While visiting his record company in 2005, Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson picked up Loretta Lynn’s 2004 Van Lear Rose album, the singer’s late-career collaboration with Jack White. “I couldn’t stop listening to it,” says Thompson. “I thought, ‘Why can’t that happen on the black side of music?'”
He first attempted to work with reclusive soul singer Bill Withers, but an executive at Blue Note Records asked Thompson if he’d be interested in producing Al Green, who was looking to work with a member of the hip-hop community.
The pair’s first meeting, in 2005 at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, resulted in an epic evening that formed the core of the glorious Lay It Down (out May 27th). “Every time anybody did something else, I turned around and wrote another song,” says Green. “We ended up with eight songs in that one night. I hadn’t had an experience like that, ever!”
The band, built around the rhythm section of Thompson and bassist Adam Blackstone and featuring the Dap-King Horns (best known for their work with Amy Winehouse), reconvened seven or eight times to complete the album. The final results — featuring duets with Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend and Anthony Hamilton — sound looser, funkier and more emotional than anything Green has released in decades.
Green’s last two albums (2003’s I Can’t Stop and 2005’s Everything’s OK) reunited him with producer Willie Mitchell, who led all of his classic sessions for Hi Records in the Seventies. Thompson describes those records as “solid but sonically frustrating,” and says that he had a different ambition for Lay It Down.
Noting that new albums from legendary artists tend to go either the standards-filled “Tony Bennett route” or the cameo-stuffed “Santana route,” Thompson strove for the opposite: a return to down-and-dirty grooves. “I told Adam [Blackstone] to play wrong notes and to remember they didn’t have tuners back then,” says the drummer, who co-produced with keyboardist James Poyser. “We needed to undo the education we had in order to play that simply.”
For his part, Green says it was no problem to stay loose. “I always write in the studio,” he says. “While the band learns the song, I’m finishing the words.” One day, Green was watching a nature program on television (“I watch a lot of wildlife,” he says. “Animals make more sense than humans most of the time”). And the concept of wild animals turned into wild love — and, quickly, into the lyric for “I’m Wild About You.”
By keeping things live and acknowledging Green’s fleeting patience, Thompson and Poyser were able to capture Green’s undiminished voice. “I wanted to make the true follow-up to [1977’s] The Belle Album, which is considered the last quote-unquote real Al Green record,” Thompson says. “And I do think this is his most heartfelt record since then.” While guiding a force of nature like Al Green was daunting, Thompson eventually found the secret. “The key is that you have to mute everything else,” he says, “and let Al shine.”