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Al Green Sings Covers

November 30th, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Sometimes the less you know about your favourite singers, the better. Who knew that Al Green, the soul legend, is not an all-round good egg, nor, indeed, an all-round bad egg. The good Reverend is one hell of a conflicted cat. And that conflicted soul makes for intriguing reading in Jimmy’s McDonough new, authoritative biography of Al Green, Soul Survivor (Da Capo Press, 2017). For fans of popular music, and especially of soul, the book is a treasure.

Obviously the focus is on Green, but to understand Green – in as far as the man can be even remotely understood – one must also know the context in which he has existed and recorded. So McDonough introduces a cast of co-stars and supporting actors along the way. There is, naturally, Albert Leorn Greene’s family, including his pimp brothers.

The cover of Jimmy McDonough’s absorbing Al Green bio Soul Survivor, published in August 2017 by Da Capo Press.

A substantial portion of Soul Survivor is devoted to Willie Mitchell and his Hi Records. As Green’s producer and his musical home in the singer’s pomp, Mitchell and Hi are key to the Green story. So are backing musicians like the Hodges brothers—Charles on organ, Leroy on bass, and, perhaps most importantly, Mabon “Teenie” on guitar—as well drummers Howard Grimes and Al Jackson Jr and the Memphis Horns (mainly Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love), and later people like Reuben Fairfax.

It’s fascinating to learn how Mitchell turned Green, who fancied himself as a soul growler, into that quiet singer into whose vocals you can disappear, as McDonough eloquently puts it. Mitchell and Al Jackson Jr wrote the melody for Let’s Stay Together; Al Green’s task was to write the lyrics. So he locked himself up in a studio room and wrote them in 15 minutes – starting one of the great love songs as a reflection on black politics… Green then wanted to sing the song in shouty southern soul style. Mitchell insisted he sing it all mellow. Green was very unhappy with that idea and sped off in his car, wheels all a-screeching. When he returned, he deliberately sang the song as relaxed and with as little emotion he could muster, just to spite Mitchell – who in turn said that this was exactly the sound he wanted. No more takes were needed; a new kind of soul singer was born that day. The Hi Records part of the Al Green story is a most welcome bonus in this book.

Along the way we also encounter people like Laura Lee, a great soul singer in her own right and Green’s on-off girlfriend. It’s Lee about whom Green wrote Tired Of Being Alone. That song also introduced the backing vocals of the Rhodes sisters, who surprisingly were country singers, with sax player Charles Chalmers (Sandra Rhodes also played rhythm guitar on How Do You Mend A Broken Heart). If you are surprised to learn that Al Green’s soulful backing singers on those great Hi records were white, you surely are not alone.

Who’s a pretty pimp? Al Green makes his Soul Train debut in 1971, singing Tired Of Being Alone while wearing gold boxer boots, black vinyl hot pants, magenta vinyl vest, a gold chain, a pink pimp hat at a jaunty angle, and a man-bag on his shoulders. Give him a cane and he could fit into a scene from The Deuce.

 

McDonough is insightful in examining Al Green’s records. Obviously a devoted fan, he speaks with authority even as he expresses strong opinions. One wants to play the songs he is writing about just to hear what he hears. But at other times his opinions can be intrusive, such as the reference to the “dreaded Chicago”. And much as I agree with McDonough on the Talking Heads’ awful cover of Take Me To The River – “Fuck the Talking Heads”, he opines – in a book like this it’s better to not to try and force the reader’s mind. And only the good Lord knows how McDonough arrives at his churlishly-expressed opinion that “clown-haired” Lyle Lovett lacks talent.

But that is a minor criticism. McDonough marshals his widely collated resources well, even if it becomes difficult at some points to keep track of who is who. The author hopes that his book will be the definitive biography on Al Green, and he wasn’t going to leave many gaps.

Soul Survivor has a few moments of great trivia. We learn that Take Me To The River co-writer Teeny Hodges reported that his biggest payday had come not from the Green or Talking Heads recordings of the song but from royalties earned via the song’s “performance” by the animatronic fish Big Mouth Billy Bass in The Sopranos. And among the more startling revelation is that Green apparently is a freemason, in an African-American wing of the secret society that has also included such luminaries as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Richard Pryor.

Take Me To The River payday: the animatronic fish Big Mouth Billy Bass in The Sopranos.

