Deep Tracks: Al Green

Although he’s often called “the last soul man,” Al Green’s music encompasses elements of R&B, rock, gospel, and pop. Green began recording professionally in 1967, but his career didn’t take off until he met Hi records producer Willie Mitchell. From 1969 to 1976, the partnership produced some of Green’s most classic albums, like Call Me, I’m Still in Love With You, and Al Green is Love.

By the end of their first run, Green had received six gold records and was one of the premier singers of the ’70s, and his work after his split with Mitchell isn’t shabby, either. Albums like The Belle Album, Truth n’ Time and He is the Light all have great moments. Like many artists, Green’s best work wasn’t restricted to his singles, and he has his fair share of deep tracks. Here are 15 of the best little-known gems from a career that continues to inspire even today.

1) “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” (1969)

“Shut up Al Green,” Willie Mitchell says, kicking off one of the most raucous Beatles covers ever. Green and Mitchell hadn’t been working together long, but they clearly had an easy rapport; the results were in the music. Green brought the early Beatles into the late Sixties with an updated presentation and funkier sound. Meanwhile, Mitchell was the first producer to hear the possibilities of Green’s voice, and this is where their work together came to fruition.

2) “I’m a Ram,” Al Green Gets Next To You (1971)

Green’s initial sessions with producer Willie Mitchell find Green working out the kinks of his Jackie Wilson-style delivery as well as incorporating the Memphis sound in finding a style to suit one of music’s most unique voices. “I’m a Ram” is a sinewy and kinetic song that Green fans have loved since its release. This song isn’t quite about astrology — more like the impatient and playful sexuality Green all but came to define. Teenie Hodges’ funky, psychedelic guitar puts it all over the top. Although Green came to be known for a smoother sound, many devotees wish he could have continued to record tracks like this.

3) “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” I’m Still in Love With You (1972)

“Thankful for your love / I’m so thankful for your love…” Best known as the B-side to “I’m Still in Love With You,” this song fuses Green’s romantic side with a certain grittiness that Mitchell’s productions were known for. The star of the song is drummer Al Jackson, Jr. and his patented surprising and deft rhythm patterns. Green comes on soft throughout which suggested that Mitchell’s lessons were heeded, and Green more than found his voice.

4) “Funny How Times Slips Away,” Call Me (1973)

Green proved his versatility on 1972’s I’m Still Love With You with his straight-country take on “For the Good Times.” “Funny How Times Slips Away” might be even better. The song is a testament to Green’s impeccable phrasing and skill at getting to the heart of a song. Throughout the song, Green seems to simply live the lyrics and capture the song’s sense of resignation, warning, and the sorrow that can’t be escaped. What’s also remarkable about this cover is that Green didn’t attempt to deliver a country performance; in fact he “Al Green-ifies” it and gives the well-traveled song his indelible stamp.

5) “Home Again,” Livin’ For You (1973)

“You can’t run away home…” In his 2001 autobiography, Green announced that he didn’t like 1973’s Livin’ For You.  The album’s ardent fans probably couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. Livin’ For You was the follow-up to the majestic Call Me, and the album’s quiet strength made it a great album in its own right. “Home Again” manages to distill the best parts of Livin’ For You‘s unassuming charm and an earthiness that’s hard at that funky break at 3:18

6) “School Days,” Al Green Explorers Your Mind (1974)

In 1974, Green was arguably in the peak form of his career. Although the fine Livin’ For You continued the narrative, even better work was to be found on Al Green Explorers Your Mind. The subject matter of reflecting on his school days was odd to be sure, but it worked like a charm due to country-cosmopolitan-like arrangement, Green’s steady vocals, and the string arrangements that were ubiquitous during this era.

7) “There is Love,” Al Green is Love (1975)

Although 1975’s Al Green is Love is filled with tough ballads like “I Didn’t Know” and “The Love Sermon,” the hopeful “There is Love” proves Green hadn’t given up on love just yet. This is one of the sunnier songs from the album, pragmatic and cautious in tone and eccentric around the edges. Green doesn’t sound as “together” as he did a few short years earlier, but his vocal choices and the rawness make for compelling and necessary listening.

