Al Green’s first four albums are the beginning of the truly sublime rhythm-and-blues story of the 1970s: It’s a story about one of the most soulful voices in pop history — a rough yet refined tenor — combined with a mystically tight Memphis studio band. For generations of inheritors (from Jodeci to U2) and lovers, Green, producer Willie Mitchell and the five-man Hi Records house band set the benchmark for soul.
“Al Green” means not only the artist but also a sound: a jazz-bred sparseness and life inside a wonderfully clean, accessible groove. 1970’s Green Is Blues doesn’t yet have all this legendary muscle together. It has killer moments: On the attractive ballad “One Woman” or the beachy, horn-warmed, up-tempo “Talk to Me,” the ingredients of the mythic Green-Mitchell relationship exist, but they haven’t fully jelled. A deliberate version of the Box Tops’ “The Letter” is the album’s highlight; avoiding their music’s usual bounce, Green and Mitchell explore a slightly dangerous urban variant of older country blues.
On 1971’s Gets Next to You and 1972’s Let’s Stay Together and I’m Still in Love With You, the Red Sea parts. Green’s singing and the band’s arrangements act in thrilling concert, offering a controlled abandon that you don’t often hear this side of, say, Miles Davis and Gil Evans. The hits are well-known: the supernatural-sounding stretches and dissolves of “Tired of Being Alone” (from Gets Next to You); the unique French candy and Tennessee gospel of “Let’s Stay Together”; the hard architecture and chiffon air of “I’m Still in Love With You.” On non-hits such as Love With You‘s “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” both Green and his musicians sound like terrifically expressive bees buzzing around rhythmically inside some funky old box. More masterpieces would come in the years ahead — 1973’s Call Me, most quickly — but all you need is right here.