Classic soul man Al Green got a surprise sales boost in January when President Barack Obama sang a line from the singer’s 1972 hit, “Let’s Stay Together.” Obama crooned the excerpt at a fundraising event at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
Following the president’s performance, “Let’s Stay Together” experienced a 490 percent sales increase. Millions of viewers watched video of Obama’s singing via YouTube.
Green sang prior to the president’s appearance that night at the Apollo. He gave the president a good review.
“Well, I should give him a good review,” the singer said last week from Memphis. “I mean, he sounds better than I do. I didn’t know he could even sing.”
Beyond “Let’s Stay Together,” Green’s many hits, most of them produced and arranged by the late Willie Mitchell in Memphis, include such stone soul classics as “Love and Happiness,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “I’m Still in Love With You” and “Take Me to the River.”
The songs were made in a special place and time. Memphis in the early ’70s. Local record labels Stax and Hi were hot and the sessions Elvis Presley had recently recorded at the city’s American Sound Studio put him back in the charts.
“It was just a busy time,” Green recalled. “People were dropping in, dropping through. We had a good time. Me and Isaac Hayes, we were wagering about who could be the biggest artist.”
It was a friendly competition.
“Me and Isaac saw each in the Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.,” Green remembered. “We bust out laughing, hugging each other. I mean, it wasn’t really personal-personal. He did the Shaft theme and I put out ‘Let’s Stay Together.’ I don’t think anybody really knows how we did those things. We just did them when it was in time to do them.”
A few years before Green and Mitchell’s brilliant made-in-Memphis recordings, the singer got his shot at being a Motown Records artist. He auditioned with some fellow Michigan artists, Junior Walker and the All-Stars, with whom he’d been working for some years.
“Junior Walker and the All-Stars were living in Battle Creek and I was living in Grand Rapids, so it’s only 60 miles apart,” Green said. “They got accepted, but Al, the little shy kid over in the corner that won’t say nothing, well, he didn’t get accepted. So, I just said, ‘Well, hey. Maybe it’s not my time. But this is good for you, Junior Walker and the All-Stars. I’m happy for you.’ ”
Green had better luck later, after Mitchell invited him to Memphis.
“Willie told me, ‘I just want you to see the studio.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll go see it.’ So I went to see it. Then, all of a sudden, Willie said, ‘Well, you mind singing something? Just do it so I can hear your voice.’ And then it comes into, ‘Do you have songs?’ I say, ‘I have a couple.’ And that gets into ‘Tired of Being Alone,’ yeah.”
Green was on tour in Australia when Mitchell, his mentor, passed away in January 2010, at 81.
“It’s kind of like trying to replace Michael Jackson,” Green said. “You can’t replace Michael Jackson. You just have to go on with what’s going on now, do what you’re doing. You can’t replace Willie Mitchell.”
Green and Mitchell reunited for two albums in the past decade, 2002’s I Can’t Stop and 2005’s Everything’s OK. And when Green recorded his 2008 album, Lay It Down, his young collaborators — including John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae, the Dap-Kings and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson from the Roots — worked from the Mitchell-Green template.
“Everybody in New York gravitated towards that particular sound,” Green said.
“The Dap-Kings did the horns,” he explained, “they go study the sound on the Willie Mitchell albums and just about do it almost identical. John Legend is on the piano and Corinne Bailey Rae’s on the guitar. Everybody working up tunes and putting them down. There’s stuff that we cut in those sessions that haven’t come out yet. It’s some good stuff.”
For his first Baton Rouge concert since a 2006 show at the River Center — Friday at L’auberge Casino — the singer said his 14-member troupe will perform his own hits and a medley of soul standards by others. But no two of his shows are alike, he emphasized.
“I don’t always do anything. My music director switches around a lot.”
The audience also will get to hear Green’s talented daughters Rubi, Kori and Alva.
“You should come and hear them,” he said. “They have their mom’s talent. She’s a beautiful lady and a church participant. The girls are fabulous. And it feels right. When I can look behind me and they are doing background work for ‘Take Me to the River,’ or whatever the case may be, I don’t have to worry about it. It’s always there. Yeah, they’re just so close until I can’t tell who’s singing tenor and who’s singing alto. They’re really tight, yeah.”
Green credits Baton Rouge for playing a major role in his career.
“I kind of started out of Baton Rouge from this one guy who had a record shop downtown,” he recalled. “He kept playing my song, ‘Back Up Train,’ all day and all night.”
“Back Up Train,” recorded by Green’s ’60s group, the Soul Mates, became his first hit. The song reached No. 5 on the rhythm-and-blues charts in 1968, before his move to Memphis.
Green made an unannounced visit to the record store and introduced himself to the man who, at least at the time, may have been his biggest fan in America.
“He says, ‘You the guy who’s singing the song?’ I say, ‘Yep.’ He says, ‘Man! Unbelievable! I play this song night and day!’ I say, ‘I been hearing that.’
“Baton Rouge,” Green added, “it’s not the most extravagant town in America, not as big and fabulous as New Orleans or some of those towns east of there, but it has its own feel and flavor. Baton Rouge has a wonderful personality.”
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