Al Green was the first great soul singer of the ‘70s and arguably the last great Southern soul singer. With his seductive singles for Hi Records in the early ‘70s, Green bridged the gap between deep soul and smooth Philadelphia soul. He incorporated elements of gospel, interjecting his performances with wild moans and wails, but his records were stylish, boasting immaculate productions that rolled along with a tight beat, sexy backing vocals, and lush strings. The distinctive Hi Records sound that the vocalist and producer Willie Mitchell developed made Al Green the most popular and influential soul singer of the early ‘70s, influencing not only his contemporaries, but also veterans like Marvin Gaye. Green was at the peak of his popularity when he suddenly decided to join the ministry in the mid-’70s. At first, he continued to record secular material, but by the ‘80s, he was concentrating solely on gospel. During the late ‘80s and ‘90s, he occasionally returned to R&B, but he remained primarily a religious performer for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, Green’s classic early- ‘70s recordings retained their power and influence throughout the decades, setting the standard for smooth soul.
Green was born in Forrest City, Arkansas, where he formed a gospel quartet, the Green Brothers, at the age of nine. The group toured throughout the South in the mid-’50s, before the family relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Green Brothers continued to perform in Grand Rapids, but Al’s father kicked the boy out of the group after he caught his son listening to Jackie Wilson. At the age of 16, Al formed an R&B group, Al Green & the Creations, with several of his high-school friends. Two Creation members, Curtis Rogers and Palmer James, founded their own independent record company, Hot Line Music Journal, and had the group record for the label. By that time, the Creations had been re-named the Soul Mates. The group’s first single, “Back Up Train,” became a surprise hit, climbing to number five on the R&B charts early in 1968. The Soul Mates attempted to record another hit, but all of their subsequent singles failed to find an audience.
In 1969, Al Green met bandleader and Hi Records vice president Willie Mitchell while on tour in Midland, Texas. Impressed with Green’s voice, he signed the singer to Hi Records, and began collaborating with Al on his debut album. Released in early 1970, Green’s debut album, Green is Blues, showcased the signature sound he and Mitchell devised - a sinewy, sexy groove highlighted by horn punctuations and string beds that let Green showcase his remarkable falsetto. While the album didn’t spawn any hit singles, it was well-received and set the stage for the breakthrough success of his second album. Al Green Gets Next to You (1970) launched his first hit single, “Tired of Being Alone,” which began a streak of four straight gold singles. Let’s Stay Together (1972) was his first genuine hit album, climbing to number eight on the pop charts; its title track became his first number one single. “I’m Still in Love With You”, which followed only a few months later, was an even greater success, peaking at number four and launching the hits “Look What You Done for Me” and “I’m Still in Love With You.”
By the release of 1973’s Call Me, Green was known as both a hit maker and an artist who released consistently engaging, frequently excellent, critically-acclaimed albums. His hits continued uninterrupted through the next two years, with “Call Me,” “Here I Am,” and “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)” all becoming Top Ten gold singles. At the height of his popularity, Green’s former girlfriend, Mrs. Mary Woodson, broke into his Memphis home in October 1974 and poured boiling grits on the singer as he was bathing, inflicting second-degree burns on his back, stomach, and arm; after assaulting Green, she killed herself with his gun. Green interpreted the violent incident as a sign from God that he should enter the ministry. By 1976, he had bought a church in Memphis and had become an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Though he had begun to seriously pursue religion, he had not given up singing R&B and he released three other Mitchell-produced albums - Al Green is Love (1975), Full of Fire (1976), Have a Good Time (1976) - after the incident. However, his albums began to sound formulaic, and his sales started to slip by the end of 1976, with disco cutting heavily into his audience.
In order to break free from his slump, Green stopped working with Willie Mitchell in 1977 and built his own studio, American Music, where he intended to produce his own records. The first album he made at American Music was The Belle Album, an intimate record that was critically acclaimed but failed to win a crossover audience. Truth and Time (1978) failed to even generate a major R&B hit. During a concert in Cincinnati in 1979, Green fell off the stage and nearly injured himself seriously. Interpreting the accident as a sign from God, Green retired from performing secular music and devoted himself to preaching. Throughout the ‘80s, he released a series of gospel albums on Myrrh Records. In 1982, Green appeared in the gospel musical “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God” with Patti Labelle. In 1985, he reunited with Willie Mitchell for He is The Light, his first album for A&M Records.
Green tentatively returned to R&B in 1988 when he sang “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” with Annie Lennox for the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged. Four years later, he recorded his first full-fledged soul album since 1978 with Only Don’t Look Back. Al Green was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That same year, he released Your Heart’s in Good Hands, an urban contemporary record that represented his first secular album to be released in America since Truth and Time. Though the album received positive reviews, it failed to become a hit. Green did achieve widespread recognition eight years later with his first album for Blue Note, I Can’t Stop. One and a half years later, he followed it with Everything’s OK.
The title of Al Green’s third Blue Note album, Lay It Down (2008), truly tells it like it is. Conceived as a collaboration between the soul legend and a handful of gifted young admirers from the worlds of contemporary R&B and hip hop, the album is drawn from a series of inspired sessions that yielded the most high-spirited, funky and often lushly romantic songs of Green’s latter-day career. The album is a refreshingly old school jam, with everyone laying down the music together, face to face, heart to heart, soul to soul.
