Memphis Magic: The Al Green Sound
Among the first of the innumerable roadside billboards which greet visitors arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, is one which proclaims a hearty Welcome to Memphis – Home of the Memphis Sound. The air is heavy, warm; the hickory smoke of a hundred pit barbecue truck stops mingles with the smell of shade trees and asphalt. The brilliant lawns are well-kept beyond the billboard belt; azaleas are in bloom. A gaggle of black school children cuts across a manicured front yard, trailing strains of sweet soul music from a battery of tinny transistor radio speakers. The car radio dial finds the station and tunes into the thudding bass line, the crisp horn riff and Al Green singing, “Here I am/Come and take me . . .”
Follow the children around the corner; the pavement narrows, becomes pitted. The Memphis that introduced Holiday Inns and self-service supermarkets to the world metamorphoses abruptly into the Memphis with the highest per capita murder rate of any American city its size, the weather vane of urban racial tension, the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King. On a rough ghetto street, facing a beauty parlor with a screen porch and a row of peeling board houses, a modern, red brick building is going up around the shell of the old Royal Theater. Scaffolding and two-by-fours lay scattered in the mud. Inside, behind a black, unmarked door, Al Green’s voice pans clockwise around a circle of monitor speakers. Willie Mitchell sits in the center of the circle, laughing.
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Willie’s large, Piscean eyes radiate a kind of aquatic intensity; he jacks up the playback volume, drowning the sound of his own chuckles in a sea of strings, horns, voices and rhythm. He is re-mixing, in quad, the Al Green singles and albums he produced last year. The sounds are familiar – “Let’s Stay Together” sold 2.8 million copies as a single and Green’s total sales for the year exceeded ten million units – but Willie reacts to them as if they were last night’s inspiration. He signals punctuations in the music with body English: a jabbing thumb for horn bursts, rocking-chair motion for the push-pull of bass and drums, foot stomping for heavy accents. He pans a kicking drum pattern around his circle of speakers and laughs again. Outside his new, glassed-in booth, in the studio proper, an engineer and two assistants are testing microphone connections.
The morning paper, the Commercial Appeal is spread out on the board, open to a six-column headline: Green, Mitchell Dance to Winning Memphis Beat. The story details the Green Mitchell sweep of the third annual Memphis Music Awards. Hi, the local company of which Mitchell is vice-president, and parent company, London, won in eight of the 13 regular award categories. “The history and importance of the Memphis sound was emphasized,” the story notes.” ‘Memphis is the historical center of American music,’ said Knox Phillips, a member of the board of directors of Memphis Music, Inc. ‘It is now, and always has been.”‘
“Always” is a long time, but Willie Mitchell can look back on 20 years of involvement in Memphis music; singer and disk jockey Rufus Thomas can remember 20 more, and bluesman Furry Lewis recalls minstrel and medicine show routines that were already old hat in 1900. Furry’s immediate predecessors were singing ballads like “Casey Jones” and “John Henry” before the blues began to filter into Memphis from its mysterious origins in the Mississippi Delta; cotton money and the promise of easier living had been attracting black musicians to Memphis since the Reconstruction period.
By the early 1900s Memphis boasted a thriving black music subculture, centered in the Beale Street area near the Mississippi River. The blacks kept to their part of town, the whites kept to theirs, and the music was kept under wraps until the arrival of W.C. Handy, a trumpet player and bandleader from Alabama. Handy contributed little in the way of originality to Memphis music; the compositions which won him international acclaim were inspired, at least in part, by songs he heard in the city’s vaudeville theaters, cabarets and juke joints. He was a pivotal figure primarily because he realized that blues songs were worth more than cabaret wages. They could be written down, copyrighted, published and marketed, and this Handy proceeded to do.
