For several years in the early to mid 1970s, the combination of great songwriting, the amazing vocal gymnastics of Al Green and the rock-solid production of Willie Mitchell, produced some of the greatest music of the era.
Released on Mitchell's Hi Records out of Memphis, the singles and albums that this duo churned out from 1971 to 1977 were a perfect melding of Green's superior singing with the excellent performances of mainly unheralded musicians, and Mitchell's steady hand at the mixing desk.
In 1975, at the peak of Green's career, a greatest hits album was released, picking the ten best-known of the songs and twenty years' later, five more selections, taken from a second album of greatest hits, were added. The result is a stellar album, especially with those first ten tracks and particularly when "Love and Happiness" replaced "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?," though the last five songs have their great moments, as well.
Greatest Hits is filled with songs that match Green's peerless singing with instrumental accompaniment that works in the service of the singer and the song, all supervised and assembled by a producer who knew how to make the most of the material and the personnel.
To this listener, the album builds with great tracks like "Tired of Being Alone" and "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" to the pinnacles of the groove-laden "Love and Happiness" and the vocal masterpiece, "Let's Stay Together" before gradually winding down through "I Can't Get Next to You" and "You Oughta Be With Me."
Even if the last five tracks don't quite measure up to the sheer greatness of the earlier tunes, there are still plenty of memorable moments in "Look What You Done For Me", "Sha-La-La", "L-O-V-E" and "Full of Fire." Green's vocal pyrotechnics on "Belle" are a great way to close the album, though he was then, in 1977, at the end of his peak years.
Earlier this week, George Martin's death was a reminder of the importance of a great producer for a great band of performer. Willie Mitchell's work as the architect of the sound behind the unmatched singing of Al Green is, to this listener, much the same as that of Martin to The Beatles.
Something has to be said, too, about the great musicians on Greatest Hits including the three Hodges brothers, known as The Impalas, who formed the core of the studio band on most of these songs, including guitarist Teenie, bassist Leroy, and organist/pianist Charles, the remarkable drummer Al Jackson, Jr. whose expansive snare and shimmering cymbal work is understated but always steady, and the horn section and backing vocalists who supplemented the excellence of these recordings.
After a 1978 record that didn't do well among changing times, mainly the peak of the disco era, Green turned to religious music for many years, though recently he has been mixing secular and sacred concerns in his work. But, Greatest Hits captured Al Green at his peak, working with Willie Mitchell and great musicians to make dynamic music on a plane unmatched for their time and any time.