When the impact of Memphis soul music resounded through the world rock community several years back, the sound of Hi Records was barely audible. Today, no one carries the weight of the music as mightily as they, and their product uniformly represents all that is best in contemporary southern soul.
No small credit must be given the house band. The fact that the guitar, bass, and organ are played by, brothers (Mabon, Leroy, and Charles Hodges, respectively, along with drummer Howard Grant) is certainly conducive to unusually sympathetic interplay, but probably most vital to the music’s identity is the role of executive producer, Willie Mitchell. Mitchell has made Memphis music for decades. He played trumpet on B.B. King’s earliest RPM sessions, and as bandleader, his recording of “Crawling” served as the foundation for Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog.”
Today, the Hi rhythm section, while not as technically dazzling as some of its northern counterparts, exhilarates merely because of the unpretentious singularity of its style. Mitchell maintains an awareness of the relationship of blues, soul, and yes, rock; a song like “Driving Wheel,” for example, tantalizingly suggests Cream influence and it is Green’s blues-shuffle version of “I Can’t Get Next To You” that Savoy Brown copped. Furthermore, unlike the rigid symmetry of a Rick Hall production, Mitchell’s grooves mold pliably into place, remaining capable of continuous, pleasantly surprising turns of color and texture.
With the release of the album Al Green Gets Next To You, the music of Hi Records is brought to wholesome fruition. Green, simply, is one of the most highly energetic and intensely expressive new singers around, with a master’s ability (notably, Charles and Redding) to subordinate lyrics to the urgent rhythmic primacy of their sounds, while suffusing them with their corresponding emotional feeling.
When I saw Green at the Apollo a few months ago, he virtually confronted his audience and compelled them to respond with the energy he generated. And so it is on this record, with Mitchell opening musical terrains for Green to roam. On the cliche-prone “Light My Fire,” Mitchell sets up almost unbearable tension by seductively slowing the groove, with Green pacing through it, characteristically moaning, panting, shrieking, and even stuttering.
Other brilliant conceptions are the unprecedented rendition of a gospel song in a completely secular context, Johnny Taylor’s — cum — Soul Stirrers, “God is Standing By,” done in Mitchell’s most favored, insistently syncopated groove. And there is, of course, Green’s Top 20 hit, “Tired of Being Alone.” The ultimate Hi song, it is a compelling pastiche of hooks and riffs that coalesce more firmly and commandingly into song with each listening.
Green is by no means Mitchell’s only production. With artists like Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, and O.V. Wright, Mitchell is at present creating a production style of inestimable validity and quality. But with soul music, singles are the name of the game, and as highcard holder, the product of Al Green is most readily accessible. It deserves to be heard by everyone.