Blues singer Tim Wilkins consolidated the music’s media impact when, in 1927, he became the first black performer to broadcast on Memphis radio. He sang his “New Frisco Train” over the air one day and had to keep singing it for more than half an hour; the station’s switchboard was flooded with calls. Talent scouts from Eastern and Midwestern record companies began using Memphis as a base for “field” operations; they would fan out through the Delta country in search of “race” artists and then bring their discoveries into town, where they used the facilities of radio stations or set up portable equipment in the basement of the Peabody Hotel. Records by local favorites like Jim Jackson, Furry Lewis, the Memphis Jug Band and Memphis Minnie sold well in black communities throughout the South. But by 1931 the Depression had called a halt to most blues recording. Tim Wilkins got religion, changed his name to Reverend Robert Wilkins, and composed “The Prodigal Son.” Many a prodigal bluesman returned to Memphis and settled into construction work or street cleaning. Mayor Crump shut down Beale Street’s jukes, and the blues moved out of the cabarets and into the ghetto’s living rooms.
After World War II a new breed of maverick A&R men began arriving in Memphis, following in the footsteps of the “company men” of the Twenties. The new company men owned their own operations. They were independents, capitalizing on the popularity of the blues among blacks who had left the rural South to work in wartime industry. As the Bihari brothers (Modern Records) and Phil and Leonard Chess drove through the Delta, selling their records out of the trunks of sedans and the beds of pickup trucks, they inquired about local musicians.
But black radio was often one jump ahead. Sonny Boy Williamson II and the King Biscuit Boys were on the air in Helena, Arkansas; Howlin’ Wolf hosted a show out of West Memphis. Rufus Thomas, who had been half of the Rufus and Bones vaudeville team before the War, was broadcasting on WDIA, the first black-owned radio station in the US. B.B. King, the Beale Street Blues Boy, was Thomas’ up-and-coming young rival with his Pepticon show, also on WDIA.
Tuff Green, a local bandleader, decided to record King before the “carpetbagger” independents caught up with him. His trumpet player was young Willie Mitchell, who had been playing since the age of eight. “Tuff had all the guys in the band come over to his house,” Willie recalls, “and they set up a tape recorder in his living room. You can imagine what it was like, trying to get B.B. and the whole band with just this tape recorder. We messed around playing different things and never got anything, and late that night I left with most of the rest of the band. They tell me that after we left B. asked Tuff for the time. Tuff said, ‘It’s three o’clock in the morning,’ and B. said, ‘Well, just let me put this song down.’ He did ‘It’s three o’clock in the morning/and I haven’t even closed my eyes,’ and that was B.B.’s first record.”
Meanwhile, Joe and Jules Bihari, who had already signed Elmore James and transplanted him from Jackson, Mississippi, to Chicago, enlisted a young Memphis pianist named Ike Turner to work as their talent scout. Turner cut the first records by Howlin’ Wolf and played on several of the earliest and best Elmore James sides. But the Biharis lost Wolf to a Memphis entrepreneur named Sam Phillips, whose Sun label was the first local recording operation to achieve national prominence. Phillips, in turn, leased Wolf’s masters to Chess; the Chess brothers quickly located Wolf and signed him to an exclusive contract.
Willie Mitchell continued to play the trumpet in various dance bands. He met lke Turner when they alternated sets in a Greenville, Mississippi, night club, long before Turner went to work for the Biharis. But Willie avoided the cutthroat competition which was swirling around him. He had majored in music at Rust College and paid his dues as a sideman around Memphis; by the midFifties he was booking jobs on his own. “I never thought of myself as cutting a record in those days,” he says. “I was more interested in who could really play. Phineas Newborn [the legendary bebop pianist] came out of my band, and George Coleman, who went on to play with Miles Davis; also, Charles Lloyd, Booker Little, so many good players.”
Little (who played extensively with Eric Dolphy and Max Roach before his untimely death) and Lloyd were among the musicians who shaped the new jazz styles of the Sixties. “Booker used to come and sit down with me all night and watch me play the trumpet,” Willie recalls. “He and Charles Lloyd were good friends; they both went to Manassas High School. They used to hang around the bandstand all night. Now Charles could always play. When he was 17 or 18 he would get me to explain chords to him. I would play an augmented chord and he’d say, ‘What’s that note you put in there?’ I’d show him, and the next night he’d come in and wear that chord out. Oh, he’d tear it up all kinds of ways. When he and Booker played in my band, if we had to start the gig at ten we’d start playing at nine. And the first tune we played would be about 30 minutes long. The rest of the night we had to play dance music, and I just had to let the guys play first to get it out of them.”
