Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 – #10

Al Green – Call Me

Al Green wasn’t part of my musical experience growing up, so it’s only in recent years that I have come to appreciate what an enormous star he was in the early 1970s. He wasn’t as successful in Canada – his biggest song here fell short of the Top Ten – but south of the 49th parallel he had six Top Ten singles, and a few others that came close, between 1971 and 1974. I was, however, familiar with his music through cover versions. There was Talking Heads’ late ’70s take on “Take Me to the River”, which was probably the only Heads song then known to casual Maritime listeners like myself, followed a half decade later by Tina Turner’s sultry (as if Tina could do it any other way) version of “Let’s Stay Together“, which was easily my favourite track off “Private Dancer”.

Al’s voice is often described as silky, but that really doesn’t do it justice. The word brings to mind smoothness, sensuality, luxury. There’s a strained quality to his voice: if this is silk, it has snags in it, little divots and tears where he gets caught, drops down, and modulates his instrument with changes in emotion. The result is a record that is never slick – yes, there are strings, because it’s an early ‘70s smooth soul album and I think there was a rule about that or something, but they are used very subtly, so the record never turns into easy listening dreck. It’s a sly and quiet record – even the more up-tempo tracks don’t pass muster as dance-worthy.

My favourite of the original songs are “Stand Up” (love the horns in the chorus) and its exhortation to take control of your life, “You Ought to Be with Me”, and the album’s closer, “Jesus Is Waiting”. He hadn’t become Reverend Al yet, but even outside the not-so-subtle latter track, there is a spirituality to the music, or at least a life-affirming positivity, that shows the direction he was headed in.

Al knows his way around a cover himself and his takes on two country classics are highlights. In both cases, I listened for the first time with that sense of something familiar being encoun­tered in a strange place, like running into an ex at your usual hangout. The record’s strongest vocal is on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, as he muscles the Hank Williams’ tune into becoming a soul song without losing its connection to the original.

Another highlight is his take on “Funny How Time Slips Away”, which is a natural fit for Green – though originally recorded as a country song, more soulful versions have found greater chart success, from Jimmy Elledge’s blue-eyed version to Dorothy’s Moore’s powerhouse gospel-tinged effort. A fascinating roster of artists have taken this song on, including Junior Parker (weird), Brook Benton (so cheesy you can feel your cholesterol rising), Tom Jones (sexy AF, of course), Jerry Lee Lewis (saucy), The Supremes (flirty) and Bryan Ferry (cool as always, but sort of over the top). Al hits it with a regretful world-weariness, the strain of the years showing in his voice.

There is something comforting about this album. The differences in the tracks are subtle, and if you don’t pay close attention, it can all sound very similar over the course of its 35+ minutes. You really need to sit back, close your eyes, and let Al burrow in without distraction. It’s the musical equivalent of a giant soft pillow: let it envelop you, and it will fill you with a sense of peace.