Old time lovin'

Somehow, Al Green's gotten a bit of a bad reputation. In recent years, the image of this Memphis legend has mutated from spiritually torn soul man/reformed gospel singer into that of a leg-spreading balladeer along the clich?d lines of Barry White. Al Green tunes are ubiquitous at suburban weddings; Al Green tunes are used in commercials to imply potential lovemaking; Al Green tunes are the sure-thing musical reference if a fraternity brother needs to get laid; Al Green tunes find themselves repackaged into beasts like The Love Songs Collection to be issued just in time for Valentine's Day. It's like Al Green has become the totem allowing square folks to have sex.

And that's just wrong. Not that square folks shouldn't be having sex. But the "Pulp Fiction" recasting of Al Green's talent as some sort of omnipotent aural aphrodisiac is a disservice to the right Reverend's considerable musical abilities.

After years of working the gospel circuit with his brothers, and the chitlin' circuit with Michigan friends The Soulmates (with whom he had a 1967 hit with "Back Up Train"), Green hooked up with Memphis sax man Willie Mitchell. Working out of the south Memphis warehouse home of Hi Records, Green -- along with considerable guidance and production help from Mitchell -- established himself in the early and mid-'70s as a pre-eminent purveyor of raw and expressive R&B. A tougher counterpart to those of their more Motown-influenced neighbors over at Stax, the sounds that came from Hi were sourced in the label's roots in raucous, blues-based honky-tonk. This down-home approach provided a perfect foundation for Green's extraordinarily emotive voice. Though Green found considerable influence in '50s and '60s blues and gospel, his vocal delivery was quite unique: sweet and silky one minute, gruff and growling the next and then pensive and pining.

This voice -- combined with Mitchell's keen production ear -- made Green's early tenure at Hi the things soul legends are made of. Finally remastered and reissued (with bonus tracks and original artwork ... just in time for Valentine's Day), the first four albums of this period are positively illuminating. Though long available on CD, Green Is Blues (1970), Al Green Gets Next to You (1971), Let's Stay Together (1972) and I'm Still In Love With You (1972) have always suffered from inferior sound quality. These reissues chronicle a truly amazing three-year period of creativity and, as such, they deserve to be treated this well.

Though "Green Is Blues" is (justifiably) not regarded in the same league as the other three titles, the stylistic framework it establishes is the one that made its descendants so interesting, merging unassailable popcraft (the album is largely covers from the likes of the Beatles, the Impressions and even George Gershwin) and Green's man-sized voice. The album doesn't fully click, but it's raw tentativeness is nonetheless engaging.

Released over a period of just under 18 months, the trifecta of "Al Green Gets Next to You," "Let's Stay Together" and "I'm Still In Love With You" is powerful enough to be taken as a whole, rather than individually. Each of these three albums -- despite their reputations as syrupy romance boosters -- are really down-to-earth soul albums. Immortalizing such song masterpieces as "Tired of Being Alone" and "Let's Stay Together," these albums are better defined by the dirty, unpolished numbers like "I've Never Found a Girl" or the utterly odd "I'm a Ram."

Even though "I'm Still In Love With You" was a calculated attempt to heighten Green's reputation as a crooner, the stark emotion of "For the Good Times" is proof positive that he had lost none of his blues power. Later albums would veer perilously close to sap and, after the notorious grits incident, we all know that Green would re-embrace gospel. But during this period, he was certainly the strongest, most notable soul singer around.

And yeah, he sang some love songs too.

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