store, and Iâd still say hello to the people, hug them and kiss them, and then go about my business. You know, Iâve 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, heâd be like âDid you see that programme on TV about you, boy? Well, it donât mean a DAMN THING! Donât believe a WORD of it!â⦠And, though he passed away in 1977, Iâve kept that feeling in my heart to this very day.â

But, while Alâs hit-making streak continued throughout the next two years - with âCall Me (Come Back Home)â, âHere I Am (Come And Take Me)â and âSha-La-La (Makes Me Happy)â all becoming Top Ten Gold-selling singles - personal tragedy would nevertheless strike in October, 1974. When Greenâs 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 Alâs 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 - âAl Green Is Loveâ (1975); âFull Of Fireâ (1976); âHave A Good Timeâ (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 âThe Belle Albumâ 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 âYour Arms Too Short To Box With Godâ. Nevertheless, the end of the decade saw him tentatively returning to R&B - his duet with Annie Lennox âPut A Little Love In Your Heartâ (recorded for the Billy Murray comedy film âScroogedâ) 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 âThe Message Is Loveâ. 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 âTruth And Timeâ.

While his mid-Nineties comeback R&B album (the aforementioned âTruth And Timeâ) did not attain major sales, nevertheless Alâs 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 âMost Sampledâ 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.

âI look upon it as a true acknowledgement by the hip hop community that my music has had a strong influence on their livesâ, he replies without hesitation: âAnd I think theyâre doing a fantastic job WITH it. I mean, just yesterday I met this hip hop kid who was like âHey man, I grew up with your music and I think itâs THA BOMB!â! And while, when he said âbombâ I got back in the car and closed the door - âcause I didnât know whether he meant BOMB bomb or âitâs really outasightâ! - all joking aside, I think itâs really fantastic the way this has all turned out in terms of the sampling thatâs going on today. You know, whenever Willie Mitchell and I get together, we kinda just look at each other, grin and LAUGH! Because we donât even know OURSELVES how that music thatâs endured for so long came OUT of us - and to me thatâs what makes it all so wonderful!â

The Noughties, meanwhile, have seen a definite resurgence in Alâs secular R&B recording career. Following his signing to EMIâs legendary jazz label Blue Note in 2003, his first album for the company - the critically-acclaimed âI Canât Stopâ - found him reunited once more with his old sparring partner Willie Mitchell, who also contributed to its follow-up - 2005âs âEverythingâs OKâ. Meanwhile, other recent activities have included singing a duet with actress/singer/rapper Queen Latifah on her LP âThe Dana Owens Albumâ plus being inducted, in 2004, into the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame.

Meanwhile, the 2008 release of Alâs latest album - âLay It Downâ - found him recording in New Yorkâs legendary Electric Ladyland Studios with Ahmir âQuestloveâ 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 Alâs 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: âYeah, there were over 55,000 women watching me at The Superdome the other day - and that is a LOTTA WOMEN!â, he chuckles in typically-mischievous Al Green fashion: âAnd when I started to sing âLay It Downâ, 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, âLay It Downâ is just a part of the canvas, or oil painting work, that is yet to come! Because my motto is âIf you donât keep GOING, you donât keep GROWING!â!â

âI mean, Iâm meeting with Willie Mitchell at 1:30 today and, knowing Willie Mitchell, weâre gonna talk about MUSIC! You know, itâll be a miracle if we DONâT! Because Willie is just like me - in that, whatever the next thing is, he wants to MOVE on it! So right now weâre definitely planning the next phase of this whole THING! Weâre not just looking at the next album, but weâre looking at the WHOLE AL - the personality, the dress, the songs, the music⦠EVERYTHING!â

The digital albums âGreen Is Blues 40th Anniversary Editionâ and âMost Sampledâ are both out now through Demon Digital. Official site www.algreen40.com
Words PETE LEWIS

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

Join the B&S Mailing List

Blues and Soul on Twitter