My Pop Life #214 : Belle – Al Green


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Belle   –   Al Green

Belle….it’s you that I want, but it’s him that I need

A song which turns the history of African American music on its head, the rhythm & blues universe being filled with gospel singers who turned to secular music, including Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Sam & Dave and James Ingram – to name but a few – here however, a soul man from Memphis has found Jesus and started to sing gospel music.  I say ‘started’ because although he grew up in the gospel tradition, and had a group called the Greene Brothers in the late 50s with his brothers, he was kicked out of the band by his father when he was caught listening to Jackie Wilson.  The big sinner.  He wouldn’t sing gospel again for 20 years.  Belle is  lodged into my cortex as the great turning point in Al Green’s life when he renounced pop music and went back to God, as suggested in the line quoted above, but lodged in  my heart perhaps as something else.  Maybe I seek God in my life but, I’ve never been a religious man and this morning I felt it more likely that this refers to my need for a father figure?  Let’s explore that possibility for a minute.

Indeed it may in fact roll out to be the same thing.  Safety.  Arm around the shoulder.  Protection.  He knows best.  I must have felt some degree of this from my father for the first seven years of my life.  There he was, getting up, going to work, getting some bread in Portsmouth once he’d finished his English Degree at Cambridge.

where’s dad ?  Gone to work, get some bread

This was actually my first sentence, circa late 1958, according to mum.  He told us stories at bedtime, often made them up on the spot.  We had no idea – we being Paul and I who shared a bedroom.  Various creatures inhabited these stories – The Grimp and The Cahoodler spring out immediately although their shapes have always been blurry and indistinct.  They were cartoon animals though in my unformed mind.  We used to go on long walks together, always, and that continues to this very day when we see each other.  Nature, fresh air, leaves, butterflies, the sky, farms – all part of our shared experience.  Musically Dad never liked Pop Music so never joined in Mum’s and our dances in the kitchen or singing harmonies in the chorus in the living room.  If he was in a bad mood he’d walk in and turn it off and we’d all be sat on the settee and told to listen to Mozart or Beethoven and Paul would giggle first then Mum and we’d be ordered out, banished.  Banish. Ed.  I have some pictures of this era which was I guess 1957-1965.

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Cambridge 1958, Mum, Dad, me

When I look back on it all now, how lucky I am to be able to do this, my parents seem so ridiculously young.  How did they do it?  Three kids in the first six years of marriage.  It broke.  He strayed.  He moved out. I’ve told this story before.  But the thing is, emotionally, Dad became missing.  Never hugely physically affectionate in my memory at least, now he was out of the house, almost out of my life, and I missed him.  I’ve missed him ever since.

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But.  I’ve never really had a true father figure in my life since then.  Dad is still there, up in West Yorkshire with Beryl, and he and I have a good relationship, we speak fairly often.  So I don’t know if that is why I love this song.  It may seem like a long shot in the end, because there’s a lot deep yearning in there.  It doesn’t belong in Al Green’s gospel catalogue though, because it is still a sexual love song sung by a soul man.  The chords, the changes are fantastic.  Smoky, sultry, sexy even though he’s ultimately struggling with it.  Maybe that’s the twist for me – the magnetic attachment I have to the song, ie  maybe I’m gay !   Haha all theories welcome.

a)  I’m actually deeply religious just haven’t acknowledged it yet

b)  I’m gay, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

c)  I always needed a father figure, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

d)  It’s a sexy song, and I like sex, just haven’t acknowledged etc

e)  It’s a spiritual song, and it feeds my soul, just haven’t blah blah

f)  it’s a fine tune !!

g)  it is actually Al Green’s best performance on record

 

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                    Belle – The Lord and I have been friends for a mighty long time…              Belle – leaving him has never ever really crossed my mind

 

