A few weeks ago, a buddy messaged me with an age-old question. One of his friends is getting married next month, and she’s down to three choices for the live entertainment: Sister Hazel, Third Eye Blind and John Mellencamp. (Yes, they’ll all play for pay.) His question: Which one would impress her wedding guests most? “Why, John Mellencamp, of course. After all, he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” I answered, while thinking, Sister Hazel? Third Eye Blind?
About a week later, my best friend emailed me with a request that was further into my area of expertise. She’s also getting married next month, in New Orleans, and she wanted to assign me the task of compiling a playlist of love songs for the wedding reception. Neither she nor the groom are really love-song types. The only one that kept popping into her head was “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” I figured that since I am only going to be there in spirit (it’s a long way from BKK to NOLA), it was the very least I could do.
In the end, she did me the favor. In researching love songs on my iPod, I stumbled upon a singer whom I’d been neglecting in recent times: Al Green. He’s been my favorite male vocalist for going on 20 years now, but lately I’ve been so preoccupied with girls girls girls (musically, nothing else) that I’ve been sort of taking him for granted. There’ll always be time to get back to him. Well, now is that time.
I once had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Green, in 1995, the year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and around the release of his comeback secular album Your Heart’s in Good Hands. He was appearing on Rosie O’Donnell’s daytime talk show, and Christine Wolff, his MCA Records publicist at the time and one of my favorite people in the business, invited me backstage to meet him. Coming face-to-face with an icon is always risky business. There’s so much for them to live up to, and many an icon has failed to meet those heightened expectations. Not Green. He was like your jolly favorite uncle who also happens to be the most incredible singer in the world.
Among the all-time great soul men, you have your crooners (Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye), your seducers (Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass), and your powerhouse vocalists (Otis Redding, Bobby Womack, Jeffrey Osborne), but Al Green is the only one who blended all three into one beautiful package.
Luther Vandross came close, but he was always best interpreting other people’s songs. His own material was hit and miss. Green was also an ace interpreter — his versions of Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” trump any other — but his original self-penned material during his imperial years (1971 -1974) is what holds up best today.
No one, not Aretha Franklin, not Stevie Wonder, not Marvin Gaye, was creating better straight-up soul music at the time. Like two of those ’70s contemporaries, Motown staples Wonder and Gaye, who had reinvented themselves as musical activists early in the decade, Green switched gears mid-’70s and transitioned into gospel, only to slowly return to the pop and R&B fold at the end of the ’80s. I wonder where his music would have gone had he stayed on the straight and narrow soul path. Would the quality of his material have slipped, leaving only his voice to be desired?
Of course, it was never just about his voice. There was also Willie Mitchell’s exacting and inventive production. Green’s love songs sound unlike anything else that was being done at the time, thanks to Mitchell’s flourishes, such as the fierce insistent beat that often underscored the romantic yearning of Green’s lyrics. And Green didn’t have to sing a note, or sing any of them well (which he always did, and does), to send his female fans into fits of frenzy — he was hot! But thank God for that voice!
The Best of Al Green, The Best of Love Songs
“I’m Still in Love with You” The best love song ever, Green’s greatest hit, and his second-biggest one, too (No. 3 pop, 1972), after 1971’s “Let’s Stay Together,” his sole No. 1 on the Hot 100. The production, the instrumentation and Green’s moan from 1:30 to 1:45 still give me goose bumps every time I listen to it.
“Love and Happiness” I love this live performance because it shows Green trading his trademark tenor for a gritty baritone growl closer to the soul realm of Otis Redding. And he pulls it off just as well.
“Simply Beautiful” What I wouldn’t give to wake up some velvet morning to the sound of the one I love singing “Your Love Is Like the Morning Sun” (from 1973’s Call Me) in my ear. But if he were playing this one right off of 1972’s I’m Still in Love with You album, it would be just as sweet.
“You Ought to Be with Me” Not one of his best-known songs but one of his biggest, matching the No. 3 peak of “I’m Still in Love with You” later in 1972.
“Livin’ for You” The epitome of quiet-storm soul, Green’s 1973 Top 20 single proves that the most soulful sentiment can sometimes arrive packaged in a seductive whisper.
“Love Is a Beautiful Thing” More than two decades on, and he hadn’t lost a thing.