Memphis Magic: The Al Green Sound

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A middle-aged cook and housekeeper in the house's only occupant when Al is on the road, which is most of the time. There are several well-oiled hunting rifles about and a photograph friend of Al's is outside shooting one into the air. Willie and his wife arrive, the photographer returns the rifle and dinner – man-sized steaks, salad, rolls, baked potatoes – is served. I ask Al if he is enjoying his vacation.

"I work too much," Al replies between bites. "I'm going out this weekend on my second American tour this year; we were just in Europe and the response was fantastic. When we play the Apollo or the Latin Casino we do ten to 14 days in a row, sometimes with two or three shows a day. So I can't claim that the band isn't well-rehearsed. It's the demand, actually. There are so many gigs available, they tell me to just accept some of the better things that are offered but . . ." The voice trails off and the face contorts, relaxes, squints, goes through a lightning-fast series of expressive changes. Al has forgotten his steak. Somewhere in the back of his mind he is doing his stage show. He steps away from the microphone, paces, considers, says "uh . . ." and steps away, bounces back, says "baby? . . ." For a frozen second his face is an image of calculated indecision.

"But then again," he continues, "I come home . . . I stay home for two or three days and . . . I'm a bachelor, y'know, ain't nothing to come home to in the first place . . . I don't know, I'm just hooked, that's all, I've got to go. This is my second day at home and already I feel that little old urge coming on. My head isn't into being at home, my head's . . . into music. I'm a freak for music, I can't get away from the music . . . can't get away from the stage."

Al takes another bite of steak; there is a muffled clink of glasses. I wonder aloud whether Memphis is really as relaxed, as "lazy," as it seems.

"I'll tell you," Willie says. "I used to notice the jazz players here, like George Coleman or Charles Lloyd. Now they played really fast, but still they'd play behind the beat just a little bit. That kind of lazy quality is one thing the jazz players and the R&B players in this town have always had in common. Even when Bill Black hit with "Smokie" and "White Silver Sands," or if you remember Otis Redding's records, they'd be playing behind the tempo just a little bit and all of a sudden everybody would . . . kind of sway. Even the lazy old horns, they'd be half a beat behind where it sounded like they were going to miss it altogether, and all of a sudden they'd sway like that and be right up on the beat. The time here isn't so much like a metronome; it's more personal. Even the singers – Otis, Al – sing lazy."

"I'll tell you how lazy I am." Al says. "After I had 'Back Up Train,' Junior Walker told me he could get me a contract with Motown like" – finger snap – "that Atlantic was interested. But I figured it would be hard with a big company; they had lots of artists, Al Green might get lost. I wanted a company that had good distribution, lots of money and no artists; a company that was looking for somebody to spend all that money on and didn't have anybody who was qualified. And I knew for a fact that Joe Cuighi owned half the durn town. So I called Willie Mitchell and I said, 'Willie, I want to be a superstar.' He said, 'Well, let me see, I think we can do it in about 18 months to two and a half years.' And I said, 'I can't wait that long!' "

Willie laughs. "Tell him what happened then."

"I thought about it some more. And finally I said, they've got plenty of money . . . and nobody around to spend it on . . . so they might as well spend it on Al Green."

The dinner party breaks up late, after uncounted rounds of drinks and refreshments. The next day, I ask Syl Johnson, whose first Hi album has just been released, if he thinks Al Green is lazy.

"Lazy?" Syl snorts incredulously. "Al? You know what he told me? He put in something like a hundred hours recording his vocal on 'Let's Stay Together.' Sing a word, stop the tape, sing another word. A hundred hours on one vocal on one song. A word at a time."

This story is from the October 25th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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