Willie Mitchell signed Al Green to Hi Records in 1969. The first gold single of Green’s career was released two years later, selling a million copies. The door to success was open.
Al Green’s voice set him apart from his contemporaries in both soul and pop fields. He was blessed with a tenor voice which lent to each composition a soulful, melodic, soft-edged falsetto delivery, complemented by the flowing organ sounds of Charles Hodges and the unique drumming style of Al Jackson Jr. on tracks such as “Call Me (Come Back Home)”, ”I’m Still In Love With You” and “Love And Happiness”. Another fascinating track is “Here I am (Come And Take Me)” with its heavy drum beat and horns response throughout the entire track, graced with the wonderful vocal backing of Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes and with excellent string arrangements by James Mitchell and Charles Chalmers. Out of this powerful collaboration came eight gold singles and ten gold, platinum and multi-platinum albums over a period of twenty five to thirty years.
Al Green had six consecutive number one studio albums on the Billboard Top Black Albums Chart from 1972 to 1975, with five of these studio albums becoming gold-certified according to the RIAA. The distinctive organ playing of Charles Hodges, the drumming techniques of Al Jackson Jr. with the assistance of Howard Grimes, and Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar make an unstoppable and winning team overall.
Every album and single that came out of Royal Studios was engineered and re-mixed by Willie Mitchell. He was and still is one of the most talented icons in the recording industry.
“Let’s Stay Together” was the first gold album of Al Green’s career. It features Al Jackson Jr. on drums. Jackson actually co-wrote the title track with Green. The single became a runaway monster hit, making number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart, February 12th 1972 (1 week) and on the Billboard Best Soul Singles Chart, January 8th 1972 (9 weeks). The album was also number one on the Billboard Top Soul Albums Chart for over ten weeks, starting week-ending March 18th 1972.
“I’m Still in Love with You” was Al Green’s second gold album, also released in 1972. The album produced a monster hit single with the title track, “I’m Still in Love With You”, which was also a gold-certified classic hit, selling one million plus copies. Jackson Jr. again co-wrote the track with Green and Willie Mitchell who produced the entire studio album. The recording project became Green’s first platinum-certified album, for over one million copies sold in America according the RIAA. The album closed off 1972 at the top of the chart on the Billboard Top Soul Albums Chart, week-ending December 2nd 1972 (5 weeks).
The title track also made it to number one, week-ending August 12th 1972 (1 week). The two studio albums stayed at number one for a total of fifteen weeks in 1972. “Call Me” was Green’s sixth studio album and a masterpiece according to many music industry critics. The producers and composers on the album produced three gold singles from “Call Me”.
The first single from the album “You Ought To Be With Me” was released in April 1973. It was co-written by Al Jackson Jr., Al Green and Willie Mitchell, the main producer and sound engineer. The song sold over one million copies and was certified gold by the RIAA. “You Ought To Be With Me” also reached the top of the Billboard Best Soul Singles Chart, week-ending December 2nd 1972 (1week). Hi records released the second gold single “Call Me (Come Back Home)” on January 30th 1973. It peaked at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart and number two on the Billboard Best Soul Singles Chart. This recording was also co-written by Al Jackson Jr. with Al Green and Willie Mitchell. “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” is the third and final track released as a single to be a gold-certified hit. It peaked at number two on the Billboard Best Soul Singles Chart listing and at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. This track was not co-written by Al Jackson but instead by Teenie Hodges, a member of Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records studio band who collaborated with Al Green to compose the track.
In 1976, Green established the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, where he preached regularly, not far from Graceland. Sadly, by 1977, the tide had turned. Green’s 1977 and 1978 albums did not sell well and he decided to concentrate on more spiritual things, releasing a series of gospel albums between 1981 and 1989. At the end of that period he returned to secular music.
We will fast forward to the 21st century to discover two new collaborations between Mitchell and Green. It took twenty-seven years for mentor/producer Willie Mitchell and Al Green to come back together for recordings released on the legendary Blue Note Records, home of Anita Baker and Norah Jones, two very successful singers in their own right.
Green’s first come-back album benefits from the presence of many individuals who contributed to a large majority of Green’s hits at the height of his career. Several musicians listed in the credits also worked with Isaac Hayes on his Memphis classics. Eight out of twelve tracks were co-written by Mitchell and Green (all new songs), with the rest written by Al Green. Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes provided all the background vocal support, sounding as fresh as ever, just like they did in the good old days. In addition we see two Hodges brothers, Leroy on bass and Mabon “Teenie” on rhythm guitar, Jack Hale on trombone and Andrew Love on tenor sax (two original members of the Memphis Horn Section). Some of Isaac Hayes’ session men from his time at Stax make an appearance on the project: Lester Snell on piano (responsible for string and horn arrangements), with Charles “Skip” Pitts on guitar (famous for his performance on the “Theme From Shaft”, using wah-wah guitar techniques). You can hear Pitts playing solo guitar on the eighth track, “My Problem Is You”, a lovely blues/soul ballad in the true Memphis style.
On the title track, “I Can’t Stop”, Lester Snell plays the Fender Rhodes electric piano to great effect. You hear Lester again on the fifth track “You” on organ, with a powerful horns intro from the Royal Horns, consisting of Scott Thompson (trumpet), Jack Hale (trombone, a former Memphis Horn Section member), Andrew Love (tenor sax, a Memphis Horn Section founding member), Lannie McMillan (tenor sax) and Jim Spake (baritone sax and a band member of Memphis’ new instrumental group The Bo-Keys. The Royal Horns play every track with the “The New Memphis Strings”, consisting of, on violin Joan Gilbert, Daniel Gilbert, Gregory Morris, Liza Zurlinden, on violas Anthony Gilbert and Beth Lisacombe and on cellos Peter Spurbeck and Jonathan Kirkscey. All the tracks were produced by Willie Mitchell and Al Green, with horn and string arrangements conducted by Willie Mitchell and Lester Snell. The recording project was nominated for two Grammy awards: “Best R&B Album” and “Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance” in 2003.
Between June and September 2004, Al Green recorded “Everything’s OK”, his second solo album, at Willie Mitchell’s Recording Studios in Memphis, with the backing of the distinct and classic vocals of Rhodes/Chalmers/Rhodes and bassist Leroy Hodges. The rhythm section involves the same musicians as earlier who play with real passion, depth and purpose. The album sounds more soulful than the previous one and moves up the scale in terms of production quality. The album was produced and arranged by the Reverend Al Green and Willie Mitchell, with strings and horn arrangements by Willie Mitchell and Lester Snell. The album starts with a typical Al Green up-tempo track, with powerful bass line and horn response on “Everything’s OK”. Compared to the first album, this has advanced to a new level of mastery. A new dimension, which added enormously to the whole project, is the collaboration of Chicago blues great Bobby Rush playing harmonica solo on the track “I Can Make Music”. I strongly believe this is the best project that Green and Mitchell have worked on since their 1970s classics.
Photo 1: Mike Douglas Show 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 2: Al Green 2006 Dwightmccann (Wikimedia Commons)