 

There is an alarming story about how a goon gangster broke Al’s arm when the singer didn’t want to perform. But don’t feel too bad for Green, who allegedly felt quite entitled to assault women. Which takes us to the 1974 suicide of Mary Woodson and her attack on him with boiling grits (Green tends to insist it was Cream of Wheat) that preceded it. McDonough cites a lot of research on the incident; all it shows is that the official verdict of suicide should be seen as inconclusive. While a lot points to Woodson’s death having been self-inflicted, there are some questions that likely will never be answered.

Woodson’s death might or might not have played a role in Green’s conversion – which took place, of all places, after a gig at Disneyland, the result of a bargain he said he had made with God in 1969. A substantial section of the book covers Green’s career as a pastor (he’s now a bishop, whatever that means in non-hierarchical church). As with everything, Green is a walking contradiction in that role. One moment given to evangelical zeal and Christian charity, the next driven by that nasty underside that always seems to reside beneath his surface. Green’s style of ministry seems to be always a bit or a lot unhinged.

The man who emerges in the pages of Soul Survivor is alone and lonely, one who attracts people easily with charm and kindness, and then always finds ways to repel them with appalling behaviour. His outsized ego perhaps makes Al Green the only suitable companion for Albert Leorn Greene. It ain’t easy being Green.

And so to the mix. Whoopie Goldberg, in a rare moment of lucidity, said: “No one can cover Al Green.” It’s true: how many good covers of Al Green originals do you know? But Green is a superb interpreter of other people’s songs, most famously perhaps of The Bee Gee’s How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (an mind-blowing vocal performance, but don’t disregard Mitchell’s fine arrangement that sets the scene for those vocals). So here is a mix of Al Green singing other people’s songs. In the parentheses I cite the respective song’s most famous performer.

As always, the mix is timed to fit in a standard CD-R length, includes home-lurved covers. PW in comments.

1. I’ve Never Found A Girl (1972 – Eddie Floyd)
2. I Can’t Get Next To You (1971 – The Temptations)
3. Drivin’ Wheel (1971 – Roosevelt Sykes/Junior Parker)
4. The Letter (1969 – The Box Tops)
5. Summertime (1969 – from ‘Porgy And Bess’)
6. How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (1972 – The Bee Gees)
7. For The Good Times (1972 – Kris Kristofferson)
8. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (1973 – Hank Williams)
9. Funny How Time Slips Away (1973 – Jimmy Elledge/Joe Hinton)
10. I Stand Accused (1969 – Jerry Butler)
11. Unchained Melody (1973 – Righteous Brothers)
12. I Want To Hold Your Hand (1969 – The Beatles)
13. Oh, Pretty Woman (1972 – Roy Orbison)
14. Light My Fire (1971 – The Doors)
15. Together Again (1976 – Buck Owens)
16. Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home (1984 – Joe South)
17. People Get Ready (feat. Margie Joseph, 1981 – The Impressions)
18. A Change Is Gonna Come (live, 1994 – Sam Cooke)

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Covered With Soul
1970s Soul

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  1. halfhearteddude
    November 30th, 2017 at 07:04 | #1

    PW = amdwhah

  2. JohnnyDiego
    November 30th, 2017 at 14:23 | #2

    Loved reading your little tome, Dude. And I really dug your reference to The Duece. I can see Green on 42nd street right now. Al Green’s records were always the choice when a lady visited my apartment for a drink after a night out.
    Thanks for these covers. A great choice.

  3. Tom Frost
    December 1st, 2017 at 00:06 | #3

    Inspired! A great idea to compile his best covers, and they sit together well as an album. I’ve never listened to many of the gospel sides- although Belle is one of my favorite albums ever. Hearing his version of Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home will make investigate the gospel further. And you’ve solved the dilemma of what my family should get me for Christmas- this book! And I would have added one track – his superb version of To Sir With Love….but I’m just being picky. Well done once again….

  4. Brad
    December 2nd, 2017 at 16:10 | #4

    Dude,
    Thanks yet again for another outstanding mix. Loved your review of Soul Survivor. It’s next on my reading list as soon as I finish Dave Cousins autobiography. If I ever write a book I’m going to hire you as my publicist.

  5. halfhearteddude
    December 2nd, 2017 at 17:16 | #5

    I hate to say it, but I really don’t like To Sir With Love, and for me Green can’t save it.

  6. George
    December 3rd, 2017 at 12:16 | #6

    thanks for a great set of covers.

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