While Willie played jazz, Sam Phillips began teaching several young, white singers the basics of the blues by making them listen to recordings by Arthur Crudup and other black vocalists. His successes with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison triggered a home-grown recording boom. In 1957 a local record retailer named Joe Cuighi formed Hi records in order to record a distant cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis’ named Carl Glasscock. The Glasscock records met with little success, but over the next few years a series of regional hits by Gene Simmons (“Haunted House”), Murray Kellum (“Long Tall Texan”) and Jerry Jaye (“My Girl Josephine”) helped Hi stay solvent.
Among the musicians who backed up Simmons, Kellum and Jaye was bassist Bill Black, who had played on Presley’s early hits. Black and several other musicians, including guitarist Reggie Young and drummer Jerry “Satch” Arnold, were jamming at the Hi studio one day after a session and came up with a fateful lick that soon became identified as “the Bill Black beat.” As a result of this lick they cut “Smokie,” which sold 350,000 records.
Black’s singles continued to move; his “White Silver Sands” sold some 600,000 in 1960. The records usually featured roller-rink organ, a saxophone playing straight melody with few variations, and a lazy, almost flaccid rhythm. Many Memphis musicians dismissed them as mere redneck muzak. But Jim Dickinson, the producer pianist, claims that certain well-known Los Angeles rock musicians now regard the mysterious Bill Black beat with a mixture of awe and professional curiosity. Dickinson also offers an explanation of the peculiarly limpid effect many of Black’s records achieved. “This friend of mine went down to a Bill Black session,” he recalls, “and he noticed that the guitar player had a pencil damping the strings, attached to the neck with a rubber band. And he was picking with a playing card, so he was getting a sound like flap, flap, flap.”
When Black needed some players to expand his combo, a Hi staff producer raided Willie Mitchell’s band for pianist Joe Hall and several other musicians. “I just kind of followed Joe down to Hi,” Willie says, “and I’d watch them cut things. I was always quick at writing and charting things out, so before long I got involved in arranging Bill’s music. I had already done a little production work, for a label called Home of the Blues. I recorded people like the Five Royales and Roy Brown. But at Hi I was soon able to cut my own things. The first thing I cut was ‘Sunrise Serenade,’ and in two weeks it was in the Top 100 charts with a bullet. So I kept recording and I always sold records. I had four or five baby hits that were in the 40s and 50s in the charts.”
Records by Mitchell, Black and saxophonist Ace Cannon did well during the early Sixties, but Hi was temporarily overshadowed by the rapid emergence of another Memphis company, Stax. Willie’s drummer, Al Jackson Jr., kept busy alternating between the two companies’ studios. He played with Booker T. and the M.G.s (“Green Onions”) and the Mar-Keys (“Last Night”), Stax groups which helped establish the Memphis soul sound, and backed singers like Carla Thomas, her father Rufus, William Bell and Otis Redding. Willie developed a soul style of his own; his charts used more varied instrumental resources and were often more premeditated than the impromptu “head” arrangements favored by the Stax studio band.
Willie began working with vocalists during the early Sixties. One of the first was David Porter, who later collaborated with Isaac Hayes on a string of songs which were hits for Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. “Isaac used to drop by the studio a lot when I was recording David,” Willie remembers. “In 1963 he had his bald head, his beard and a turban, and he was wearing those weird clothes. Everybody thought he was crazy.
Finally, in 1970, Willie “found” his producing style. “I always said before 1970 that when I cut a record I never could hear what I wanted to hear,” he explains. “I’d try to tell the engineer, but it never worked out. In 1970, Hi gave me the keys to the studio and I started on the board myself; then I could hear what I wanted, and get it. The first record I engineered myself was ‘Soul Serenade,’ the biggest instrumental I had. Then I started messin’ with Ann Peebles, and I found Al Green and Syl Johnson and Otis Clay. Now, anything I hear I can put on tape. I just go in the studio to put down what I already heard at home.”
When Willie cuts Ann Peebles, Johnson and Clay, he usually keeps the sound tight, crisp and harmonically simple. But his involvement in jazz left him with a taste for “big chords,” and he often works these into Al Green’s singles. “I’ve been using a lot of jazz chords with Al,” he admits, “like minor ninths, augmented 11ths. In ‘I’m Still in Love with You’ I used a C-minor nine chord with a major seventh and Al sang it, he sang the B natural. I think you could play some funky blues with Al using all big 11th chords and he could be free with it.”
