Saturday, November 21, 2009

November 21: Al Green, "Let's Stay Together"

Artist: Al Green
Album: Let's Stay Together
Year: 1972
Label: Hi

When it comes to the giants on soul music, names like Brown, Cooke, Hayes, and Mayfield come to mind among a host of many others. With their smooth voices and emotion packed songs, these singers stand among the most beloved and highly respected in history. Yet each of them had their own style and sound, and of course, there was one man who sang "smooth soul" like no other person in history, the one and only Al Green. His name alone instantly brings to mind some of the most sensual and beautiful songs of all time, and his music and legend are just as strong today as they were when he exploded onto the scene in the 1970's. Beyond his iconic voice, one of the most stunning aspects of the career of Al Green is the fact that between 1971 and 1977, he released a stunning TEN full length records, ALL of which found their way into the top twenty-five in album sales in the U.S. Such a massive output, and more to the point, quality output, serves as a testament not only to the true talent within Green, but also to the raw amount of music that he clearly needed to get out of his system. Due to such a massive catalog, it is difficult to pick what is the finest Al Green record. Truth be told, the emotion and soul that is emitted from each of his songs is always top notch, and his records remain some of the most cherished albums in history. However, even with all of these superb records, there is one that rises above the rest, the album that catapulted him into the spotlight and truly set his career in motion, Al Green's monumental 1972 release, Let's Stay Together.

Truth be told, it would be Al Green's next record, I'm Still In Love With You (also released in 1972) that would be his most commercially successful, yet it is Let's Stay Together where he lays the groundwork for all of his later success. Every song on Let's Stay Together is an absolute soul classic, and it is on this album that one realizes that what sets Al Green apart from his peers is the non-traditional, but very present pop-appeal that lies within his music. This pop-sensibility is perhaps no more obvious then on the albums' chart topping title track. "Let's Stay Together" is without question one of the most iconic songs ever written, and over the years it has been covered by everyone from Roberta Flack to Jimmy Smith to Donny Osmond. The song itself is easily one of the "ultimate" soul classics, as well as one of the greatest testaments of love and longing that has ever been written. After topping the charts across the globe a year before the release of the album, "Let's Stay Together" once again made a run at the charts more than two decades later after it was featured in Quintin Tarantino's 1994 cult-classic film, Pulp Fiction. Though the song certainly did not need the film to be considered iconic (it already was), one can make the case that its place in the film perhaps turned an entirely new generation on to the stunning sounds of Al Green.

While Al Green's voice is nothing short of perfect, a large part of the success of his albums revolves around the equally sensational music over which he sings. Taking the sound and spirit of early R&B records and slowing and smoothing down the arrangements, the music found on Let's Stay Together is a fantastic hybrid of these sounds, mixed in with funky, blues, and a bit of gospel. Performing the entire album with a standard rhythm section as well as a full horn section, the sound on Let's Stay Together is more full and fantastic then that of any of Al Green's contemporaries. The rhythm section is, in fact, a group that is perhaps only second to the equally legendary Funk Brothers, the trio known as The Hodges Brothers. Guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges performed with everyone from Isaac Hayes to Talking Heads, and his work on this album is as great as anything else he ever recorded. Bringing strong rhythms as well as amazing smaller touches, in many ways, it s Hodges work on Let's Stay Together that set the standard for soul-based guitar playing. Creating wonderfully deep grooves on every song, bassist Leroy Hodges and drummer Al Jackson Jr. stand today as one of the finest rhythmic duos to ever record. Rounded out by pianist and organ player Charles Hodges, the songs swing and sway like no other before them, and this newer sound played a vital role in the overall success of Al Green's music. Equally as important is the quintet of horns, led by arranger and saxophone master, James Mitchell. Along with fellow sax players Andrew Love and Ed Logan, the sound produced by this trio is bright and moving and unlike anything else previously heard. Trumpet player Wayne Jackson and trombonist Jack Hale round out the horn section, and when the rhythm and horn sections come together throughout Let's Stay Together, the resulting sound is truly stunning and largely unequaled anywhere else in the history of recorded music.

The backing band on Let's Stay Together is truly unlike that of any other singer, which is fitting as Al Green himself has a sound and style that rises far above that of any of his peers. Possessing what is without question one of the smoothest and most soulful voices in history, Al Green perfectly represents the idea of not needing to be loud to convey emotion. With his wide-reaching vocal range and equally diverse delivery style, many see Green as the final bridging of the two major styles of soul. Along with the pure beauty of his voice, Al Green also proves to have one of the most powerful voices ever, and even his lightest touch carries with it an absolute demand for attention. Green’s voice and delivery are absolutely perfect on every track of Let's Stay Together, and though the title track is a truly timeless song, it is the “hidden gems” of the album that make it such an stunning effort. From his absolutely phenomenal re-working of the Bee Gee’s song, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” to the blues-infused “It Ain’t No Fun To Me,” Let’s Stay Together offers a wider range of superb soul styles then any other album ever recorded. Along with singing every note, Green also wrote all but two of the songs, proving that not only was he a fantastic voice, but a prolific writer as well. Perfectly navigating each style, Al Green’s extraordinary voice leaves the listener in awe and wanting more on every single song.

Proving that true and honest soul singing was hardly a relic of the past, Al Green revived the genre and held it strong for much of the 1970's. With his unparalleled, shining voice and the varied ways in which he sang, there are few artists of any generation that quite match up to the overall talents of Al Green. Making his name on the strength of the legendary title track, the songs' nine-week run at the top of the charts quickly turned Green into a superstar of the highest level. The combination of Green's fantastic voice, outstanding lyrics, and phenomenal playing from his backing band, the songs of Al Green are truly unlike those of any other artist. The way in which the rhythm and horn sections brilliantly interact with one another gives the songs a feel like nothing else, and the smooth, almost sensual way in which they construct the sonic textures is still amazing to experience nearly forty years after it was first released. would become the first of a string of hit records for Al Green, and the title track would similarly begin a streak of unforgettable soul singles. The reason for his success is not hard to find, as his fantastic voice, and the manner with which he sings each song is truly everything that make soul singing enjoyable. Standing not only as Al Green's finest record, but by far one of the greatest albums ever recorded in any genre, his 1972 release, Let's Stay Together remains today one of the most beautiful and musically stunning albums in music history.

Standout tracks: "Let's Stay Together," "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart," and "Judy."

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