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Memphis Magic: The Al Green Sound

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Royal resembles the old Stax studio A on McLemore Avenue in that the floor slopes and, as it approaches the booth, widens, forming a kind of funnel. "There's something about that floor," Willie says. "As you walk down the slope the music gets bigger, it separates. The sound is still together but it seems to get bigger; it has more definition. The Stax studio was a movie house too. They cut Otis and everybody there and they got the same kind of sound."

I ask if Willie will now be cutting Al on the new board. "As long as Al records for Hi records," Willie answers solemnly, "he'll always record on the eight-track. Not just any eight-track; there's some kind of uniqueness about our machine. We cut all of Al's albums and singles on it. It's got an old raunchy bottom, a solid mid-range and it's got highs that have overtones but they're not really highs; they don't hurt your ears. Now this new board is transistorized and" – he twists a treble knob and gooses the volume and the visitor winces – "the highs kind of cut into you. The eight-track sounds more natural to me, and I like records with that kind of naturalness."

Willie turns the volume back up and proceeds with his quadraphonic re-mix. The organ, guitar, bass and voices are distinct, but the drums stand out. Every last cymbal sizzle and harmonic is on the tape; the bass drum thuds precisely against the chest when it is used and the snare is perfectly tuned to the melody instruments.

Jim Dickinson maintains that the drum sound is a direct result of Hi's eight-track. "It isn't your regular Ampex board," he explains. "Some fellow down in Texas built it out of Ampex spare parts. Hi is the only company in the South that's still using a tube eight-track. And there is something about a tube machine; you're just not going to get that kind of drum sound, deep and sharp at the same time, with transistors."

Willie cuts the volume and swivels around in his chair. "When I was talking about 'natural sound' a minute ago," he says, "this is what I meant: To me, a record is like people talking, expressing themselves to each other. When I talk to the band I say, we're gonna make this tune cry, or we're gonna make it holler, or we're gonna make it come out of the woods. When we recorded 'How Can You Mend a Broken Heart' with Al, I told the band, play like you're sitting by a river and there's a big forest over there, with all this music coming out of the forest and floating across the river, kind of delayed. That's making it come out of the woods.

"On another tune I might say, this is an exciting thing, I want everybody screamin' and hollerin' like at a football game when the guys make the touchdown. They know what that means. So when the horns come in, when they say something, it's like people talking. The horns talk to the bass and the bass talks to the drums, the singer talks to everybody and everybody talks to . . ."

Willie stops in mid-sentence and all eyes in the booth rotate toward the door. A limber young man in a black leather suit, which is decorated with handfuls of silver medallions and open to the waist, explodes into the room as if it were the stage of the Apollo. Willie hits a button and "Here I Am" roars out of the speakers as Al Green bounds across the carpet, embraces Mitchell, shakes hands with the writer and falls into a chair. "Quad?" he yells over the music. "Yeah!" He jumps up, prowls from speaker to speaker and stops in front of me. "You want to do that interview? Come on." He is out the door in a flash.

Al is driving his white El Dorado himself. The half-paved street slides away behind, there is a blur of hardwood trees and honeysuckle, and the Cadillac darts onto one of the expressways which ring the city. Al's office is 20 minutes from the center of Memphis, in a suburban-style house on a two-lane road near the airport. Several secretaries are working at desks just outside the reception room. With Al's entrance the rhythm of the office routine picks up like a rapidly accelerating automobile.

Inside his paneled office, Green seats himself in an armchair, places a pair of steel-rimmed glasses on his nose and calls for one of his secretaries. "Pay vouchers," he explains. "We have 35 people on the payroll: band members, the fan club staff, secretaries, assistants. Now the musicians have three or four days off and they all want to go home." He signs the checks rapidly while the secretary stands by, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "I must beg your pardon for this unavoidable interruption," he says as the secretary disappears, shutting the door behind her. "I shall see that we are not disturbed again."

Al is enjoying his cameo appearance as the busy executive. He leans back, lights a cigarette, removes his glasses and beams: "As you see, it's been a long trip from Forrest City, Arkansas.

"Actually," he begins his biography, "We moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when I was very young. But I just had to get away from home. You see, my dad was kind of rigid, hyped-up on religion. When I was 15 or so I began bringing records into the house: Jackie Wilson, James Brown. Dad didn't mind when I listened to Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, or Claude Jeter, the Swan Silvertones. But to bring rock 'n' roll, pop or blues records into the house was a no-no. And once I started doing that, I didn't get along too well with my dad. So when I was 16 I up and left. I moved in with a friend of mine and we started a group, my first pop group, Al Green and the Creations."

Al and the Creations worked at the El Grotto Club in Battle Creek for $40 a night. Several of the original Creations left to play with Junior Walker, and a new band member, Palmer James, persuaded Al to record a song he had written, "Back Up Train." It sold 400,000 copies, and Al graduated from the El Grotto to the Apollo, virtually overnight. But James' inspiration temporarily ran dry and Al wasn't able to come up with a second hit. "Right away," he says, "everybody decided I was a one-record act. Well, it was the chitlin circuit for me. Dallas, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, the small clubs . . . very rough. Sometimes you go into a place, work as hard as you can – which has always been a motto of mine – and the promoter's gone home when you get offstage; you don't get paid. Or the promoter's so big, why a little fellow like me . . . But then one night in Midland, Texas, Willie Mitchell's band was there to back me and to play dance music for the people. And Willie liked the show and asked me to come to Memphis."

Al's first Hi single, released in 1969, was a cover of Lennon/ McCartney's "I Want to Hold Your Hand." "I was hearing the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin," he remembers, "and I couldn't find Al Green anywhere. Nobody was writing the kind of music that I liked. I wanted to find something that was soft, that was comfortable – something I could sing at the height of talking, that's comfortable – but soulful, to a degree, and a little bit funky so you could kinda sway your head to it. Finally I sat down to write myself; I wrote 'Tired of Being Alone,' and that's what got us going. And . . . here I am in Memphis. I like the atmosphere; the people are quite relaxed, it's not hyper, not fast and jittery. Everything doesn't have to be done in 15 minutes. But it's time for dinner now and that won't wait."

Green's new, 21-room house is surrounded by 60 acres of land, the land is surrounded by a game preserve, and the game preserve is 40 miles outside Memphis. The house is unassuming enough from the outside; inside, there are at least as many bedrooms as Al has hits. Each is furnished and decorated differently and each is immaculate. There are round beds, flat square beds, beds with fur-lined rims that could double as boats if the nearby Mississippi should overflow its banks and none of the beds look slept-in. There are several sitting rooms; one is done all in red – walls, carpet, ceiling – with red light bulbs in the lamps and a red divan covered with clear plastic. In the den downstairs there are peacock feathers, a functioning leopard skin telephone and a gigantic art nouveau urn, some five feet in height, with an inset depicting Christopher Columbus. Chris has a long white beard and is dressed in a flowing robe; he is on the nod, a sextant in his hand. Angels float coyly in the clouds above his head. Two of them are daintily unfurling an American flag.

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