Al Green Is The Best
I remember approaching the Sunglass Hut at Gateway Mall in my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska.
“Would you take less for them?” I asked.
“Sir there’s nothing I can do about the price point, no.”
When I was seventeen years old I was under the impression that the epitome of cool was a sixty-two year-old soul singer named Al Green. I saw him wearing brown Ray Ban aviators on the front cover of his 2008 album Lay It Down and decided that spending half a paycheck on sunglasses was a wise financial decision. I was absolutely right. Al is, was, and shall ever be the coolest. I was wrong about the sunglasses. Looking back, I’m not sure how I even knew that album existed. Or why I thought that I could haggle at a Sunglass Hut.
I can remember the confluence of events that lead to my introduction to Al’s music, leading to my knowing his name and seeking out his music. It feels weird. What the hell was I doing?
I guess being an impressionable teenager is what I was doing. I had just come off of a hot (freezing) two-month stint with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and The Chronic. Those two albums got me through the winter of 2007. My first car was propelled by the flows of The RZA,The GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah, and The Method Man. The whirring of my tires started to drown out the music as they fought harder and harder — punchless against the snow. I found myself big time stuck on a hill maybe three blocks away from my parent’s driveway. I pried open the rear hatch and slopped the sandbags around for better weight distribution over the axle in my rear-wheel drive 1996 Chevy Blazer. God-Jesus it was cold. Do you know how dark it is at 6:40 AM in the dead of winter in Nebraska? Why are there even classes at 7 AM?
Once 36 Chambers ran its course, I transitioned into a long period of listening nearly exclusively to Lay It Down.
Coincidentally, both are all time great winter driving albums.
A music teacher of mine once said that all music can be broadly broken down into two groups- music for listening and music for dancing. My hypothesis is that all of western popular music can be further sorted into two smaller groups- music for driving around, and music for doing other stuff. The vast majority of Rock music easily fits into music for driving around. Most soul music however is harder to classify. You drive around a little differently to What’s Going On than you would to Appetite for Destruction. I don’t think the engine will even turn over if you’ve got Donny Hathaway Live cued up. That’s a Pantheon level doing other stuff album. Al’s music occupies another unique space in that it is equally at home in both worlds. His vocals demand your undivided attention- don’t attempt to execute a challenging merge while Al’s voice is taking you on an emotional journey. Good luck explaining 4:08 in For The Good Times to a member of the state patrol. The musical arrangements however, are center cut driving around material. Al’s soul music is perfect music for driving around and also for doing other things.
Al Green would know what it feels like to get stuck in the snow with someplace to be. Al would also be the kind of guy to lend a helping hand to a stranded motorist. He wouldn’t even comment on their choice of driving music. Yeah, Al would let that motorist boogie.
I don’t get the feeling that many other Soul legends would be out there pushing the sandbags around and shivering their asses off. From my musical impression of him, I predict that John Legend would have a secondary car waiting for him around the corner. John Legend definitely has multiple Land Rovers.
Full disclosure: Legend might have been the reason I ever learned Al Green’s name in the first place. Al entered my life in one of two ways. Either I saw him perform a duet with John Legend on a daytime talk show while I was plopped on my parent’s couch (more likely), or I found out about him through a conversation with Reid, an upperclassman who went by the nickname Dofo (more cinematic). Dofo is now a globetrotting lawyer/activist doing research in Slovenia.
Here’s a useful Dofo story. His high school graduation party was held at a theater downtown. There was an open mic/karaoke situation involved. People were strolling on and off the stage. Herky jerky teenage energy. People laughing and singing. An older gentleman played the guitar seated and Reid sang into a microphone standing. He performed an acoustic rendition of Every Rose Has Its Thorn. In light of these facts I’m going to award the finder’s title to Dofo whether it’s true or not.
