When the listening public reflects on a music legend’s career, it inevitably passes over many if not most of the duds. Check out any of The Beach Boys‘ offerings before Pet Sounds, for instance, and you’ll find more padding than a Miracle Bra.
Soul singers like Al Green are no exception, often being forced into filling out their records with unimaginative covers of recent hits. The newly re-issued Green Is Blues is one such album, with Green transforming a collection of ’50s R&B and ’60s rock-‘n’-roll tunes into pleasing if not particularly earth-shattering Southern soul.
Forty years after its initial release, Green Is Blues has been repackaged as a special digital album that includes a downloadable booklet and a Most Sampled compilation featuring Green tracks that have been appropriated by modern-day artists like Jay-Z and Massive Attack.
The decision to highlight compositions sampled by rappers and trip-hoppers only further emphasises the timeless quality of the singer’s smooth grooves, even if Green Is Blues isn’t the finest representation of his later talents. Nonetheless, the production values are immaculate, thanks in no small part to Willie Mitchell and the rubber-band-tight Hi Rhythm section: nearly a half-century later, the snares still snap, those rolling guitar lines still swing, and Al’s exuberant baritone still shines.
Green Is Blues, the singer’s sophomore effort after 1967’s Back Up Train (on which he still had an “E” at the end of his last name), also showcases the impressive extent to which the then 23-year-old had already developed his confident phrasing and soulful tonality. The Letter, a moody, minor-keyed lament first popularized by The Box Tops, finds Green crooning with heartbreaking convinction as a chorus of ethereal female voices sings wordlessly in the background. The upbeat instrumentation of What Am I Gonna Do With Myself?, meanwhile, serves as a fascinating counterpoint to the singer’s woozy, bluesy words of loneliness.
Of course, it’s not all grey and gloomy for Green, best known as the hopeless romantic of Let’s Stay Together and You Ought To Be With Me. Green Is Blues also displays a solid smattering of uplifting R&B ballads (Tomorrow’s Dream) and even a foray into chicken-scratch funk (Get Back Baby). Most memorably, with I Wanna Hold Your Hand, that beacon of G-rated, high-school-sweetheart rock, Green yelps and shrieks like a rabid animal in heat, stammering seductive ad-libs with delightfully reckless abandon (“I’ve got to hold your – every day! I want to hold your – in the evening!”)
For much of the rest of the album such unhinged passion is kept in check. Green delivers an admirable attempt at My Girl, but his rendition can only go downhill in comparison to The Temptations‘ intimidatingly flaw-free original. Get Back, similarly, features some killer horns and a healthy dose of soul, but in tempo and overall execution skews pretty close to the tune’s rock roots. Mitchell and Green seem content to mostly play it safe at such an early stage in the musician’s career, borrowing from the homecooked Stax sound without getting quite so dirty under the fingernails.
Of course, by the early ’70s Green had matured from his humdrum beginnings with note-perfect R&B work-outs like Are You Lonely For Me Baby? and Love And Happiness that establishing him as a gifted composer and an effervescent entertainer.
His career has since taken some detours: after a girlfriend’s suicide in 1974, he became a Baptist minister and released a bevy of commercially-ignored gospel albums until a more recent re-emergence to the pop charts. Throughout his ups and downs, Green has occupied a distinct niche in the world of ’60s soul. Not as brazenly sexual as Marvin Gaye, nor as “aw-shucks” sweet as Sam Cooke, Green came into his own with a nuanced tenor that could alternate from silky-smooth to feisty to everything in between.
In the overly-cheery musical landscape of What A Wonderful World and How Sweet It Is, he even tackled wounded vulnerability – an emotion that few, if any, black male singers could handle then, or now. He celebrated life, while recognizing the inherent ridiculousness of leaving out all the painful frustrations that go along with it. He got tired of being alone, but we listeners were just getting started.