The 10 Best Al Green Deep Cuts [Deep Cuts Week]
November 5, 2010 Leave a comment
art by Ian M. Johnson
Right from the jump, I am going to admit that I don’t know as much about Al Green’s catalog as I do about the other artists that ROTI is featuring during Deep Cuts Week.
I wish I could tell you that I own every album and have heard everything he’s ever put out, but that would be a fib. As a result, I welcome anyone’s objections to this list, so feel free to sound off in comments.
What I DO have is possession of The Immortal Soul of Al Green, an epic four-disc box set that was handed down to me by my good friend Noish. This collection of 75 songs covers Al’s career from his early days fronting the Soul Mates as Al Greene, to the later recordings of religious music as the Reverend Al Green. (The revelation that brought him from sinful soul singer to man of the cloth involved a scorned lover and a scalding pan of grits. It’s a trip.)
I have worshipfully listened to this box set on many occasions, and over time I have extracted some gems that I had never previously heard of, much less experienced.
In addition, I read a ton of reviews of this box set online to find out other tracks that people felt were overlooked. In the end, I came up with this list of 10 epic Al Green jams that make the world a much better place, but that have never found a spot among his Greatest Hits.
Reverend Green is one of the greatest singers of all time, with the power to create original masterpieces, but also to interpret great songs written by others, taking them to new and glorious levels. He is one of the ultimate purveyors of the slow jam, but he’s also a damn fine frontman for a funky band. If you’ve only heard his best-known stuff, I highly urge you to join me as we dig into his catalog.
We Assume You’ve Heard: “Let’s Stay Together,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)”, “Tired of Being Alone,” “Call Me (Come Back Home),” “I’m Still In Love With You,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” Other indispensable singles and hits: “You Ought to Be With Me,” “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Love and Happiness,” “Look What You Done For Me,” “Let’s Get Married,” “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy),” “Full of Fire,” “For the Good Times,” “L-O-V-E Love,” “Belle.”
#10. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from the Green is Blues sessions
This is a nasty cover of the Beatles classic. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, but Al Green finds a way to move and groove it right into my heart. Al’s brassy and bold vocals take a somewhat corny song and make it into a soulful jam, while managing to imply that he’s talking about a bit more than holding hands.
The funky arrangement takes this song to another level, adding some stank to the excellent pop songwriting. I like that he sings “I get high” instead of “I can’t hide,” the same lyrical misperception that led to Bob Dylan introducing the Beatles to weed (he assumed they already loved to get high). I also love the hilarious guy who says “Shut up, Al Green” at the beginning.
#9. “God Is Standing By” from Al Green Gets Next to You
So many things to like about this song. (1) The bass playing — Leroy Hodges was Al Green’s secret weapon throughout most of his career; (2) The way Al Green pronounces “God” on the first chorus; (3) the Gospel-inspired backing vocals that lift your heart with their soulfulness and joy; (4) Al’s performance on the second verse — he jams it so full of amazing moments, there really is no letup at all; (5) the ending: “Don’t – Don’t – Cry–hiiii!”
I know you are skeptical that you would ever enjoy a song called “God Is Standing By,” but give it a try. For Baby Jesus’ sake.
#8. “Funny How Time Slips Away” from Call Me
Al Green is magical on the songs he made hits, but I think he’s perhaps most mesmerizing when interpreting the music made famous by others. Dude could do everything from Hank Williams to the Bee Gees and crush it every time. Here, he takes a Willie Nelson song and hits it out of the park.
Willie’s great song is terrific fodder for Al, his backing band, and a great chorus of backup singers. I love the second verse, when he reflects that his ex-girl’s pledge of love to her current boo might be as ephemeral as the one she once made to him. He’s not really bitter, just having a few drinks and thinking about life, man. Al does an amazing job of conveying these emotions in a smooth, wistful delivery. All in all, this is a tasty number that I highly recommend.
#7. “I’m A Ram” from Al Green Gets Next To You
This is one cold, funky groove. Lyrically, this song is built around an amazing metaphor in which Al Green compares himself to a ram. I think the idea is that he is relentlessly going to pursue you like a stubborn-ass ram, girl, until he captures your love. At some point he also mentions that he’s caught in a bush and he needs you to rescue him. The absurdity of this only adds to the song’s charm.
Vocally, Green uses his full repertoire of croons and yowls on this one. Insanely great horn stabs are complemented by classically dope work by the Hi Rhythm Section, the house band at Hi Records who backed Green during his peak years. The chorus is simple and understated, yet supremely fierce. This one is a sleeper classic.
#6. “I’d Fly Away” from Full of Fire
Tell you what. Next time you have a really crappy day at work, come home, pour yourself some kind of tasty drink, and put this song on. The “rustlin tusslin” stress of your day will just melt off as Al performs this amazingly smooth number.