Most of Green’s hit singles – “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “You Ought to Be with Me,” “Call Me” – are products of a smoothly-functioning, informal collaboration between Al, Willie and Al Jackson Jr. Jackson’s much-emulated drum style propelled Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and all of Otis Redding’s studio recordings. He is now a staff producer at Stax, but Willie is the man who started him in the studios. In fact, Willie was playing trumpet in Al Jackson Sr.’s band when Al Jr. was learning the drums. “His father wouldn’t let him play with us,” Willie says. “He could keep time, but he was the worst drummer you ever heard. However, we needed a drummer and I took on Al Jr. He began to improve and improve. Once he could play a song through he knew it inside out. He worked with me from ’61 through ’67 and then Booker T. and the M.G.s got so big he had to leave. He told me, ‘Willie, I’m going out here and work with the M.G.s, but I tell you what: If I ever come back, I want my job back.’ ”
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Willie explains his collaboration with the two Als this way: “I’ll take a set of chord changes and then Al Jackson and I will get together and discuss the changes, the melodic lines or what-have-you. We’ll spend a couple of days listening, taking out changes, putting in other changes. When we get the song where it sounds like something, we’ll call Al Green and play the changes for him. He’ll sit down and listen and take 15 minutes to go out and write the story. Al Jackson will be getting the direction of what the rhythm should be, deciding what we need for the rhythm section to do. Then we go in and cut the track, and I add the strings, voices and so on. And then Al Green comes in and cuts the vocal.”
Al Green’s description of the collaboration differs in emphasis from Willie’s: “Jackson will go to Jamaica or the Bahamas and stay there for three or four days just to pick up on some kind of rhythm. Then he’ll come to the studio and get back there on the drums, in his corner by himself. He’ll stay back there for hours, just beating the drums with his eyes closed. I thought he was crazy at first: five or ten minutes, fine, but hours? Anyway, he’ll beat one rhythm for a while and then he’ll change it. It sounds so close, you can’t really tell if he changed it or not, but it’s different. Willie will figure the musical changes for this particular rhythm that Al gets in his head.”
The drum tracks on Al Green’s singles are the work of two drummers. Jackson works with Howard Grimes, the man Willie brought in to replace him in 1967. Often, one drummer will play only his snare and tom-toms while the other plays his hi-hat cymbal with both hands. But Willie always mixes the two drummers together on one track. “Al and Howard will be sitting back there in the drum booth,” he says, “and sometimes I won’t be able to tell which one is playing, they sound so much alike. But I never use more than two mikes on the drums, even when both of them are playing. The placement of those mikes has a lot to do with the sound. So does the tuning of the snares. So does the studio. But I always ride the drums and the bass. They’re like the wheels of the car; the rest of the instruments are secondary.”
The Hodges brothers – bassist Leroy, organist Charles and guitarist Teenie – make up the rest of the band. Though they are all relative youngsters, they have been with Willie ten years. Don Bryant, a staff songwriter who has worked with the band longer than anyone except Willie, says that, “Willie had been looking for the sound he has for a long time. He hand-picked the boys in the band and raised them himself. I guess he was looking for this sound then, and he molded them into the sound he wanted. That’s the reason they call him Papa Willie; he sticks with ’em until he gets it like he wants it.”
“Little Teenie Hodges,” Willie chuckles. “Teenie came to my house one night drunk off wine. He wasn’t but about 16 or 17. He came in the kitchen and told me he could play guitar. I had to hear him; he played really horrible guitar. I told Teenie, why don’t you come on and move in with me. He had been going to school out in Cordoba, Tennessee. So Teenie stayed three years. I used to get off the gig at two in the morning and go and get him up and say, come on in here and let me show you how to play these runs. About three years later I put him in the band.”