The project features the sophisticated R&B voices of singer-songwriters John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Corinne Bailey Rae, and it was co-produced with Green by two of hip-hop’s most innovative players, drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson from the Roots and keyboardist James Poyser, the go-to guy for high-profile artists ranging from Erykah Badu to Common. Add in Brooklyn’s celebrated Dap-King Horns (Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse), guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford (Mighty Clouds of Joy, Joss Stone) and bassist Adam Blackstone (Jill Scott, DJ Jazzy Jeff), among others, and you’ve got a modern soul-music dream team, fronted by the most expressive voice in the business.
“The reason why we are doing this is because we all idolize Al Green,” declares ?uestlove. “Even today, nobody has range like him.”
Green himself envisioned this project as a way to reach out to younger artists, particularly in the hip hop community, to find common musical ground and help spread his healing message of, as he likes to put it, “L-O-V-E.” He gamely plunged into the world of the Roots and their posse, cutting tracks with them in New York City. His youthful collaborators took this as an opportunity to get right into Al’s head, turning the sessions into a master class about how to create that sublime Al Green sound and keep it relevant for today.
As Green explains, “They didn’t want to get too far out from the foundation that [Hi Records producer] Willie Mitchell and I built – ‘Call Me,’ ‘I’m Still in Love With You,’ ‘Let’s Stay Together.” That’s all good, they said, but we want to play what we hear you being about in 2008. We want to keep all of the aura, but we would like to have freedom enough to spread our wings and express ourselves. The Roots, all the guys from Philly who came up to do this stuff with us - they were incredible. I could relax because I knew the people were capable. Everyone was coming up with ideas, everybody was pitching in, everybody was helping.”
It all began in 2006. ?uestlove and Poyser arranged for a get-acquainted session at Electric Lady Studio in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. As Green recalls, “That was such a session. We sketched out eight songs and really started the project. We were just spitting out songs right and left; there’s no possible way I could write them all out. I was writing the verses to this one, the bridge to that one. Everybody contributed and that’s why it feels so good. There were no big ‘I’s and little ‘you’s in there. All of us dreamed it up together.”
That date provided basic tracks for nine out of eleven tunes. Subsequent recording took place over the next two years to accommodate the artists with whom Al wanted to work. Each session replicated the feel of that first one, with the players swapping ideas, grabbing pads and pencils to furiously scribble lyrics, singing out snatches of melodies, passing along riffs. Green himself vocalized many of the parts that the strings and horns would later play. He admits, “That’s the only way I know how to work, that’s what I’ve done all my life. You just write it from here.” He taps his heart. “That’s what we do every Sunday. We never write a sermon now. If you can’t preach out of here” - tapping his chest again – “you have nothing to say anyway. It’s all from the heart, this whole album, from start to finish.”
“It’s an honor to be able to work with Al Green, who I have always loved and respected,” says John Legend. “He has been an important part of black music history, and pop music history for that matter. Al really is a magical singer.”
Legend had come in to sing on one track the band had worked up, but then heard an unfinished version of “Stay With Me (By The Sea),” a song Green had been developing with Bailey Rae. Legend immediately knew that one was meant for him. That song illustrates the cooperative spirit that distinguishes Lay It Down. “John is singing it, I’m singing it, Corinne and I are singing the background,” Green explains. “We’re all included. It’s personal, about my own life, but still everyone can feel what I’m talking about.”
Green was especially impressed that Bailey Rae flew all the way from London to sing with him. She was just honored to be there: “I was really drawn in by Al’s voice; it’s so distinct, and so fluid.” After she arrived, Green recalls, Corinne went straight to work: “She’s a tiny little thing with a big guitar. She’s just playing and singing and the musicians went to sit in, the drummer, the bassist. She wrote a verse, then I wrote a verse and we both worked on the bridge.” In fact, Green insisted that Bailey Rae start it off, performing in her warm, intimate style the verse she’d just written.
Hamilton and Green perform gospel-style testifying over the slow-burning groove of the title track, and the pair engages in fierce call and response on the funky chorus to “You’ve Got the Love I Need.” “It feels good when you listen to him,” Hamilton says of Green, and Green returns the compliment: “On his records, Anthony is always singing about pleasing and satisfying his lady - I want you to be happy, I want us to be together. I’ve been preaching for 30 years and I said, that’s right, the more we need each other, the less difference we see between us. You have to take a chance on love. I know there are some hateful people in the world that would break your heart in an instant. But the big man upstairs is saying you’ve got to take a chance. It’s better to love and be heartbroken than never to have loved at all.”
Looking back on these collaborations, Green decides: “I couldn’t ask for any more than what Corinne, Anthony and John put into the album, because they came and they sung their heart. And when a person does that, I’m going to give you the best I feel too.” But he offers us even more on the final track, “Standing In the Rain.” The arrangement is an ebullient update of classic Memphis soul and the words convey the sort of message that the Reverend Al would like to leave all of us with, from the young listeners about to discover him to the loyal fans who’ve followed him all these years.
“‘Standing in the Rain’ - that don’t mean good times,” Green explains. “I’ve got afflictions; I’ve got trials; I’ve experienced all the things that can hold you back. But I refuse to be held back.”
Lay It Down is surely testimony to that. Al Green may occasionally sing about his own tribulations, but mostly he wants to offer the answer to ours: L-O-V-E is all you need.