The Belle Album was released in 1977 just as punk was sweeping the UK and I was busy joining in (like a good law student).  I think I bought it after the gig though.  I was going steady with Mumtaz, and we were both fans of Al Green.  I wrote about the Damascene conversion I had in 1971 in My Pop Life #101.   By then my father had been gone for six years and was about to remarry and move to Yorkshire.   I was going to see Al Green with my girlfriend.  The gig was in The Venue, Victoria Street  and it was 1978.  It was a little like The Forum/Town & Country in Kentish Town, but we were sat at little tables which were spread around the downstairs – cabaret seating with waitresses and food.  Slightly raked seating?   It was actually a tremendous place to see someone live, but it didn’t last that long as a venue.  I did see Todd Rundgren there four nights running in 1978, which is pretty fanboy-esque, a series of gigs that became a live album called Back To The Bars.

I scarcely remember the Al Green gig except that it was exquisite. He had a kind of jumpsuit on as I recall, a cravat, and cuban heels. He sang all the greats, the  highlights were Love & Happiness, Tired Of Being Alone, Can’t Get Next To You, and this song Belle.  When he sang Let’s Stay Together he came down into the tables and chairs and distributed stem roses to us, holding the mic and singing to each table.  It was my first time seeing Al Green and it was extraordinary, but every time I’ve seen him since (about eight times) he always does this – walks down, touches people, sings to them, a ripple of excitement goes through the audience every time.  But in the end it’s the singing with Al.  The voice of course is extraordinary but it’s what he does with it, the turns of phrase, the whoops, the ad-libs, the phrasing, the grace notes, the pure inhabiting of every note in every song.  It all comes from within the great man’s soul.

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The song Belle is extraordinary.  You think it is finished as the music fades but he has a whole other level to go to, and he goes there.  He is testifying to us and his woman that he wants her more than she can imagine, but he needs The Lord even more than that.  And at that point in his life, he meant it.  Four years earlier, and for reasons that I have not fully understood, but reported to be his refusal to marry her (she was already married with children), his girlfriend Mary Woodson White had cooked a pan of grits (like semolina) and thrown them over him causing severe burns on his back and arms before shooting herself dead with his pistol.  A note in her purse gave the reasons.  After this a shocked and changed Al Green became ordained as a pastor and even as his record sales were falling was moving away from sexual music towards holy music, and a holy life.  Just after we saw him at The Venue he fell off a stage in early 1979 and took it as a sign that he had to change direction finally and forever. I was lucky to see him on the point of renouncing sinful music…

In the song we hear Al Green struggling with his love for a woman and sings at one point, about Jesus :

he’s my bright morning star

The Morning Star is of course the planet Venus, generally associated with the sacred feminine.  The other line that always pings out for me is :

“I know that you can understand a little country boy”

Al was born on a farm in Dansby, Arkansas in 1946 to a sharecroppers family.  I spent ten years in a small village called Selmeston in East Sussex, opposite a farm.  We used to help with the harvest in August.

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The next time Al Green  came to London it was with a gospel set and a huge choir, and none of his soul material got an airing, not even Belle.  This happened fairly regularly through the 80s, usually at Hammersmith Odeon.  The Reverend would always sing Let’s Stay Together (Jesus) though, often coming down into the crowd for that song, walking among us as it were, sometimes handing out roses.  I saw a fair number of these shows as an avowed atheist simply because he was my favourite singer in the world.  I once saw Kevin Rowland in the audience,  paying homage.  No one can touch Al frankly, not even Smokey Robinson, my other favourite, Otis Redding, or Queen Aretha may her soul rest in peace.  Al for me tops all of these.  Maybe Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would eventually nestle on the pinnacle, technique and passion to burn, but come on – I’d always choose Al Green to be honest.