Some artists are once-in-a-generation freak talents. Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Donny Hathaway immediately come to mind. Those are folks who could thrive in any style of music, who could do anything in music. If they weren’t singing soul hits they could just as easily have been performing opera. I don’t think Al is like them. Al’s freaky unique voice could really only fit in Al’s music. You don’t see Al Green creating movie soundtracks like Marvin Gaye. I don’t think Al aspires be a producer/arranger like Quincy Jones, or a hall of fame songwriter like Isaac Hayes. He couldn’t sing a disco hit, although that didn’t stop him from trying. I wouldn’t want to hear what a late career foray into pop standards would sound like. Those facts make Al more relatable. He’s really amazing at just a couple of things, sounding vulnerable on record, and singing high Al Green Notes.
I’m only excellent at approximately, three functions of my job. There’s many more functions of my job that I perform at an average or below average level. I get the feeling that a lot of people feel that way about their jobs.
Al Green is categorically a soul singer. He checks off all the boxes required of a human to be considered a soul singer. The following is an incomplete list.
- His songs are populated with a perfect balance of love and lust.
- He fronts a band with horns and backup singers.
- He wore outfits loud enough to drown out a 747.
- He emotes, god bless America does he emote.
Al’s relatability begins with the arrangements of his music. The instrumentation of his music is simple and soulful. It’s the kind of arrangements that hard working professional musicians make, but not necessarily the type of arrangement that makes the listener think “I could never do that!” Al’s musical arrangements are something that all musicians could reasonably aspire to, but not the drums. Nobody can touch those drums.
Al Green Drums are I think my favorite drums. They would make it really deep into my imaginary All Instrumental Tracks Tournament bracket. Al Green Drums would probably be a six or seven seed but they would smoke ass all the way to the finals. If you wanted to learn how to play the drums from the beginning, the sound you would most aspire to is a steady, earthy, powerful rhythm. You would naturally and instinctively grow in confidence as your playing locked in to the steady click of a metronome. Well, the drums on those classic Al Green records do just that. They are basic, funky, clock-like drums grown to their ultimate level. They sound so earthy, they must be locked into earth’s molten core. We can call them Al Green’s Magma Drums. I’m pretty sure folks on the Greenwich Meridian set their clock to the kick and snare from Love and Happiness. What’s even more incredible is just how much gritty, soulful rhythm section power is all over Al’s peak era stuff. It’s not hugely produced or gimmicky. It’s just straight forward wonderful playing.
Al changed careers, just like a lot of people do. At the zenith of his success, he was involved in a violent dispute with his significant other, Mary Woodson White. She attacked him and ultimately took her own life. Al decided to quit singing Soul music and switch to Gospel. He eventually started leading his own congregation in Memphis. He became The Reverend Al Green. I have no conception of the amount of money that Al must have left on the table as a consequence of following his heart, but I can definitely relate to his feelings of doubt.
I’m in my fifth year teaching. I was hired straight out of college and got thrown into the fire at a public elementary school where I spent most of the first three years mastering the basics of the job. It wasn’t until the last few months of my fourth year that I felt like I knew what the hell I was doing most of the time. There are parts of teaching that I love- watching a student grasp how to fret a note on the ukulele, herding students through the butterflies of their first performance, chatting about whatever a kid did over the weekend (minecraft…the answer is always minecraft). That’s the great stuff. However, much of my job is simply exhausting. I make kids line up to exit the classroom thirty times in a week. Kids also line up to enter my classroom the same number of times. I spend as much time exploring the complexities of bathroom procedures as I do teaching students how to read notes. When people ask me if I love what I do, I usually say most of the time.
Thinking of the way Al changed his whole musical trajectory is comforting. He made a choice that obviously lowered his ceiling commercially but it was probably extremely comforting to him. He’s like the former professional athlete who becomes a successful coach as a second career. He’s spending the second half of his professional life doing something that runs parallel to his original work but it couldn’t be more different.
He is the most relatable of the all time great soul artists but in his relatability lies a trick. He is also the single most unique soul singer we’ve ever seen. His relatability is legit, but the next logical step — that you or me or any old person could do what Al does — is a hologram. Only Al Green can sing Al Green notes. Only Al Green could coax those drums out of thin air. We have heard updated versions of Stevie Wonder’s voice again and again, but we’ve never heard another singer similar to Al Green. His relatability disguises his singular artistry. He’s amazing, he’s comforting, he’s the best. You feel like he could be your uncle. Your uncle couldn’t sing “come back, hoooooooome” like Al does on Call Me.