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When Al Green released Call Me in April of 1973, it was his fourth album in 24 months. Despite such heavy output, each album grew in popularity, and was more sultry. Al had become a pop star, a mainstream success, known to black and white, young and old. He was a sex symbol. Sensual — and inviting. Steamy.
Not too many years before, Al had been singing religious songs with the Greene Brothers under his father’s direction. But Al got caught dancing to Jackie Wilson in his Grand Rapids, Michigan, bedroom and his father, who wouldn’t tolerate anything less than an 100 percent commitment to God, set his son out the door. In 1967, Al recorded a gentle ballad that hit No. 5 on the R&B chart, “Back Up Train.” More singles and an album followed, some touring, and nearly two years later when in Midland, Texas, Al met Willie Mitchell — the producer who would create the sonic milieu through which Al ripped into the national consciousness. Al’s hit was starting to feel like a beating: He was touring with no band and his jacket was showing tatters.
Willie Mitchell was a veteran of the national stage. A trumpet player, he’d been enjoying instrumental hits through the decade, cracking the pop and R&B charts. He was touring with his career biggest hit, “Soul Serenade,” in the spring of 1968 and at the Midland gig, the promoter asked if he and his band would back the opening act on a few songs.
“Back Up Train” was, by then, long on the side tracks. But after the gig, there was some excitement. Willie’s band had been seeking a vocalist who shared their sense of unhurried anticipation and maybe they’d found him. Al, needing a ride, hopped in the van headed to Memphis. Willie had been producing for Hi Records and he invited Al to come there and become a star. Al asked how long that would take and Willie said 18 months. Al had to decline; he didn’t have that long to wait. He hopped out at a crossroads going north, first borrowing travel money from Willie.
Some months passed, and one morning when Willie was renovating his kitchen, the carpenter showed up and said, “Don’t you remember me?” Turns out, it was no cabinetmaker, it was a ready-to-be-hitmaker, Albert Greene. His career had finally stalled, and going nowhere, Al promised God: If He gave him fame, Al would serve his word. So Al was ready to give Willie a try. A year and a half later (as Willie foretold), Al was on the pop charts with “I Can’t Get Next to You.” Willie had already put him on the R&B charts, and through the remainder of the 1970s, Al had hits. In ’72, a year prior to Call Me, he broke huge with “Let’s Stay Together.” The next album, I’m Still In Love With You, outsold the others.
Under Willie’s direction, Al had eased back on his delivery. Willie heard Al’s capacity to move from the dance floor to the boudoir, and knew his house band, the Hi Rhythm Section, was the vehicle to get Al there. Three blood brothers — Leroy, Charles and Mabon “Teenie” Hodges — and two soul brothers, drummer Howard Grimes and keyboardist Archie “Hubby” Turner. They were not a bombastic group. Willie had cultivated them since they were teenagers, sharing his Schillinger System jazz training. They played fewer notes, each supporting the other so the song was the star, not the band. Judiciously restrained, the Hi Rhythm Section knew what to leave out. Their canvas was a tightly woven embrace, Al’s voice the caress.
With Call Me, Al is at the height of his vocal prowess. Fully confident, he can relax, fall into his voice. Lollygag. Lullaby. Loll. Throughout the album, he weaves his voice with a second track of his own singing, so he can harmonize, play chase, converse with himself. He plays his vocal cords for his own pleasure and amusement.
The album cover supports the title song. The star’s name is “in lights,” neon lights, along with the album title. Al’s face is prominent, an action shot on stage. But the real emphasis is Al’s arm, his reaching across the frame, beckoning, affirming:
“And if you find you’re a long ways from home, And if somebody’s doin’ you wrong, Just call me baby and come back home”
On Call Me, he’s not only reaching toward his future but also his past, toward the dreamy lover that we imagine this superstar must have had and also toward the young man who dreamed of being that lucky star. He wants to connect with the child who sang songs of praise with his brothers — and he’s concerned about what may become of him, this superstar Al. Fame came suddenly, but the values he was raised with persisted, calling to him always, in the madness and the stillness. The two Als, the two worlds, then and now, sacred and profane, and the two voices of Al Green, that second vocal track that is all over Call Me — Al is at a great divide, and harmonizing with himself on Call Me is the sonic expression of his desire for spiritual harmony.
The album opens with the title song. It hits with a weird, slightly dissonant blend of horns and strings; “Call Me” initially unsettles. This may be a love song, but it’s a yearning, not a fulfillment: “You're going away, feeling as free as a dove…” The string section’s rapid high notes sound an alarm, warning that the drift between the two lovers is in the danger zone. Al’s singing expresses the looming loneliness; his voice so beautiful, how can anyone leave him? Then he hits those reedy high notes in the last half minute; it’s startling to hear a voice go there, and thrilling to hear him remain. Can anyone stay gone long?
“Call Me” was released a couple months before the album and it hit No. 10 on the pop charts and No. 2 on the R&B charts. But the album’s artistic peak is the next song, “Have You Been Making Out O.K.” Al sings softy, as if the words were sleeping angels he’s careful not to wake. “Did the morning sun warm your soul?” he asks, and we can see the pristine light and feel the crisp bed sheets, feel even the desire — for that beautiful person, that intimate moment. It’s like the instruments are too brash so the musicians play paintbrushes instead, Al’s voice providing color and scope. Keyboardist Charles Hodges taps the electric piano just enough to make a sound, just enough sounds to outline a picture. And while that picture hangs (buoyed by the strings and Howard Grimes’ relaxed but insistent drumming), Al’s voice rises from it, coming from nowhere and taking over everything with the same authority as the sun on a new day. And then, because he can and because it’ll blow our minds, Al harmonizes with himself, building to dual vocals on the line, “Can you make it on your own?” soaring on the last word. Our ears become his feathers. Not enough for you? Al does it again, and the divided Al Greens fuse as he soars closer to heaven.
Call Me sold over a million copies, and so did the singles from the album. Al Green was golden. But instead of a glittering nirvana, that success began to look like the golden calf. The call Al was waiting for would come from above, and that connection became solid while touring with this album. After a show at Disneyland in 1973, Al woke to a rapturous moment, God talking right to him, visibly appearing in his hotel room. Al began to change directions, taking a giant step away from pop music and toward the church. That path was full of its own personal trials, including the tragic relationship with a fan and lover that, in November 1974, would leave Al’s back scarred from hot cereal and the young lady dead by her own hand. More hits would follow — big ones, but in 1976 Al bought the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis (where he continues to preach, upholding his bargain, bringing humans into harmony with God). In 1979, ready to forsake the pop arena, Al Green threw himself fully into the church. Jesus beckoned, and it was time for Al to go back home.
In 1973, the power of this album — of Al Green, Willie Mitchell, the Hi Rhythm Section and staff — was to create intimacy anywhere on earth, across all languages, at any longitude or latitude. That power has not diminished. Call Me is a global love call, personal and universal:
“Love is a long ways from here, Tell you it’s all in the way you feel, If love is real, come to me.”
Heed the call, baby, come back home.
Robert Gordon’s books include Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters and Memphis Rent Party. His documentaries include William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton and Best of Enemies. He’s won a Grammy and an Emmy. He lives in Memphis. (More at TheRobertGordon.com)