Is this the greatest soul album ever recorded? Maybe.Album cover art
In 1973, I was eight years old. My favorite TV show was the Saturday morning live action cartoon Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. The best thing in my toy chest was the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. I was learning how to subtract numbers with multiple digits when I wasn’t distracted by my second grade crush, Constance Marie. And my favorite album to choose from the family record console was Al Green’s I’m Still In Love With You.
The album was Green’s fifth studio album and was the follow-up to his breakthrough record, Let’s Stay Together. Both were released in 1972, which makes the year of Watergate and The Godfather the pivotal year in Green’s musical career. He is expected to sing songs from both albums and others from a legendary career when he makes his long-awaited return to the Houston area April 30 at Smart Financial Centre
The question today is whether I’m Still In Love With You deserves consideration as the greatest R&B/soul album ever released. The answer is yes. The rest of this will be arguments for hoisting the album above seminal works like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life or Rapture by Anita Baker, who also visits Smart in a few weeks. If you prefer a succinct, compelling argument on the brilliance of I’m Still in Love With You, on whether its nine tracks evoked precisely what Green and his trusted producer Willie Mitchell were striving for when they laid them at Royal Recording Studios in Memphis, then consider this: the record stirred feelings of romantic love in the heart of at least one eight-year-old boy. I could have been mired in an adolescent “girls are icky” world, but Al Green just wouldn’t allow it. Instead, anytime I spied Connie hop-scotching at recess or choosing a book from the library, Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” soundtracked the moment.
That’s how it must have been for grown folks everywhere who bought the album. At the time, Green was barreling towards a storied music career, one built on the foundation of two words: love and happiness. Whether the love and happiness were from carnal (early career) or divine (later work) inspiration, it didn’t matter. There’s joy in listening to Al Green preach those words song after song, over the years, the kind that makes appreciative listeners thank the fates for being born at the right time.
Consider the empirical evidence along with my admittedly biased opinions. Of his own discography, I'm Still In Love With You is the most popular record, the only platinum-selling album of Green’s hit-fertile crop, the only one to crack the top five on the Billboard 200 album chart. Billboard ranks it among the top R&B albums of all time and Rolling Stone places it on its list of the top 500 albums ever of any genre. Two tracks from the album, the title song and “Look What You Done For Me,” were top five hits on the U.S. pop charts.
A track-by-track rundown of the songs is like comparing the 1927 New York Yankees against other great baseball lineups. From needle drop to dead wax, I’m Still In Love With You is a murderer’s row of homerun hits, songs written into the roster by Green, his writing partner Al Jackson, Jr. and graced by the prowess of The Memphis Horns. It starts strong with the titular track, a million-selling single which has been covered by artists like Seal, Al B. Sure! and Disclosure; to track two, “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” which hip-hop fans will recognize from the Eric B. & Rakim track, “Mahogany;” to the make-you-do-wrong-make-you-do-right sexiness of “Love and Happiness,” track three. That track is arguably the best-known of all Al Green songs, one Vibe magazine once considered “perhaps his most perfect song,” one Rolling Stone tabbed among the top 100 of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It’s probably the one song I’d queue up if berserker probe aliens insisted on hearing a perfect soul song to keep from annihilating Earth for some weird (but weirdly acceptable) reason.
The next third of the album includes the spine-tingling genius of “Simply Beautiful,” maybe the best example of Green’s renowned falsetto on the collection. The song lays out expectations for the roles each person would play in an ideal relationship. It’s sparse on lyrics, but flush with Green’s amazing vocal range, a voice that turns moans and groans into vocab words only true music fans can define. There is no comparing his voice to others. Writers have tried to Frankenstein it into a beautiful creature stitched from Sam Cooke’s gospel smoothness and Otis Redding’s rugged tenderness, but it wasn’t constructed in a lab. Even Green can’t claim to be his own mad scientist. The voice was made by gods, not men.
Two of the best songs on the album are near its close. One is a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” The melancholy rearview-mirror song was a Ray Price country hit and is devastating in Green’s possession. The tune is slowed down to allow Green to draw out every line in a way that’s so exact to the lyrics you can practically see two reluctant lovers’ hands slipping away, right down to the brushing of their fingertips. That’s followed by the afore-mentioned “Look What You Done for Me,” a gold record that entered Billboard’s charts while “Let’s Stay Together” from his prior album was still charting. “Look What You Done for Me” is an expression of gratitude to someone who’s helped another discover and cherish love and happiness. Al Green’s greatest album did that for me nearly 50 years ago, it did it for others who have listened to it, too. That qualifies it as a great work of art and maybe the greatest of its category.
I don’t know whatever happened to Constance Marie, but as I aged and experienced true romantic love in my life, the lessons of “I’m Still In Love with You” stayed with me. I’m certain they helped me know what’s important over a 30-year marriage. To dedicate a line to the album and to its artists, let me say, before I forget, loving you baby is where it’s at.
The legendary soul singer Al Green returns to the Houston area Tuesday, April 30 at Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington in Sugar Land. With special guests Tank and the Bangas. $59.50 to $199.50.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.