When Al Green steps off a Greyhound in Midland, Texas, in the winter of 1968, he has 35 cents in his pocket. Everything else he owns is in a cardboard suitcase. His soiled, lime-green polyester suit—hardly adequate in this biting Texas wind—looks like he hasn’t taken it off in a week, and the soles of his imitation alligator loafers are wearing through. For nine months now, he’s been playing lonely roadhouse clubs across the South—“the chitlin circuit”—singing his lone hit, “Back Up Train,” for the ten people who show up each night to hear it. He’s hungry and tired, but his only prospects for a meal and a decent night’s sleep lie at a roadhouse on the outskirts of town. So he picks up the cardboard suitcase and sets off down the highway, probably wishing he’d never given up that car-waxing gig back in Grand Rapids.
In his autobiography, Take Me to the River, Al interprets what happened that night the way he’s interpreted virtually every moment in his career since becoming an ordained minister: as an act of divine intervention. Willie Mitchell, an influential bandleader, was headed home to Memphis after a successful West Coast tour. Al, a one-hit nobody, was literally singing for his dinner. Intrigued by his unconventional delivery, Willie bought him a drink after the show (Al exchanged it for a ham sandwich), and asked a question interviewers would be asking for decades: Where’d you learn to sing like that? (“Here and there” was the answer Al gave, coyly glossing over his love for Jackie Wilson, his time on the Baptist revival circuit, and his childhood penchant for mimicking bird songs.) A professional curiosity, that’s all it was. No offer of a record deal, nor a contract. It wasn’t until the night was ending, and the roadhouse owner refused to pay the musicians, claiming that they hadn’t drawn a big enough crowd to cover his expenses, that Al worked up the nerve to approach Willie again. He didn’t have the cost of a bus ticket to Grand Rapids. Would he drive him as far as Memphis?
Two years later, Willie and Al are hunkered down in Royal Recording Studio in Memphis, the home of Hi Records, working on the songs that would fill out Green is Blues, his first for the label, and the precursor to a string of classics, three of which ended up on this Rolling Stone list. The session isn’t going well. Al wants to huff and puff his way onto the charts the way big-lunged stars like Otis Redding, James Brown, and Jackie Wilson did before him. Willie, who came up playing trumpet in a jazz band, wants something quieter and more nuanced. What Otis did with a shout, he wants Al to do with a whisper. Al isn’t quite there yet. The takes are piling up, and still Willie is shaking his head. “Slow it down,” he says. “Soften it up. Feel what you’re singing.” He points at the band, a group of Memphis musicians he's assembled. “Let them be gritty.”
Probably not enough has been said about Hi Rhythm in recent years. Yes, they backed Cat Power circa The Greatest, and yes, their guitarist, Teenie, who died in 2014, was Drake’s uncle. (That’s him mugging in front of a Memphis chicken restaurant in the video for “Worst Behavior.”) But in the early ‘70s they exerted a massive influence on soul music with their lazy, swinging rhythms, their high-powered horn section, and those delicately strummed guitars: what became known as “the Memphis sound.”
The story begins back in 1949, when Willie called on an untested, 14-year-old named Al Jackson Jr. to fill in on drums for a Memphis swing band. “He was the worst drummer you ever heard,” he later told Rolling Stone. But where others heard an incompetent amateur, Papa Willie heard potential. By the time Jackson was in his late twenties, he was drumming for Booker T and the MGs, the legendary Stax Records house band. You might not know Jackson’s name, but you know his rhythms: Sam & Dave’s “Hold on, I’m Coming”; Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour”; the MG’s “Green Onions”; all the Otis Redding hits. (That’s his beat Kanye sampled on “Otis”.) That loping, syncopated rhythm buoying “Let’s Stay Together”? That’s Jackson, too. His talents became so renowned that Willie had to get Howard Grimes, another Memphis drum prodigy, to fill in when Jackson’s increasingly lucrative commitments kept him busy. Grimes was good enough that Willie later claimed he couldn’t always tell the difference.
Willie made a habit out of recruiting amateurs. He nabbed brothers Leroy and Charles Hodges, who played bass and organ, from their high school band, the Impalas. Their younger brother Teenie eventually showed up at Willie’s house one night, drunk, guitar in hand, looking to get in on the action. “You play like shit,” Willie told him, before inviting him to move in upstairs. There wasn’t a guitarist in Memphis who played with the kind of restraint he wanted, so he took Teenie into his home for three years and taught him himself. Willie was nothing if not patient. By the time Al got to Memphis, Willie and the boys had been playing together for over a decade.
The lush gritty soul sound that catapulted Al to stardom didn’t happen overnight. You can hear glimpses of it on Gets Next to You and Let’s Stay Together, but it’s not until I’m Still in Love With You that they deliver an entire album worthy of their talents. The emphasis here is on all of their talents, not just Al’s. Of the three singles that cracked the Billboard Hot 100, Jackson co-wrote two of them and Teenie, the third. While Al wrote his vocal lines in a matter of minutes, Jackson would labor over the drum parts for days. Nowhere are those efforts more audible than “I’m Glad You’re Mine,” a good song that Jackson’s inventive drumming transforms into a great one. It’s Teenie though, who is the unsung genius of this record. His sparse style gave Al’s voice the space it needed to get lost in. And his rhythmic sense—second only to Jackson’s—is the motor underneath the album’s hood. That’s his driving guitar lick—a throwback to the bluesy grit of their early records—that propels the album’s centerpiece, “Love and Happiness,” and the 98th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone’s count. (That foot you hear tapping off the count at the beginning? That’s Teenie.) And of course Willie is here too, the magician behind the curtain. His fingerprints are all over I’m Still in Love With You, from the big stuff—the horn sections, the string arrangements, all those jazz chords—to the tiny details: the rich snap of the snare drum, the ghostly warmth of the organ tone.
Enough has been said about Al Green’s voice. His range. That otherworldly falsetto. The world of feeling he can wring from a whispered syllable. If you were born into a world where “Let’s Stay Together” was part of the cultural bedrock—audible everywhere from wedding receptions to Waffle House—it’s hard to imagine hearing that voice for the first time. But for some audience members at this 1972 performance of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” that may well have been the case. It’s a gripping performance, no matter how many times you’ve watched him sing. As the song starts, the lights drop, cloaking the band and the audience in shadow—an effect that lends Al the eerie appearance of being alone in a room full of people. The volume on his mic is turned up so loud—or the room is that quiet—you can hear his lips open and close. Al, always a ham for the spotlight, rises to the moment; he doesn’t appear to sing the song so much as exorcise it from his mouth through a series of facial contortions. But’s it not Al’s face that delivers the gut punch; it’s a kid’s. During the last verse, as Al stretches out that “la-la-la” bit until it’s a kind of whispered trill, the camera swings behind him to reveal a young boy, seated front and center. He is staring up at Al, transfixed. You don’t need to blow the video up to full screen to recognize the expression on his face: it’s the one we all make when something beautiful and unfamiliar floats into our ear drums.