Teenie and Al Green often write together; their “Here I Am” is Al’s most recent hit, and “Love And Happiness” and “I’m A Ram” were also Green/ Hodges collaborations. .”Teenie is a star,” says a fellow Memphis session player. “He’s the creative force in the band, next to Willie, and does he dress! Claudia Lennear was in town mixing a while back and everybody was looking at her with their eyes bugging out. And then Teenie walked in wearing some kind of emerald green threads; he was looking so beautiful he just blew her away.”
“I think Al picked up a lot of his moves from Teenie,” adds another sessionman. “His cousin was a session player for Motown, and he used to come down from Detroit and cop Teenie’s licks when Teenie was playing in road-houses for 20 bucks a night.”
Al Green has the last word on Teenie Hodges: “He doesn’t play a lot of music but what he plays is sophisticated. He’ll play a little guitar, just a taste, but it means so much ’cause he puts it in the right place.”
Willie, the two Als and the Hodges brothers agree that “the right place” is the old Royal Theater. When Hi’s first president, the late Joe Cuighi, found the Royal in 1957 it was an abandoned movie house. Cuighi paid its owner, a widow named Mrs. Frisbee, $50-a-month rent and installed makeshift recording equipment. Today, an additional studio and a series of offices for Hi’s staff are under construction on the lot. There is a new 24-track board, which Willie is using principally for mixing. The board is housed in a glassed-in room, formerly a projection booth, which overlooks the studio proper.
Royal resembles the old Stax studio A on McLemore Avenue in that the floor slopes and, as it approaches the booth, widens, forming a kind of funnel. “There’s something about that floor,” Willie says. “As you walk down the slope the music gets bigger, it separates. The sound is still together but it seems to get bigger; it has more definition. The Stax studio was a movie house too. They cut Otis and everybody there and they got the same kind of sound.”
I ask if Willie will now be cutting Al on the new board. “As long as Al records for Hi records,” Willie answers solemnly, “he’ll always record on the eight-track. Not just any eight-track; there’s some kind of uniqueness about our machine. We cut all of Al’s albums and singles on it. It’s got an old raunchy bottom, a solid mid-range and it’s got highs that have overtones but they’re not really highs; they don’t hurt your ears. Now this new board is transistorized and” – he twists a treble knob and gooses the volume and the visitor winces – “the highs kind of cut into you. The eight-track sounds more natural to me, and I like records with that kind of naturalness.”
Willie turns the volume back up and proceeds with his quadraphonic re-mix. The organ, guitar, bass and voices are distinct, but the drums stand out. Every last cymbal sizzle and harmonic is on the tape; the bass drum thuds precisely against the chest when it is used and the snare is perfectly tuned to the melody instruments.
Jim Dickinson maintains that the drum sound is a direct result of Hi’s eight-track. “It isn’t your regular Ampex board,” he explains. “Some fellow down in Texas built it out of Ampex spare parts. Hi is the only company in the South that’s still using a tube eight-track. And there is something about a tube machine; you’re just not going to get that kind of drum sound, deep and sharp at the same time, with transistors.”
Willie cuts the volume and swivels around in his chair. “When I was talking about ‘natural sound’ a minute ago,” he says, “this is what I meant: To me, a record is like people talking, expressing themselves to each other. When I talk to the band I say, we’re gonna make this tune cry, or we’re gonna make it holler, or we’re gonna make it come out of the woods. When we recorded ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ with Al, I told the band, play like you’re sitting by a river and there’s a big forest over there, with all this music coming out of the forest and floating across the river, kind of delayed. That’s making it come out of the woods.
“On another tune I might say, this is an exciting thing, I want everybody screamin’ and hollerin’ like at a football game when the guys make the touchdown. They know what that means. So when the horns come in, when they say something, it’s like people talking. The horns talk to the bass and the bass talks to the drums, the singer talks to everybody and everybody talks to . . .”
Willie stops in mid-sentence and all eyes in the booth rotate toward the door. A limber young man in a black leather suit, which is decorated with handfuls of silver medallions and open to the waist, explodes into the room as if it were the stage of the Apollo. Willie hits a button and “Here I Am” roars out of the speakers as Al Green bounds across the carpet, embraces Mitchell, shakes hands with the writer and falls into a chair. “Quad?” he yells over the music. “Yeah!” He jumps up, prowls from speaker to speaker and stops in front of me. “You want to do that interview? Come on.” He is out the door in a flash.
