Music » Critics' Picks

Al Green

Saturday, July 3; Fair Saint Louis


Born the love child of gospel and the blues, soul music has always been about the tensions between the spiritual and the sexual, the sacred and the profane, the redemptive power of love and the pain of loss. No living singer epitomizes the agony and ecstasy of these conflicts better than Al Green, whose early-'70s hits such as "Tired of Being Alone," "Still in Love with You" and "Let's Stay Together" still stand more than 30 years after their initial release as some of the greatest soul music ever made.

Working with producer Willie Mitchell, Green fashioned a distinctive body of work that split the difference between the raw Southern sound associated with his hometown of Memphis and the elaborately orchestrated fantasies of the then-popular Philadelphia International label. Melding deliberate backbeats, creamy organ, swelling strings, punchy horns and cooing background vocals with meandering chord progressions quite unlike anything else found in soul music of the day, the two men created a series of distinctive backdrops for Green's voice, an instantly recognizable instrument capable of seemingly infinite gradations of expression from raspy to mellow to keening falsetto.

Nothing great lasts forever, and by the late '70s the hits had mostly stopped coming for Green. He returned to his roots in the church, becoming an ordained minister and spending most of the next two decades making sacred music and preaching on Sundays at the Full Gospel Tabernacle, the Memphis church he founded.

Along the way there were a couple attempts at secular comebacks, one of which was issued only in England. But it wasn't until the release late last year of I Can't Stop, for which a reunited Green and Mitchell revisited their classic sound, that listeners and critics really began to pay attention again. Green may have just begun again to record music of interest to pop listeners, but his live performance skills, maintained and sharpened by all those Sundays in the pulpit, are in fine shape, and his songbook remains one of the most memorable in soul music.

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