The black urban record buyer has inevitably turned against the rural soul style pioneered by Stax and Atlantic records of the Sixties. They’ve instead chosen the pop R&B preferred by some Motown producers and the entire Gamble-Huff-Bell Philadelphia cabal. And no wonder: Most such listeners are less disturbed by occasional allusions to the junkie on the corner than by the ethos of traditional R&B — an approach that reminds many of a Southern past that they would just as soon forget.
The musical style that characterized the best of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin and James Brown has lately been met with such indifference that only a handful of committed artists and producers continue to use it in any form. Of these, only Al Green and Memphis-based Hi Records owner and producer Willie Mitchell have enjoyed consistent commercial, as well as aesthetic, success. Together, on Livin’ For You, they once again make their stand, to serve as the essential link between Sixties soul and Seventies pop.
The modern black pop stylist adorns his album with psychedelic art; Al Green adorns his with old-fashioned tacky drawings and promo photos. The new arrangers prefer the mellowness of trumpets in their horn charts; Green and Mitchell retain the traditional saxophones. The new producers employ full orchestrations; Green and Mitchell create simple horn-like lines for small string sections. And, while other labels have turned to the often impersonal sound of vocal groups, Mitchell’s Hi Records stakes everything on the passion that can only come from a single voice, most especially, Al Green’s.
Green and Mitchell developed their style long ago. The superb house band lays down steady, tight and uncluttered rhythm tracks, while Green sings around the arrangement, feinting vocal jabs here and there, and landing solidly in the groove only at moments of greatest intensity. The contrast is most evident in the play-off between his free-flowing singing and the rock-steady, spare drumming of Al Grimes and Al Jackson, Jr., the latter the cornerstone of the now defunct and sorely missed Stax rhythm section.
Livin’ For You contains no dramatic departures from the approach. But Green’s decision to write most of the material and serve as co-producer has resulted in a subtly more personal work. He sustains a new level of intensity and has redeveloped the art of soul dynamics almost as if it hadn’t existed before.
On “Home Again,” he takes the band through three stages: a simple ballad beginning, an expanding bridge, and a startling, double-timed climax. Each movement reflects a different stage of his feeling about home, which he defines as the one place he can shed his role-playing and simply be himself. Similarly, “Let’s Get Married” progresses from a conventional opening through a compelling fade, just as “So Good to Be Here” explodes towards its conclusion.
But even in the midst of an album so marked by the use of contrasts, “Livin’ For You” stands as the essential Al Green cut. And like most of his singles, it depends upon an unvarying rhythmic pattern that seduces and then holds the listener’s attention from first beat to last. In this case, Green and Mitchell show a greater concern with-production, as the double-tracked vocal so commonly used in the past is for the first time perfectly synchronized, with a resulting increment in effectiveness.
It is also surprising that despite the abrupt shifts in tempo and volume, the album flows almost as well as any other Green LP. But then Mitchell’s production style points up each song’s individuality, while maintaining continuity through the use of similar instrumentation from track to track. The album’s single most potent cut, Green’s own “Sweet Sixteen” (which borrows ever so slightly from Chuck Berry’s), is given a life of its own through the persuasiveness of the singing, but is molded into the album through the subtlety of the arrangement.
Green has gotten into one bad habit — compulsively recording long versions of stock ballads. The 5 1/2 minutes of “Unchained Melody” are not only a bore in their own right but a disastrous liability for all of side two, destroying, in part, the wholeness of sound that Mitchell works so hard to achieve.
But he uses another staple, the gospel song, to maximum advantage. “My God Is Real” combines secular music with religious feeling in just the right measure, and without compromising the spirit of either. And Green has added a new ingredient to this album which I hope will become a fixture — the extended jam, “Beware,” confuses at first because the listener isn’t sure where the song is headed. But once the band breaks out its goods, doubts are erased and we are caught up in soul music’s ultimate source of strength — simple ideas, simply, but perfectly, expressed. Mitchell’s house band does more by playing less than any other recording band, and if there is any better rock drumming to be heard, it hasn’t found its way onto my turntable lately.
Livin’ For You doesn’t have any single track as potent as “Love And Happiness,” nor is the material up to the best Green has already recorded. But this may be his most skillfully and passionately performed work. Its impact expands with every repeated listening, while its few shortcomings — an occasional indulgence in the singing, some repetitiveness in the arranging — recede proportionately.
When Al Green recorded during the era of Redding, Pickett, Sam and Dave, Franklin and Brown’s greatest successes, he passed by all but unnoticed. And well he should have, for considered purely as a vocalist, he is a cut beneath all of them. But time has taken its toll and, for one reason or another, those stars no longer make pure soul records. Al Green and Willie Mitchell do.
It is a sorry state of affairs when the continuity of a genre depends so heavily upon the talents of so few artists. But Green and Mitchell are the happily successful survivors and purveyors of a great musical heritage. They are savvy enough to know that their distinctiveness and refusal to compromise is no small part of the reason for the extraordinary popularity of their records. The rest of it is that, today, they do what they do better than anyone else.