Memphis Magic: The Al Green Sound

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After World War II a new breed of maverick A&R men began arriving in Memphis, following in the footsteps of the "company men" of the Twenties. The new company men owned their own operations. They were independents, capitalizing on the popularity of the blues among blacks who had left the rural South to work in wartime industry. As the Bihari brothers (Modern Records) and Phil and Leonard Chess drove through the Delta, selling their records out of the trunks of sedans and the beds of pickup trucks, they inquired about local musicians.

But black radio was often one jump ahead. Sonny Boy Williamson II and the King Biscuit Boys were on the air in Helena, Arkansas; Howlin' Wolf hosted a show out of West Memphis. Rufus Thomas, who had been half of the Rufus and Bones vaudeville team before the War, was broadcasting on WDIA, the first black-owned radio station in the US. B.B. King, the Beale Street Blues Boy, was Thomas' up-and-coming young rival with his Pepticon show, also on WDIA.

Tuff Green, a local bandleader, decided to record King before the "carpetbagger" independents caught up with him. His trumpet player was young Willie Mitchell, who had been playing since the age of eight. "Tuff had all the guys in the band come over to his house," Willie recalls, "and they set up a tape recorder in his living room. You can imagine what it was like, trying to get B.B. and the whole band with just this tape recorder. We messed around playing different things and never got anything, and late that night I left with most of the rest of the band. They tell me that after we left B. asked Tuff for the time. Tuff said, 'It's three o'clock in the morning,' and B. said, 'Well, just let me put this song down.' He did 'It's three o'clock in the morning/and I haven't even closed my eyes,' and that was B.B.'s first record."

Meanwhile, Joe and Jules Bihari, who had already signed Elmore James and transplanted him from Jackson, Mississippi, to Chicago, enlisted a young Memphis pianist named Ike Turner to work as their talent scout. Turner cut the first records by Howlin' Wolf and played on several of the earliest and best Elmore James sides. But the Biharis lost Wolf to a Memphis entrepreneur named Sam Phillips, whose Sun label was the first local recording operation to achieve national prominence. Phillips, in turn, leased Wolf's masters to Chess; the Chess brothers quickly located Wolf and signed him to an exclusive contract.

Willie Mitchell continued to play the trumpet in various dance bands. He met lke Turner when they alternated sets in a Greenville, Mississippi, night club, long before Turner went to work for the Biharis. But Willie avoided the cutthroat competition which was swirling around him. He had majored in music at Rust College and paid his dues as a sideman around Memphis; by the midFifties he was booking jobs on his own. "I never thought of myself as cutting a record in those days," he says. "I was more interested in who could really play. Phineas Newborn [the legendary bebop pianist] came out of my band, and George Coleman, who went on to play with Miles Davis; also, Charles Lloyd, Booker Little, so many good players."

Little (who played extensively with Eric Dolphy and Max Roach before his untimely death) and Lloyd were among the musicians who shaped the new jazz styles of the Sixties. "Booker used to come and sit down with me all night and watch me play the trumpet," Willie recalls. "He and Charles Lloyd were good friends; they both went to Manassas High School. They used to hang around the bandstand all night. Now Charles could always play. When he was 17 or 18 he would get me to explain chords to him. I would play an augmented chord and he'd say, 'What's that note you put in there?' I'd show him, and the next night he'd come in and wear that chord out. Oh, he'd tear it up all kinds of ways. When he and Booker played in my band, if we had to start the gig at ten we'd start playing at nine. And the first tune we played would be about 30 minutes long. The rest of the night we had to play dance music, and I just had to let the guys play first to get it out of them."

While Willie played jazz, Sam Phillips began teaching several young, white singers the basics of the blues by making them listen to recordings by Arthur Crudup and other black vocalists. His successes with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison triggered a home-grown recording boom. In 1957 a local record retailer named Joe Cuighi formed Hi records in order to record a distant cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis' named Carl Glasscock. The Glasscock records met with little success, but over the next few years a series of regional hits by Gene Simmons ("Haunted House"), Murray Kellum ("Long Tall Texan") and Jerry Jaye ("My Girl Josephine") helped Hi stay solvent.

Among the musicians who backed up Simmons, Kellum and Jaye was bassist Bill Black, who had played on Presley's early hits. Black and several other musicians, including guitarist Reggie Young and drummer Jerry "Satch" Arnold, were jamming at the Hi studio one day after a session and came up with a fateful lick that soon became identified as "the Bill Black beat." As a result of this lick they cut "Smokie," which sold 350,000 records.

Black's singles continued to move; his "White Silver Sands" sold some 600,000 in 1960. The records usually featured roller-rink organ, a saxophone playing straight melody with few variations, and a lazy, almost flaccid rhythm. Many Memphis musicians dismissed them as mere redneck muzak. But Jim Dickinson, the producer pianist, claims that certain well-known Los Angeles rock musicians now regard the mysterious Bill Black beat with a mixture of awe and professional curiosity. Dickinson also offers an explanation of the peculiarly limpid effect many of Black's records achieved. "This friend of mine went down to a Bill Black session," he recalls, "and he noticed that the guitar player had a pencil damping the strings, attached to the neck with a rubber band. And he was picking with a playing card, so he was getting a sound like flap, flap, flap."