Al is driving his white El Dorado himself. The half-paved street slides away behind, there is a blur of hardwood trees and honeysuckle, and the Cadillac darts onto one of the expressways which ring the city. Al’s office is 20 minutes from the center of Memphis, in a suburban-style house on a two-lane road near the airport. Several secretaries are working at desks just outside the reception room. With Al’s entrance the rhythm of the office routine picks up like a rapidly accelerating automobile.
Inside his paneled office, Green seats himself in an armchair, places a pair of steel-rimmed glasses on his nose and calls for one of his secretaries. “Pay vouchers,” he explains. “We have 35 people on the payroll: band members, the fan club staff, secretaries, assistants. Now the musicians have three or four days off and they all want to go home.” He signs the checks rapidly while the secretary stands by, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “I must beg your pardon for this unavoidable interruption,” he says as the secretary disappears, shutting the door behind her. “I shall see that we are not disturbed again.”
Al is enjoying his cameo appearance as the busy executive. He leans back, lights a cigarette, removes his glasses and beams: “As you see, it’s been a long trip from Forrest City, Arkansas.
“Actually,” he begins his biography, “We moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when I was very young. But I just had to get away from home. You see, my dad was kind of rigid, hyped-up on religion. When I was 15 or so I began bringing records into the house: Jackie Wilson, James Brown. Dad didn’t mind when I listened to Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, or Claude Jeter, the Swan Silvertones. But to bring rock ‘n’ roll, pop or blues records into the house was a no-no. And once I started doing that, I didn’t get along too well with my dad. So when I was 16 I up and left. I moved in with a friend of mine and we started a group, my first pop group, Al Green and the Creations.”
Al and the Creations worked at the El Grotto Club in Battle Creek for $40 a night. Several of the original Creations left to play with Junior Walker, and a new band member, Palmer James, persuaded Al to record a song he had written, “Back Up Train.” It sold 400,000 copies, and Al graduated from the El Grotto to the Apollo, virtually overnight. But James’ inspiration temporarily ran dry and Al wasn’t able to come up with a second hit. “Right away,” he says, “everybody decided I was a one-record act. Well, it was the chitlin circuit for me. Dallas, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, the small clubs . . . very rough. Sometimes you go into a place, work as hard as you can – which has always been a motto of mine – and the promoter’s gone home when you get offstage; you don’t get paid. Or the promoter’s so big, why a little fellow like me . . . But then one night in Midland, Texas, Willie Mitchell’s band was there to back me and to play dance music for the people. And Willie liked the show and asked me to come to Memphis.”
Al’s first Hi single, released in 1969, was a cover of Lennon/ McCartney’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” “I was hearing the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin,” he remembers, “and I couldn’t find Al Green anywhere. Nobody was writing the kind of music that I liked. I wanted to find something that was soft, that was comfortable – something I could sing at the height of talking, that’s comfortable – but soulful, to a degree, and a little bit funky so you could kinda sway your head to it. Finally I sat down to write myself; I wrote ‘Tired of Being Alone,’ and that’s what got us going. And . . . here I am in Memphis. I like the atmosphere; the people are quite relaxed, it’s not hyper, not fast and jittery. Everything doesn’t have to be done in 15 minutes. But it’s time for dinner now and that won’t wait.”
Green’s new, 21-room house is surrounded by 60 acres of land, the land is surrounded by a game preserve, and the game preserve is 40 miles outside Memphis. The house is unassuming enough from the outside; inside, there are at least as many bedrooms as Al has hits. Each is furnished and decorated differently and each is immaculate. There are round beds, flat square beds, beds with fur-lined rims that could double as boats if the nearby Mississippi should overflow its banks and none of the beds look slept-in. There are several sitting rooms; one is done all in red – walls, carpet, ceiling – with red light bulbs in the lamps and a red divan covered with clear plastic. In the den downstairs there are peacock feathers, a functioning leopard skin telephone and a gigantic art nouveau urn, some five feet in height, with an inset depicting Christopher Columbus. Chris has a long white beard and is dressed in a flowing robe; he is on the nod, a sextant in his hand. Angels float coyly in the clouds above his head. Two of them are daintily unfurling an American flag.
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.
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