In 1969, budding soul singer Al Green met Memphis record producer Willie Mitchell, and the rest, as they say, is history. Mitchell signed Green to his Hi Records label, and over the next decade he released a dozen albums, half of which topped the charts.Continue reading →
In 1975, performer/scholar Pearl Williams-Jones wrote an article entitled “Afro-American Gospel Music: A Crystallization of the Black Aesthetic,” where she illustrated how gospel music represents the totality of black aesthetic expressions. Ultimately, her interpretation of the genre not only presented gospel music as a religious art form, but also as a vehicle for bridging the gap between sacred and secular practices in black music. Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration, a new release by EMI Gospel, is a contemporary manifestation of Williams-Jones’ notion of gospel music, as it highlights duets between religious and mainstream music artists: Johnny Lang is paired with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Robert Randolph with the Clark Sisters, Al Green with Heather Headley, and 3 Doors Down with the Soul Children of Chicago. This CD is a tribute to gospel music that is long overdue, as the genre has functioned as a breeding ground for many of the mainstream music industry’s top artists from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Curtis Mayfield to Fantasia. In fact, gospel music has constantly shaped the performance practices and, essentially, the sound of American popular music.
Some of the highlighted duets– such as rocker Jon Bon Jovi with The Washington Youth Choir as well as R&B diva Mavis Staples with Patty Griffin– are overly ambitious and do not necessarily capture the gospel feel (a qualitative performance character), or are unevenly matched vocally. Nevertheless, there are several jewels on this project such as the rendition of the Impressions 1965 single, “People Get Ready” by the Reverend Al Green and Heather Headley. Green and Headley’s extended vocal range and elongated phrasings are superbly complimentary. In addition, their ability to pace their individual ad libs creates mature vocal placement, which keeps them from over-singing and over-shadowing each other. This track is a good source for novice singers who are searching for an example of how to execute soulful music with patience.
“Oh Happy Day,” featuring Queen Latifah with the Jubilation Choir, represents another notable duet on this project. Queen Latifah’s smooth and warm vocals parallel the rounded and legato phrasing of the Jubilation Choir. In addition, the instrumental accompaniment on this track illustrates a quintessential example of sacred/secular fluidity in black music. The Earth, Wind & Fire styled horn riffs, guitar lines incorporating bluesy and churchy vocabulary (if there is a difference), and vamp reminiscent of Sunday morning worship services, all merge to form a distinct sound that resonates within the traditional black church as well as the broader mainstream community that appreciates soul music.
“I Believe” presents the soulful vocals of Johnny Lang and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This song paints a picture of a southern-based gritty, communal, hand clapping and foot stomping church deep in the back woods where all the saints are on one accord expressing their commitment to faith in God’s word. Lang’s raspy vocals create the feel of the shouts and squalls of the black preacher, while the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ background harmonies and rhythmic execution reflect those in the “amen” corner whose excitement for the gospel spreads throughout the congregation (and in this case, the listener), prompting others to sing along with similar conviction. In addition, Lang’s guitar playing, grounded in the blues tradition, meshes well with the down home ambiance of the track.
Following is EMI’s promo video which demonstrates the widespread appeal of the project:
These tracks, along with others on the CD, reflect an ongoing tradition in black music where sacred and secular practices co-exist. They also illustrate the fact that gospel music transcends boundaries of race, gender and generation. More importantly, Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration presents timeless songs that have assisted in developing and sustaining the beliefs of people throughout the world. It is a must have for those who desire to revisit the more traditional gospel music repertoire in a unique and contemporary way.
Al Green’s status in the pantheon of African American music is beyond question. The albums Green released in the 1970s-Let’s Stay Together, Call Me, Al Green Explores Your Mind, Al Green is Love-stand beside the classics of Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, and Aretha Franklin as the sounds that defined a musical era. With the release of The Belle Albumin 1977, Green turned away from secular stardom and devoted the next two decades to his spiritual calling, pastoring the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Green continued to make good music, earning eight Grammy awards for his gospel performances, but only hard core gospel fans would dispute the notion that Green’s most important work is 30 years in the past. His two “comeback” albums, I Can’t Stop(2003) and Everything’s OK(2005) had the feel of more-than-competent exercises in nostalgia rather than music that had to be heard.
In an interview with Wax Poetics (no. 28, 2008), hip-hop drum legend Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson states that, when he entered the studio to begin work on Green’s new album, Lay It Down, his intention was to make ” the thirty-year follow-up to the Belle record.” Sharing production duties with Green and virtuoso R&B keyboardist/producer James Poyser, Thompson at least came close to realizing his goal. Where most cross-generational collaborations between hip hop and soul artists have suffered from their obvious, and doomed, desire to make the elders sound hip, Lay It Down contents itself with the classic soul virtues of emotional and musical depth. “The thing that I find missing from music today,” Questlove observed, “is the feeling. That, to me, is the most important ingredient missing from the soul-food platter today.”
To capture that feeling, Questlove and Poyser (best known for his work with Erykah Badu, Common, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, and Mariah Carey) convinced Green to explore a more improvisatory process than the one he developed with long-time producer Willie Mitchell in the 1960s and 1970s. Working with a first-rate band including guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford and bassist Adam Blackstone, Questlove and Poyser organized free-form sessions, letting the tape run no matter what was going on. Where in the past Green had worked mostly from composed charts, the songs on Lay It Down emerged from the give-and-take between the musicians. “Al Green could give most freestyle rappers a run for their money,” Questlove observed. “The energy and excitement that you hear in his voice, him ad-libbing to himself, talking to us, laughing, that’s just genuine excitement of what he never knew was still around, which was the feeling of the music.”
Here is a a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Lay It Down:
You can hear the excitement from the first bars of the title cut, which opens the album. The sound is classic soul: simple guitar line, bass and drums hitting the rhythms with unforced precision, the Dap-King horn section smoothing the way for Green’s vocal entry. Anthony Hamilton, one of three young R&B artists who makes a guest appearance on the album, provides perfect harmonic and emotional counterpoint. The best thing you can say about “Lay It Down” is that you could put it on The Belle Album and no one would notice the change. That’s not to say it’s derivative. Nothing on Green’s classic albums felt like it was copying anything else. The highlights include both ballads-the title song and “Take Your Time” (featuring Corrine Bailey Rae)-and funky up-tempo cuts “I’m Wild About You” and “Standing in the Rain,” both powered by Questlove’s virtuoso drumming.
Lay It Down won’t replace Al Green Explores Your Mind on anyone’s heavy-listening rotation, but, unlike the vast majority of new releases by the singers of Green’s generation, it won’t gather dust on the shelf.