When Black needed some players to expand his combo, a Hi staff producer raided Willie Mitchell's band for pianist Joe Hall and several other musicians. "I just kind of followed Joe down to Hi," Willie says, "and I'd watch them cut things. I was always quick at writing and charting things out, so before long I got involved in arranging Bill's music. I had already done a little production work, for a label called Home of the Blues. I recorded people like the Five Royales and Roy Brown. But at Hi I was soon able to cut my own things. The first thing I cut was 'Sunrise Serenade,' and in two weeks it was in the Top 100 charts with a bullet. So I kept recording and I always sold records. I had four or five baby hits that were in the 40s and 50s in the charts."

Records by Mitchell, Black and saxophonist Ace Cannon did well during the early Sixties, but Hi was temporarily overshadowed by the rapid emergence of another Memphis company, Stax. Willie's drummer, Al Jackson Jr., kept busy alternating between the two companies' studios. He played with Booker T. and the M.G.s ("Green Onions") and the Mar-Keys ("Last Night"), Stax groups which helped establish the Memphis soul sound, and backed singers like Carla Thomas, her father Rufus, William Bell and Otis Redding. Willie developed a soul style of his own; his charts used more varied instrumental resources and were often more premeditated than the impromptu "head" arrangements favored by the Stax studio band.

Willie began working with vocalists during the early Sixties. One of the first was David Porter, who later collaborated with Isaac Hayes on a string of songs which were hits for Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. "Isaac used to drop by the studio a lot when I was recording David," Willie remembers. "In 1963 he had his bald head, his beard and a turban, and he was wearing those weird clothes. Everybody thought he was crazy.

Finally, in 1970, Willie "found" his producing style. "I always said before 1970 that when I cut a record I never could hear what I wanted to hear," he explains. "I'd try to tell the engineer, but it never worked out. In 1970, Hi gave me the keys to the studio and I started on the board myself; then I could hear what I wanted, and get it. The first record I engineered myself was 'Soul Serenade,' the biggest instrumental I had. Then I started messin' with Ann Peebles, and I found Al Green and Syl Johnson and Otis Clay. Now, anything I hear I can put on tape. I just go in the studio to put down what I already heard at home."

When Willie cuts Ann Peebles, Johnson and Clay, he usually keeps the sound tight, crisp and harmonically simple. But his involvement in jazz left him with a taste for "big chords," and he often works these into Al Green's singles. "I've been using a lot of jazz chords with Al," he admits, "like minor ninths, augmented 11ths. In 'I'm Still in Love with You' I used a C-minor nine chord with a major seventh and Al sang it, he sang the B natural. I think you could play some funky blues with Al using all big 11th chords and he could be free with it."

Most of Green's hit singles – "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love with You," "You Ought to Be with Me," "Call Me" – are products of a smoothly-functioning, informal collaboration between Al, Willie and Al Jackson Jr. Jackson's much-emulated drum style propelled Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "Soul Man," Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," and all of Otis Redding's studio recordings. He is now a staff producer at Stax, but Willie is the man who started him in the studios. In fact, Willie was playing trumpet in Al Jackson Sr.'s band when Al Jr. was learning the drums. "His father wouldn't let him play with us," Willie says. "He could keep time, but he was the worst drummer you ever heard. However, we needed a drummer and I took on Al Jr. He began to improve and improve. Once he could play a song through he knew it inside out. He worked with me from '61 through '67 and then Booker T. and the M.G.s got so big he had to leave. He told me, 'Willie, I'm going out here and work with the M.G.s, but I tell you what: If I ever come back, I want my job back.' "

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Willie explains his collaboration with the two Als this way: "I'll take a set of chord changes and then Al Jackson and I will get together and discuss the changes, the melodic lines or what-have-you. We'll spend a couple of days listening, taking out changes, putting in other changes. When we get the song where it sounds like something, we'll call Al Green and play the changes for him. He'll sit down and listen and take 15 minutes to go out and write the story. Al Jackson will be getting the direction of what the rhythm should be, deciding what we need for the rhythm section to do. Then we go in and cut the track, and I add the strings, voices and so on. And then Al Green comes in and cuts the vocal."

Al Green's description of the collaboration differs in emphasis from Willie's: "Jackson will go to Jamaica or the Bahamas and stay there for three or four days just to pick up on some kind of rhythm. Then he'll come to the studio and get back there on the drums, in his corner by himself. He'll stay back there for hours, just beating the drums with his eyes closed. I thought he was crazy at first: five or ten minutes, fine, but hours? Anyway, he'll beat one rhythm for a while and then he'll change it. It sounds so close, you can't really tell if he changed it or not, but it's different. Willie will figure the musical changes for this particular rhythm that Al gets in his head."

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