Al Green is Trying Something New
I was sitting on the bed in my pajamas, on the phone with the publicity president at Blue Note, and we were talking about doing a duet album. But there was just so many people wanting to duet that there was too many to duet with.
Over the past three decades, Al Green has proven a master of transformation. In the early ’70s, he helped reinvent Southern soul with his lush ballads. By the latter part of the decade, personal tragedy steered him from secular music to the church—though not before he released transitional masterpiece The Belle Album, a revelatory explosion of spiritual soul.
Green devoted himself to fulltime ministering for years at his Memphis tabernacle, cutting a few hit gospel records in the meantime. Then, in the early years of this century, he returned to the studio with his original Hi Records cast—including longtime producer Willie Mitchell—and dropped two well-received R&B albums on the Blue Note label. Now he’s recorded a new album for Blue Note, Lay It Down, co-produced by Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. Neo-soul stars Corinne Bailey Rae, Anthony Hamilton and John Legend contribute vocals—and instead of Green’s trusty Hi rhythm section, the reverend is backed by a lineup of ace contemporary R&B players, including the Dap-King horns, keyboardist James Poyser, Jill Scott’s bassist, Joss Stone’s guitarist and others.
“This is his true follow-up to The Belle Album,” ?uestlove says. “Over the last 30 years, The Belle Album is considered by most Al Green colleagues as the final Al Green record, and that came out in 1978. So I consider this the true follow-up.”
Al Green Knows What You Want
“This is a designer’s original, a collector’s item. If you liked ‘For The Good Times’ or ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,’ you’re probably going to want to buy this album.”
The Roots were touring with The White Stripes when Jack White was getting ready to make Van Lear Rose, with Loretta Lynn. White’s plan got ?uestlove pondering the concept of working with an idol of his own: “Once Jack White told me he was getting Loretta Lynn, then I was sitting backstage like, ‘Damn. Rick Rubin has Johnny Cash. Jack gets Loretta Lynn—where’s my Loretta Lynn at? I sent my manager a message … about six months later we started working on Al Green.”
Green says he was ready for anything when he headed into the studio. But rather than funking it up with the hybrid style The Roots are known for, ?uestlove kept it decidedly old-school. Most of the tracks emerged during a single 2006 marathon session originally intended as a get-acquainted meeting for ?uestlove, Green and Poyser at New York’s Electric Lady Studio. “I didn’t have no problem with whatever they wanted to play,” Green recalls. “But they said, ‘We want to keep Al singing like Al.’”
That first session and subsequent ones that took place over the next two years were highly collaborative. Green would vocalize horn and string parts for the musicians to transcribe, and songs were written line by line as all the players scribbled together. “I told them to play like they played,” Green says. “But mostly, they would wind up matching and doing the songs in the style that originally was created by Willie Mitchell.”
Channeling Mitchell is no small thing to aspire to. When the pair hooked up in late 1969, Green was still touring on the strength of Back Up Train, a record that was almost two years old, with no follow-up in mind. It took another two years for Mitchell to give Green a hit— his 1970 remake of The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You”—but with that, Green and Mitchell were off and running in a history-making partnership that would reinvent the sound of Memphis soul. Soft and sophisticated, and anchored by the deep-bottomed bass of Leroy Hodges, the new sound—pretty, yet weighty—earned them seven top-10 hits in four years.
From the beginning, the future Reverend Green’s sound had a hint of praise music in it. Raised on Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers (a clear influence on his soft-spoken style), Green sang about love with reverence and ecstasy that was nearly religious. On Lay It Down, that same touch is there: Anthony Hamilton and Green chant together on the title track, and they testify over the choir-at-the-disco vibe of “You’ve Got The Love I Need.” Some of the churchiness likely comes from guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford, who plays with gospel ensemble Mighty Clouds of Joy. Still, Green wants to make it clear that—even when R&B has soul—church is church. “I wanted to sing a secular album. I’m very adamant about that,” he says. “If I want to make a gospel album, I will make a gospel album. But I’m not interested in being anything I’m not. I am an R&B/soul artist.”
Al Green Has Been Through the Fire
“I thank the good Lord for being here. I’ve had to learn a lot of stuff over the years.”
In 1974, a disturbed lady friend, Mary Woodson, took her own life after flinging a pot of boiling grits at Green, scalding him badly. By all accounts, the incident threw him into an inner turmoil that altered the course of his life. Green went into the studio without his all-star Hi band (drummer Al Jackson, Jr., who’d passed away in 1975, and the Hodges brothers) for the first time since his Back Up Train, and without Mitchell at the helm. The Belle Album—an audible document of his transition from the nightclub to the church—was something Green created as he was forging a new self.
Author and Paste contributor Peter Guralnick’s definitive history Sweet Soul Music, published in 1986, draws an evocative picture of Green during that shaky time. Though the book is more than a decade removed from the shocks that caused Green’s musical and personal identity struggle, Guralnick felt that the singer had “found no peace” yet, despite the fact that Green had given himself over completely to recording gospel, released a couple of top sellers in the genre, and had started his Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis. Guralnick found him disjointed and confused during interviews, seeming “generally not of this world.”
The Al Green who went into the studio to write and record Belle was a fractured personality—a shattered artist in a period of deep internal conflict. What emerged was an astonishing album of intensely emotional, intensely religious music that had Green opening his heart to the Lord with the utter surrender that was his hallmark. The album’s sound was looser, maybe even a little ragged compared to what Green had done with Mitchell’s refining touch, but it had the ecstatic sound of catharsis. Critics approached it first with caution, and then awe. In his autobiography, Green called The Belle Album “the most important release” of his career.
Al Green’s Still Got It
“A lady saw me in the Kroger’s grocery store yesterday. And she’s trembling and shaking and red in the face, and she said to me, ‘You’re Al Green.’ I don’t know what she’s feeling inside. I came here to buy some grapes and bananas.”
Al Green’s love songs were never, at their heart, about singing you out of your pants. His pillowy entreaties hinted at a deeper, more enduring connection—“Let’s Stay Together,” “Love and Happiness,” “Stay With Me Forever.” To paraphrase from one of his album titles, Al Green wanted to explore your mind. Now, with Corinne Bailey Rae (“She was fantastic,” Green says, “she was just like a piece of cake”) on the sweetly seductive “Take Your Time,” the two singers murmur together like a couple that finishes one another’s sentences.
The ambiguity of the new album’s title says it all. Lay It Down is more than serviceable for dimming the lights and slipping under the sheets. But in the lyrics—and in the exquisite strain of Al Green’s undimmed falsetto—is something else: an exhortation to lay down life’s pain, strife and burdens, and push through to the other side. The title track, which opens the album, repeats the phrase like a mantra—lay it down—coaxing and reassuring you to let go, it’ll be all right. The album-closing “Standing In The Rain”—a hard-edged rocker with thunking drums and wailing guitar—testifies: “Do you know my name? Do you know the pain and shame? Everything’s in my hand, standing out here in the rain.” The man who sings ain’t scared.
If Lay It Down is The Belle Album’s true follow-up, it’s because it resolves the classic record’s climax. The new album’s spirituality is not overt, but it’s there, unmistakably integrated with the secular in a way that implies Rev. Green has, in fact, found some reconciliation and hard-won peace.
“I wanted to write about wild love, and the quest for love,” he says. “Love can be rude sometimes. But you have to be able to take a chance on love. It’s still worth taking a chance on love, even if you get hurt. Because love is so magnificent, so wonderful, so forgiving.”