Rise up with the Al Green Anthology

The box set's producer, music critic Robert Gordon, made some inspired choices. Several spoken passages, taken from Robert Mugge's documentary film about Green and a Hi promotional album, are deftly interwoven with the music; the segue from Green illustrating how he wrote "Tired of Being Alone" into the single itself is delicious, and for once, he sounds coherent. Among other treats on the Anthology, Gordon includes four cuts from Green's out-of-print first album, and 13 live performances culled from broadcasts of the television shows Soul and SoundStage, Mugge's 1984 documentary The Gospel According to Al Green, and Green's Tokyo . . . Live album.

Still, there are a few striking omissions. One of Green's greatest Hi sides, "Strong As Death," is missing, as is his long opus "Beware" (both were released on a 1989 album of Hi rarities, Love Ritual). Since the set's four discs allow for five-plus hours of material, but contain a total of only three hours and 45 minutes, this is puzzling and distressing. Green and his fans deserve better. The new box set and Green's gospel albums show it's a mistake to think he turned his back on pretty love songs when he left Hi, or that his seriously spiritual work only came afterward. If anything, the Hi sides are unified by glimpses of God in the thickets of romance, and in his full religious mode Green makes sublime noises. To do him justice, an overview of his career ought to include at least some of his later work, especially his live, church-wrecking performances.

The great soul singers--O.V. Wright, Aretha Franklin and Green's idol, Sam Cooke--always had one foot in the church. Some came from it, some returned; but only Green, throughout a long career, has seamlessly toggled back and forth. In showing Green's development, from gospel to soul singer, and back, and back again, the Al Green Anthology may be shortsighted, but it remains a crucial and long-overdue collection.

Almost Heaven
If any contemporary artist is a worthy successor to Green, it is Mighty Sam McClain, who recently released his third Audioquest album, Sledgehammer Soul & Down Home Blues. McClain had a minor hit single in the mid-'60s before disappearing for more than two decades, making him a very small footnote in the history of American soul and blues.

Until 1993.
That year, Audioquest, a company best known for manufacturing fancy stereo cables, released Give It Up to Love. With McClain's big-as-a-barn voice featured on nine original compositions and two covers (Carlene Carter's "Too Proud" and Al Green's "I Feel Good"), Give It Up is still the strongest soul album of this decade, and one of the best-recorded packages of any era. McClain seemed to have channeled the coy religious sensibility of Green and meshed it with the velvet-and-sand timbre of Bobby Bland. The title cut alone has been known to make grown, sensible women weak in the knees--that is, the ones who've been lucky enough to hear it.

Give It Up to Love sold respectably well for a tiny label's release, in the neighborhood of 50,000 copies. It was just reissued by JVC in a pricey audiophile package, giving the high-end-stereo set another whack at this gorgeous slab of deep-fried Southern-style artistry.

At less than half the price, Sledgehammer is nearly the first album's equal. McClain writes and sings about the same themes over and over--love and faith and endurance in the face of pain--and it's all you really need.

McClain was born near Monroe, Louisiana, in 1943. His father walked out when he was a baby. His mother sang with a local Baptist gospel group, and had him onstage with her from the age of 5. McClain tangled with his stepfather and left home when he was 13. He found work as the valet for Little Melvin Underwood, a guitarist on the Southern juke-joint circuit, and in time took over singing chores. From 1963 to '66, McClain sang with the Dothan Sextet, an R&B vocal group that covered Alabama and Florida and occasionally backed Otis Redding.

When Florida deejay "Papa" Don Schroeder heard McClain, he convinced him to go to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and cut some records. Their first effort was a soulful version of Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams," the '63 country hit for Patsy Cline. McClain's version sold more than 100,000 copies. A string of 45s followed on the Amy/Bell, Atlantic and Malaco labels, as well as a run at Harlem's famous Apollo Theater.

Then, somehow, it all fell apart. McClain wound up homeless.
"I couldn't picture how that could be until I found myself there," he says, speaking by phone from his New Hampshire home. "That was my starting point for some real humility. It was just a bad-luck problem, mismanagement, misunderstanding about life. I didn't have a good plan."

McClain wandered from Nashville through Texas and Florida. When he finally returned to a recording studio, it was in New Orleans in 1984. He cut a six-song EP, Your Perfect Companion, for the Orleans label (he recut two of those songs, his composition "Hey, Miss Bea" and the shimmering "Pray," on his new album). But he was soon frustrated with Orleans and its owner, songwriter/producer Carlo Ditta.

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