I first discovered the Reverend Al Green’s rich, tenor voice where many others of my generation did: the Tiki lounge scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Half a lifetime later, the brassy intro to “Let’s Stay Together” brings me to the sparsely populated bar where Marcellus Wallace does business. In the interim years I have used Green’s 1972 classic album Let’s Stay Together to set the right mood at a party, unwind after a night at the bars and separate young women from their clothes. It’s never failed me in any of these endeavors.
Utility aside, Stay Together is a classic of 1970s soul. It seamlessly straddles two subgenres, uniting the ‘60s and the ‘70s. First, Memphis soul: The harder-edged sounds of the ‘60s synonymous with Stax Records. Memphis was on the wane in 1972, increasingly eclipsed by the funk of soul stalwarts like James Brown and younger upstarts like Parliament. Second, Philly soul: The ascendant smooth sounds that would dominate the ‘70s before morphing into quiet storm and adult urban contemporary.
Green’s vocals exemplify this nexus of styles. His voice is at once gravelly and smooth. It bears the power of a man who learned to sing in churches and gospel quartets. Al’s voice simultaneously has the refinement of a performer who sees music as a craft, not an art. It was Hi Records Vice President Willie Mitchell who first encouraged Green to find his own vocal style when the Reverend was aping James Brown and Jackie Wilson. He hits high notes without the slightest hint of a falsetto. Other vocalists may sound “pretty” with such precision, control and skill, Green maintains a rooted, earthy sound.
The mix balances the natural earthiness of Green’s voice with professional studio polish. Unlike on previous efforts, one does not overwhelm the other. Green also finds a lyrical niche on Stay Together: the simple sexiness of a man craving a woman, the whole woman, body and soul. The Reverend manages to do so while avoiding triteness and stock phrase-mongering. The “begging” song is, by 1972, a cliché in soul music and rhythm and blues. Unlike others of his generation, Al Green is too proud to beg. That doesn’t mean that he’s afraid to tell a lady how he feels about her. His voice and his lyrics bear a straightforward masculinity. You get the sense that Al would do anything to stay together but sacrifice his pride.
Green’s voice alone would make the album a classic. But there’s more to Stay Together than just the power of his vocals. The album largely eschews the strings nearly synonymous with Philly soul, used liberally on only two tracks: the upbeat “I’ve Never Found A Girl (Who Loves Me Like You Do)” and the wistful tribute “Lucy”. It instead uses strings primarily as accents low in the mix, such as on the title track and “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?”
Green polishes out the rougher edges of his previous effort, Al Green Gets Next to You, specifically “Can’t Get Next To You” and “I’m A Ram.” The driving rhythms of Memphis are subdued. Yet, Stay Together maintains an unmistakably Memphis sound, most notably on “Old Time Lovin’,” with its heavy gospel feel and “It Ain’t No Fun For Me,” a bluesy track that borders on funk but never quite gets there. It carries the earthy simplicity of analog tape recording, a sound much sought after by soul revivalists such as Raphael Saadiq and the Daptone Records gang. Brass provides the melodic accents of the type furnished by strings in Philly soul. Even when anchoring a song, strings mix (and are often overwhelmed by) more traditional Memphis instruments such as guitar, Hammond organ and, of course, drums. The backing tracks rely almost entirely on these three instruments, plus bass.
Green has yet to release another classic on the level of Let’s Stay Together. Chances of seeing another are slim, as he abandoned baby-making soul masterpieces for the live circuit and the Lord decades ago. Stay Together will forever remain a gem of 1970s soul, proving that Memphis is about more than just floor-shaking rhythm and blues rave-ups — and that Marvin Gaye never cornered the market on seduction jams.