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.

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.

He made a better match with Joe Harley, formerly of Audioquest, who produced his last three albums. McClain is due to return to the studio for Audioquest in September.

"It's been an up-and-down thing," he says of his career. "Right now, I'm doing better than I've ever done in my life. You know, I've never had this opportunity before. . . . It's amazing, I tell people all the time, I sing some of the same songs I sang 20 years ago and couldn't get nobody to look at me--and today I'm gettin' paid!"

McClain has included a long ballad on each of his Audioquest albums. On Sledgehammer, it's "Don't Write Me Off," a gritty, pleading seven-minute number in the Deep Southern Soul tradition, with a long spoken introduction. In his liner notes, he dedicates the song to "Mrs. Sandra McClain, my fourth and last wife."

Last year, McClain moved to his wife's hometown of Epping, New Hampshire. He has a house now and the things that go with it, including a place to store his mementos, seven acres of land, a few cats and a dog. He's quit drinking, he says, making it more likely he'll stay rooted this time.

"I don't need no mojo hand or nothin', it's just me and Jesus. I've known I was going to do this all my life. Nobody thought I was fucking smart enough. I'm supposed to be the black sheep. I won't ever be shit, that's what my stepfather told me. I was just waiting for the opportunity.

"Well, hello, I'm here. It's me.


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