When will people realize that this top-of-the-line performer is not a one-hit wonder? You have no idea how exasperating it is seeing Al Green on talk shows (especially Letterman, with his cranky ass) singing "Let's Stay Together," as if it's the only goddamn song Green has ever written in his life.
Don't take this the wrong way. The song is a classic. And the way it has been used in recent movies (especially Pulp Fiction) has given the song a newfound audience. But the man has done more remarkable, tremendously magnificent music in his time.
In his prime, 1971 to 1974, Al Green was The Man. The Arkansas-born, Michigan-bred singer breathed new life into R&B with the help of three things: writer/producer/ collaborator Willie Mitchell; the Hi Records Rhythm Section; and his voice that electric, jolting, addictive voice. Some of the best albums of that time came from Green and his crew, gold-selling records such as Let's Stay Together (1971), Livin' for You (1972) and Call Me (1973). Green also had many Top Ten hits, including, of course, "Let's Stay Together," which went to No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts in 1971. But after 1974, he took time off following many personal setbacks, including the suicide of his girlfriend (who, before shooting herself in the head, scalded Green with hot grits, giving him second-degree burns). That period of re-evaluation led to a conversion, to "the new Al Green," as he called himself. He became a full-time minister and gospel singer. No more songs about love. He was singing for the Lord.
Green's switcheroo from secular-music superstar to gospel-music godfather turned off many people, but these days folks are beginning to appreciate again the musical presence he had back in early '70s. In 1995 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and he, along with James Brown, constituted a reason to attend the Hall's bloated inauguration concert). In 1997 Green received a higher honor: Right Stuff Records released Anthology, a boxed set of his finest work. The four-CD collection captures the inventive sparks that made Green such a kinetic performer on the mike. As critic Elvis Mitchell said of Anthology in these pages two years ago, "what Anthology makes evident is that over the years there wasn't so much an evolution in Al Green's performances as there was a fine-tuning, and the enormity of delight in hearing Green vary and intensify his attack by cubic centimeters is an inspiration."
But for those of you civilians who are still stuck on that one damn song, here is a list of alternative tunes that show how powerfully Green could (and still can) kick it. Ladies and gentlemen, ten other reasons why Al Green should never be known as the "Let's Stay Together" guy:
1. "Call Me (Come Back Home)" (1973). "Let's Stay Together" may have given Green his first No. 1 smash, but it was "Call Me" that earned his first Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and deservedly so. The minute the song begins, what with Green and his angelic background singers fervently invoking the song title while the excellent Memphis Strings accompany them with piercing detail, you know you're about to be swept away. As Green says in the song: "It's all in a day's work."
2. "Love and Happiness" (1972). Comedian Cedric the Entertainer once did a hilarious bit on why this particular song is so brilliant because it told a story and answered your questions at the same time: " 'Something's going wrong,' Al sings."
What's wrong, Al?
" 'Someone's on the phone.' "
What time is it?
" 'Three o'clock in the morning, yeah.' "
And to think, the song, written by Green and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, was almost (gasp!) never recorded.
3. "Tired of Being Alone" (1971). Before a thousand other performers were begging their phantom honeys to give 'em one more chance, Green was one of the first to set his declaration to a beat. The difference: The strolling rhythm and all-too-familiar lyrics ("I guess you know that I love you so / Even though you don't want me no more") make the song sound, well, superior.
4. "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" (1973). In another collaboration between Green and Hodges, Green makes himself available to the girl of his dreams. Although this tune sounds like it's heavily influenced in Memphis blues, co-writer Hodges insists that the guitar and vocal rhythms came from Indian chants. Any way you look at it, it's got a nice beat, and you can dance to it.
5. "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" (1971). On arguably the best of his well-known cover tunes, Green takes the Bee Gees' slow song and pulls enough heart-wrenching emotion out of it to make the manliest of men cry like little girls in mere seconds. This song is also getting a rejuvenation of sorts these days: Fans of Ally McBeal may have caught the Reverend himself singing this tune to the whiny waif on last season's finale.
6. "For the Good Times" (1972). Continuing in the soulfully sorrowful spirit of "How Can You Mend," Green woefully but vividly pleads for one more night with his beloved: "All you gotta do is / Make believe that you love me / One more time." The man makes sympathy sex not seem all that pathetic.
7. I'm Still in Love with You" (1972). In 1994 Al B. Sure! foolishly did a version of this tune for the Above the Rim soundtrack. Like most folks who have lifted Green, Sure! does the job only half-assed. Hearing Green's savory version again shows that nothing beats the genuine article.
8. "Take Me to the River" (1974). Some enthusiasts say this pro-baptism song ("Take me to the river / Wash me down") marked the beginning of the end for Green's secular-music days. But this deep and heavy mix of blues and gospel is still an off-the-charts treasure.
9. "Look What You Done to Me" (1972). Wanna know what Al Green fans mean when they say that the man doesn't sing to audiences, he speaks to them? Check out this sweet sparkler. Green praises (or, you could say, brags about) his gal in a manner that the kids today would describe as "sprung." Back then, it was just called being in love.
10. "I'm Glad You're Mine" (1972). Green, backed up by sneaky keyboards and exotic percussion, makes like a late-night make-out bandit with this vibrant creeper. Side note: This underrated R&B pleasure was sampled by hip-hop gods Eric B. & Rakim on the 1991 underrated rap pleasure Mahogany. A song this great, along with many of Green's exemplary songs, needs to be heard as many ways, as many times, as possible.
Al Green performs with the Isley Brothers on Sunday, August 15, at the Woodlands Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. $17.50 and $65. Call (713)629-3700.