Al Green: Greatest Hits (Vol. 1 and 2)
Al Green is, hands down, my favorite R&B vocalist, topping Aretha and Otis and Marvin and Stevie. A tough crowd to beat, but beat them he does. His voice defines soul. It’s filled with joy and pain, the most evocative of any R&B singer, living or dead. When his voice soars, your soul soars. His pain, his joy become yours. And nobody, nobody can pull off the soul screech like the Reverend. If he can’t send one tiny shiver down your spine, you have some serious soul issues. And, damn, doesn't he look cool on that album cover?
I grew up listening to his radio classics — “Let’s Stay Together,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “Call Me (Come Back Home)” — never switched the station, but the full-on passion wasn’t there yet. It wasn’t until 1980 that I discovered the virtuosity of Al Green — and it was a local blues singer who opened up that world for me. A white blues singer.
Bill Sheffield and his band, The XLs, played all over town every week, usually at the Harvest Moon or the Moonshadow (two great clubs now long gone; many deliriously happy hours spent dancing and singing and drinking in those two joints). He was good friends with that year’s beau (one of the few jerks I ever dated, but that has nothing to do with this story), so we went to hear him at least once a week. Bill had an R&B voice better than any white boy I’ve ever heard. And he used that voice to sing a lot of Al Green, the truly soulful ones — “Love and Happiness,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” and “Take Me to the River.” I didn’t know the Talking Heads had covered Al Green until Bill sang it. Bill could hit Al’s high notes, and could even deliver a darn good Al Green soul screech. To hear that live, in a room filled with smoke and the smell of beer … well, there’s no better way for soul to reach your soul.
I was an instant Al Green fanatic. Within a day of hearing Bill for the first time, I owned both of the Reverend’s greatest-hits packages. And from the moment the needle hit the vinyl, “Love and Happiness” and “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” have been on my Top 100 list. Al Green is one of those must-listens for me; I must listen to his songs at least every two or three days. My soul demands it. Feeds off it. As Al Green sings at the end of “Love and Happiness,” Make you wanna dance …
There are several greatest-hits packages available. If you’re off to Amazon a disc, be sure to select one with “Love and Happiness,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” and “Take Me to the River”; not every one includes all three gems. Or better yet, go to your favorite used CD store and look for the two pictured here. Then you can branch out and try some of his classic albums of the 1970s or his later gospel albums. Al Green released his first secular album in years, I Can’t Stop It, in 2003, and it found the Reverend still in fine soulful form.
And Bill Sheffield? He’s still around, performing regularly at Northside Tavern. I haven’t seen him in years; maybe I’ll take Dan there for his birthday.
The Pilgrimage: Simeon took this photo of me at Rev. Green's Memphis church in August 1991 ... damn, 15 years ago this month. I took a broom out of the church's trash, and have it to this day. It's a prized possession, sitting guard over my writing desk.
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Labels: My Soundtrack