Al Greene and the Soul Mates: Back Up Train
From 7″ (Hot Line, 1967)
Al Green: I Want To Hold Your Hand
From 7″ (Hi, 1969)
Both available on The Immortal Soul of Al Green.
Please file this under “better late than never.” Last August, as in August of 2004, I promised a forthcoming post on Al Green that never materialized. It’s not that I don’t like Green; he is, in fact, 1) my favorite male vocalist and 2) responsible for my “desert island” disc, I’m Still In Love With You. I just didn’t think I could easily do justice to a talent as significant and influential as Green and moreover: if you’ve never heard his music (his most famous songs that is), I’d wonder how you even found this site to begin with.
This said, after a year plus change, I’m finally getting around to it, more or less motivated by this new contest that Hi Records is sponsoring (see below) where you can win the impressive Immortal Soul of Al Green anthology as the top prize. Given that this compilation is what initially inspired my desire to post something, seems only fitting to bring it back again. I don’t often big-up box sets because I think you learn so much by listening to album-only songs rather than just “greatest hits” but what’s impressive by The Immortal Soul is how it plucks not just the songs everyone knows (“Let’s Stay Together’) but a whole slew of other great Green tunes that not everyone knows by heart. These will be some of the songs I’ll be focusing on in the next few posts.
To start…”Back Up Train” was Al Green’s first hit (recorded as “Al Greene and the Soul Mates”), recorded back in 1967 when the then-21 year old was one of many fresh-faced soul singers trying to make their way. It is a great song in its own right: slow, bluesy, smoky – reminiscent (to me at least) of something you would have heard on Stax or Volt (despite that Green himself grew up far closer to Motown). It sounds like Al Green yet doesn’t sound like him at all: those used to his seductive falsetto will likely be thrown at him crooning in a lower register though you can still hear the expressive quality of his voice.
After failing to capitalize on the success of “Back Up Train,” Green had a random run-in with Memphis artist/producer Willie Mitchell in Texas in 1969 and the two agreed to collaborate with each other in what would prove one of the most sublime pairings in soul history – rivaling Aretha with Wexler and Mardin. However, their first try out was a flop: Green covering the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Commercially, the song went nowhere and many people don’t even know about it because Hi chose not to release it on any album. Personally, I love this song, even put it on my Deep Covers mix-CD; I dig the funky approach they take and Green sounds great, putting his own, unique spin on such a well-known Fab 4 hit.
Next post, we’ll look at Green’s evolution at Hi. And eventually, we’ll get to his biggest hits but not in the way you might think.