It was in the late-eighties I guess (?) when Rita and I went to see him at Festival Hall – and he’d started putting some of the old soul classics back into the show after ten years and ten gospel albums. He sang Otis Redding‘s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long and Sam & Dave‘s Hold On I’m Coming (I think?) and one of his ? but I can’t remember which one, maybe the mighty Love & Happiness.  Over the next ten years he slowly left gospel music behind and started producing pure soul music again in 1995 with the album Your Heart’s In Good Hands which is magnificent, like a sigh of relief almost. On the track Love Is A Beautiful Thing  Al sings the words let’s stay together, cos I’m still in love with you, call me, for the good times, tired of being alone, here i am…  a veritable litany of the titles of his old soul hits which are clearly coming back through his nerve endings into his pores into his heart and out of his mouth.  The great return was a celebration – he is still a Reverend, but now he was back and singing everything.  Our friends Lynn and Tony saw him in Central Park in this period when the concert was almost rained off, then the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine struck Al Green directly centre stage and he announced he was going to sing Love and Happiness for the first time for years. Magical.

In 1988 I went on a long road trip across the USA from D.C. to Phoenix Arizona, written about in My Pop Life #148 .  On the way out west I stopped in Memphis for a day and hit up the various landmarks of that fine city : Graceland of course, the Lorraine Motel where a homeless lady gave me a history lesson, Beale Street where I got suckered, then the next morning driving down to Hale Road in South Memphis to find Al Green’s church, the one he bought as he was recovering from the burns.

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He wasn’t there, but I’d needed to set eyes upon the place which was his physical and spiritual base, especially since I’d just lost the bulk of my cash and was about to embark on a strange week of driving without money.

With Jenny in 1999 we would see Al Green at The Royal Albert Hall when Lucy was singing with support act Beverly Knight, then later that year we travelled down to Glastonbury (our only visit) and saw him there too.  Quite a contrast, or not.  Two great English cathedrals of music. Magnifique, as ever.   I think my favourite Al Green album (the one that gets the most plays = the favourite doesn’t it?) is Al Green Explores Your Mind from 1974.  It is perfect.  Has the songs Take Me To The River,  The City and Sha-La-La.  But he hasn’t made a duff album.

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I always call it “Al Green Explodes Your Mind”.   Which is a more accurate title.

The next record was in 2002 – I Can’t Stop which was when he came back to the UK again and we saw him live, once again, singing soul music.  The voice hadn’t gone anywhere and was still extraordinary.

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He’s still handing out roses!

Watching Al Green live I would look forward to his favourite moment, my favourite piece of the ceremony  : you know when singers go high and they move the microphone away from their mouths?  Al does that until his arm is completely straight and he can’t get the mic any further away – so he will just put it down at his feet and sing without amplification.  The audience hush and he draws us in. It is an immaculate moment. He gets the spirit like this at absolutely every gig and it is always the highlight.

 

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Top Al Green tunes that never make it onto Greatest Hits albums you ask?  I can help you there.  Old Time Lovin from 1971’s Let’s Stay Together is as good as anything he’s done. Guitar-based song, which is unusual for Al.  His long-time friend and producer Willie Mitchell played keyboards, often the bubbling Hammond organ on many of Al Green’s songs and it became a signature sound on the Hi record label, all recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, along with folk like Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright.  I should note here that Willie was the first person to visit Green in hospital after his second & third degree burns were skin grafted, they made 11 amazing albums together, but the year before Belle was released they’d parted company because Willie wasn’t interested in producing gospel music.  Al Green produced The Belle Album himself.

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Another great song is Home Again on the wonderful album Living For You (1973).  Strings and organ dominate the groove, with tasteful horn flourishes and pads.  His singing is exquisite. Willie Mitchell and Al Green in sync.

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My favourite is I’m Glad You’re Mine on the LP I’m Still In Love With You (with its stunning title track !) from 1972. Incredible drumming from Al Clark of Booker T & the MGs across town at Stax Records, who co-wrote many of the early songs with Al Green & Willie Mitchell, and played on most of them. And finally I’d recommend the last track on the masterpiece LP Call Me (1973) which is called simply Jesus Is Waiting.  Enjoy.

Rare live performance of Belle on my birthday 1978 in Japan :

Playlist of all the tunes mentioned above :

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