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Q&A: Al Green

The Memphis great on his stellar new CD and Seventies hits

Austin Scaggs Jul 10, 2008

Christian Lantry/EMI

In Al Green’s early-Seventies heyday, he, producer Willie Mitchell and the Hi Records rhythm section would cut records as fast as they could write them, creating masterpieces in mere minutes. But for Green’s new disc, Lay It Down, it took more than two years to find what he calls the “harmony” of the album. The wait was worth it: Co-produced by Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Lay It Down is a throwback to Green’s classic sound, but features contemporary artists such as John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton. Green is effusive about the new album: “It’s magnifical! Even better than magnificent!”

How was your experience working with ?uestlove?

I think ?uest is a great drummer and a visionary. But there’s only so much you can play on drums, right? There were so many other people with so much expression. James Poyser on the organ, and the guitar man, Spanky Alford. Spanky was playing chords that I could never dream of! I wish he could have heard the whole album [Alford passed away in March].

There are a handful of great duets on the new album, but Corinne Bailey Rae’s song really stands out.

I think she’s incredible. She’s an itty-bitty little thing. I gave her a hug, and I had to readjust my arms! She just went out there and sat down and started playing the song ”˜Take Your Time,’ and I’m going, “What’s that?”

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Did you ever duet with Marvin Gaye?

I would like to say yes, but that never happened. In those days, people didn’t sing together like they do now. I met Marvin once in New Jersey. I went to his hotel, and he was chillin’ in bed. He was like, “ ”˜Let’s Stay Together’ is kicking butt out there,” and I said, “Well, ”˜Let’s Get It On’ ain’t bad!”

So there wasn’t a rivalry between Hi Records and Motown and, say, Stax?

I wasn’t tryin’ to outdo Motown, and Motown ain’t tryin’ to outdo Stax. We just happened to be out at the same time, when everybody was offering a different type of music ”“ different colours of the rainbow.

You and Willie Mitchell wrote a lot on the fly. Which songs on your new album were conceived in the studio?

”˜You’ve Got the Love I Need’ was written just like that. Anthony Hamilton just came in the studio, and we did it. I also did that with ”˜Let’s Stay Together’ and ”˜Tired of Being Alone.’ They were just written like a painter would take a brush to the canvas and try to express himself in a two-minute span. Those are the songs!

Some of your biggest hits.

Oh, yeah. There were lots of kids being born around then! [Laughs]

In your autobiography, you write that you’re inspired by the sound of birds singing. Which ones sing the best?

Robins. They were around our house a lot when I was growing up. And other little brown birds, singing in the trees. I don’t know the names of them ”“ I’m not a veterinarian [laughs]. But I’d always listen to them because they sounded so beautiful. I thank God that he made me so that I could listen to the beautiful things in life.

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What are your favourite more obscure Al Green songs?

My version of ”˜Pretty Woman’ is one. Willie wanted me to do it but wouldn’t let me listen to the Roy Orbison, he said, “sing it the way you sing it.”

Is there a reason for the white suit and all-white background for the cover of your 1972 LP I’m Still in Love With You?

That cover, to me, symbolised that we had made it through all these growing pains in civil rights ”“ and in 1972, we were finding our footing again.

How do you respond when people say you’re the greatest singer ever?

I’m just humbled. Willie Mitchell said to me the other day, “You don’t know how your music has touched people.” I said, “What are you talkin’ about?” And he just laughed and shook his head.

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