Rise up with the Al Green Anthology

If boxed sets are an honor and not just a sales ploy, then no contemporary artist deserves one more than Al Green, whose earliest and finest work is compiled in a four-disc set released on Valentine's Day. The timing was right. Not only is Green the greatest living soul singer, he's also a prophet of love whose only competition is Barry White on a very, very good day.

For a hard-core soul fan, the Al Green Anthology is one of the major collections of the CD era, short-listed with Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story, Aretha Franklin's Queen of Soul and the James Brown Star Time box. For the casual listener--say, someone who recognizes Green's No. 1 single "Let's Stay Together" and little more--this comprehensive, illuminating set will be a revelation. Green's is the exceedingly rare case where mainstream acceptance coincided with art of great subtlety and conviction.

Green was born in Forrest City, Arkansas, in 1946, the sixth of 10 children. His family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when he was 13, and his father was a devout man who wouldn't allow pop records in the house. From age 9 to 16, Green performed in a gospel group with several of his brothers, under his father's direction. Still in his teens, he joined a local pop group in need of a singer and got lucky out of the gate: In 1967, Green and the Soul Mates reached No. 5 on the R&B charts with their single "Back Up Train."

He floundered until the next year, when he met Memphis trumpeter Willie Mitchell when both performed at a club in Midland, Texas. Mitchell had already produced sides for Bobby Bland and O.V. Wright, and believed that if he found a singer with the same grit, but smoother, he could cross over to the white market. Under Mitchell's careful direction, Green cultivated his falsetto range until it was more supple and beautiful than any in pop before or since. It worked. From 1971 to '74, recording for Hi Records, Green and Mitchell put seven singles in the pop Top Ten.

One of their first efforts was a cover of The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand," cut in 1968 and included on Anthology. Over the years, Green and others have ridiculed the cover as an obvious misstep, but they undervalue it. In Green's hands, this slightly dippy bit of Brit pop acquires a zeal and urgency that Lennon and McCartney only dreamed of when they were pimply kids listening to imported Chuck Berry 45s. It also hints at a spiritual dimension that wouldn't surface in The Beatles' work until the middle of their career, when they tried to appropriate Indian mysticism. For Green, a product of the Southern black church, fitting God into a pop song--or vice versa--was already second nature.

On Anthology, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is preceded by a few tantalizing seconds of studio chatter. "Yeah, we got the feelin' now," Green says, "we got the FEELIN' NOW!" Because we know what follows, there's something fine and reassuring about this exclamation. Like Elmore James shouting, "Let's cut it, let's cut it, let's cut it!" just before his greatest waxing of "Dust My Broom," it's proof that the artist knew his worth before the charts confirmed it. Then someone snaps, "Shut up, Al Green!"

For Green's loyal fans, this, too, is understandable. While he's a genius in his domain, Green is also one of the biggest bullshit artists in pop. Yet that same flakiness, so maddening in interviews, enlivens his best performances, where his ramblings achieve a sermonlike purpose. When Green covered The Temptations' Top Ten hit "I Can't Get Next to You," for example, he added a fervent, meandering coda that becomes the point of the song: "You see, I've been trying to call ya all day long," he pleads, "but ya see, I don't have your phone number, honey."

When Green and Mitchell parted ways in 1976, Green bought a Memphis church and gave himself back to the Lord. He also built his own studio, where he recorded The Belle Album, a peculiar but winning mix of secular and spiritual sentiments. Over the next decade, he cut eight albums of gospel music, for A&M and the Christian label Myrrh. Some of those songs were nearly the equal of his incendiary '70s sides, but he would never assemble an album as strong as 1970's Al Green Gets Next to You.

By focusing on his Hi period (presumably for licensing reasons), Anthology (released by the Right Stuff, a division of Capitol/EMI) showcases Green in front of the greatest band he ever worked with. The Hodges brothers--guitarist Teenie, bassist Leroy and keyboardist Charles--and drummers Howard Grimes and Al Jackson perform flawlessly on every Hi side, never cluttering the mix, always flattering Green's delicate flights. Leroy Hodges and the two drummers create a peanut-butter-thick bottom, and Teenie's plucked notes are worth an evening of Eddie Van Halen's fireworks. With the equally understated Memphis Horns and backup trio Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes dubbed for the ride, songs such as "Love and Happiness" and "You Ought to Be With Me" are both dense and fine-spun, like exquisite, flourless chocolate cakes.

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