This bass-driven song — augmented by tasty organ, guitar, horns and background vox — is pure soulfulness. I swear I feel myself calming down every time I listen to it, as a smile creeps over my face. It makes me wish I had this on vinyl (and a phonograph player in my abode) to complete the effect. I bet Lester Freamon loves listening to this song while he makes dollhouse miniatures.
#5. “So You’re Leaving” from Let’s Stay Together
The band’s sound on the album Let’s Stay Together is pretty much everything you could ask for from an R&B outfit, and this track really exemplifies its goodness. Al Green demands to know if his woman is leaving him in a song that makes you want to do a funky strut down a crowded street. The third verse is really magnificent, as he lifts up his voice in pained resignation to his powerlessness over the situation, and leads into an awesome vocal jam with a tasty harmony.
I always appreciate the way that Al brings Jesus into his songs (at least, the secular ones from the first half of his career) without proselytizing in an obnoxious way — even if you don’t really believe in him, you can somehow get on board when Al Green is repping J.C. His argument that people who would “lie on Jesus” would lie about anything is pretty convincing. Stop lying on Jesus, Al Green’s haters!
#4. “I’ve Never Found A Girl” from Let’s Stay Together
This is just a straight-up song of praise by Al Green to his woman (“she’s every po’ boy’s dream, she’s every rich man’s prayer”). A fine and funky verse gives way to unbelievable harmonies on the pre-chorus, and the Stax-style chorus makes you want to punch the air with one joyful fist. I don’t even really need to get into details here, this song is nasty, and I hope you will agree.
How this song is not better known, I have no idea. It’s a true jam.
#3. “Beware” from Livin’ For You
This is a magnificent number that holds up even when you listen to the epic, full-length 15 minute version. (The version embedded above is the 8-minute album cut.) Basically, some meddling hoochies are trying to tell Al Green’s woman that things aren’t right in their relationship. Be careful of your friends, Al Green’s woman!
This song is so smooth at the outset, I can’t even handle it. Al Green’s voice is magical, at once both soothing and electrifying. The arrangement is killer and the band is locked in. Then the song moves into the chorus, with a terrific harmony coming in that delights my soul. And then it gets even better as Al Green and friends slowly break the song down to its most basic elements. He starts to commune with bassist Leroy Hodges in a way that’s just magical. There’s a part where Al Green does an imitation of his woman calling his name. Slowly, the song builds back up to the original groove and finishes strong with a rampagingly funky conclusion. This is a slow jam with awesomeness that can’t be denied.
#2. “To Sir With Love” from Truth n’ Time
This performance absolutely transforms a song that was already a classic and makes it one hundred times better. The original by Lulu (did you know that was the biggest hit in the USA in 1967?) used to be a guilty pleasure of mine, but I never listen to it anymore, because I found Al Green’s insanely good version. Remember how in the 50s and early 60s, white-bread singers like Pat Boone would take the awesome songs the black singers were doing and cheese them up and make them hits? Yeah, this is the complete and perfect opposite of that.
The chorus is an absolute revelation in his hands — his voice soars, there is no other word for it. With this arrangement, the halting meter of the original is morphed into a soulful groove. Everything that happens around the 3:25 mark is pretty much what I imagine the Rapture would feel like. And just when you think he’s taken this song to the awesomest level it can go, he comes up with a kickass new ending. All praise to Al Green!
#1. “Take Me To The River” from Al Green Explores Your Mind
I have been debating this one for a while, because this song isn’t the deepest of deep cuts and I’m guessing some of you have heard it. But what I kept coming back to is that the Al Green version of “Take Me To The River” — the original version of this oft-covered tune — has been too often overlooked and disrespected. His own record label declined to issue this as a single and instead gave it to another artist to record. The Talking Heads version (which is genius, don’t get me wrong), was the version of this song that became a hit. None of the many incarnations of Al Green’s Greatest Hits have included it (it did sneak onto a Volume II). While this song is now considered a classic, its status is mostly based on the many great covers done over the years. All this blows my mind, because I think “Take Me To The River” is pretty much the perfect Al Green song, and I love the original version.
David Byrne put it well: “It combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend.” Al Green wrote this song with guitarist Teenie Hodges and imbued it with all the themes that would come to define his career — sex, God, sin, salvation. And beyond thematic importance, this performance is just straight-up dope: from his dedication to “Little Junior Parker, my cousin that’s gone on” to the soulful cries he lets loose towards the end. The Hi Rhythm section is excellent, especially Teenie on guitar, and the gospel choir backing him up takes a back seat to nobody.
Al Green’s version of “Take Me To The River” is a masterpiece, and the fact that it’s not a staple of each and every Al Green compilation makes it a truly underrated deep cut. The end.
Here are some songs that contended for this list, and easily rate among Al Green’s best deep cuts. Sadly, I couldn’t find embeddable audio clips to share them with you, and that docked them enough points that they fell out of the Top 10.
That said, these are awesome songs and I highly recommend checking them out.
“All in All” -> I cannot find this anywhere online. If I get a chance, I’ll upload it for y’all.
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