8) “Always,” Full of Fire (1976)

By this point, Green seemed a bit exhausted. Full of Fire (recorded in 1975-’76) didn’t actually take place during the best of times and the album reflected an often distracted Green with an increasing, yet engaging, eccentricity. The  old-timey “Always” had Green singing in a gentle, breathy fashion that helps to sell the song. While none of Full of Fire saw Green in peak form, “Always” is a standout from an album that was a bit tiring.

9) “Smile a Little Bit More,” Have a Good Time (1976)

After 1975, endearing moments like “Smile a Little Bit More” came from few and far between. Green’s religious concerns and his commercial decline seemed to take a bit out of him. On “Smile…,” there’s a tangible joy in his voice and the song, and his voice is playful, eccentric, and reminiscent of his trademark early-’70s sound. Unfortunately, the charts had no real place for this, and it’s likely many Green fans at the time hadn’t even heard it. “Smile a Little More” was a great bridge to the end of his ’70s days with Willie Mitchell and led the way to The Belle Album.

10) “Lovin’ You,” The Belle Album (1977)

When Green split with Willie Mitchell, the divide seemed logical. For 1977’s The Belle Album, Green chose a more earthy and stripped-down sound to deliver his message. “Lovin’ You” is a product of its era: half love song and half paean to his emerging religious convictions. Like most of The Belle Album, Green seems unburdened by the absence of Mitchell’s increasing rote productions, and his voice has a certain incandescence due to the subject matter and the gentle melody.

11) “To Sir With Love,” Truth n’ Time (1978)

This isn’t something you’d expect to hear from Al Green or any man. For Truth n’ Time, Green decided to tackle the 1967 Lulu classic with intriguing results. Green’s brilliant take on Lulu’s 1967 hit is nothing short of magical with his great phrasing, weird arrangement, and general oddness. “To Sir With Love” ended up being one of Green’s best performances.

12) “Where Love Rules,” Higher Plane (1981)

As Green was getting further away from secular music, the energy and pull seemed to show up in his religious work anyway. The exuberant and agile “Where Love Rules” finds Green adding a bit of contemporary R&B to his religious message and the results were astounding and moving.

13) “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” Trust in God (1984)

Who knew Al Green was such a fan of the Jean Terrell-era Supremes? By 1984, Green was inching away from a purely religious music career. Those who caught the documentary The Gospel According to Al Green shouldn’t be that surprised; he seemed to find too much joy singing and talking about his old songs.

“Up The Ladder” was released on Trust in Gold that same year where the pull between the sacred and profane was audible as Green took on other classics like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Don’t It Make You Wanta Go Home,” and “Lean on Me.” “Up the Ladder to the Roof” worked the best, had a contemporary sound, and represented Green’s palpable sense of fun.

14) “Be With Me Jesus,” He is the Light (1985)

Green reunited with producer Willie Mitchell for 1985’s He is the Light.  The two were armed with strong and subdued songs like “True Love” and “Going Away.” Remarkably, the sparks didn’t quite ignite, except for one particular song, “Be With Me Jesus” a cover of Sam Cooke’s standard.

At his best, Mitchell seemed to get more focused performances from Green, who strutted through the potentially depressing song and lyrics with joyful ease. They say you can never go home again, but on “Be With Me Jesus,” Al Green and Willie Mitchell got as close as you can get

15) “Blessed,” I Get Joy (1989)

By 1989, Green was nearing the end of his contract with A&M Records. During his stint, he had two surprise hits: “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” a duet with Annie Lennox. So it’s a bit of a surprise that 1989’s I Get Joy was a series of odd moments, like Green attempting to rewrite both the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit” and the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”

“Blessed” was an exception. The track was written and produced by the same team responsible for “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” Like “Alright,” “Blessed” surrounds Green with then up-to-the minute synthesizers and a tough, late-’80s R&B production style.  This is a great story song of healing and facts-of-life occurrences, and while it’s a bit corny, Green’s vocals and dedication gives it a kooky, yet heartfelt, message.

Did we miss your favorite Al Green deep track? Let us know in the comments below!

About Jason Elias 3 Articles
Jason Elias is a music journalist and pop culture historian who lives in Easton, Maryland. His work has appeared on SoulTrain.com, All Music Guide, Upscale, SoulMusic.com, and in Upscale magazine, among others. He also runs the blog Pop Culture Idiot where he talks about pop culture and other fun issues. He has too many records, cassettes, and 8-tracks and loves to talk about music.