(Pictured: Al Green, 1989.)
The period around the Fourth of July is usually a busy one for me. It’s a big week for vacations, so I did a lot of filling in at my radio stations. As of today, I’ll have worked 12 days in a row, and after today I have at least 11 more to go.
You may recall that I once tried to get out of radio entirely.
I rarely have to be at the office all day, however, and last week I had time to devote to other stuff.
To name one: Jimmy McDonough’s 2017 biography of Al Green, Soul Survivor. McDonough is incredibly thorough, having tracked down every living soul who might be able to contribute to the story. The Green that emerges in the book is temperamental, infuriating, and frequently inhabits another plane entirely, although he’s just as easily capable of being compassionate, funny, and reflective. Unlike similarly gifted artists (Van Morrison, hello), Green recognizes the existence of his negative side, often speaking of himself in the third person, or in terms of multiple Al Greens. The various Greens uneasily coexisted back in the day, and they still conflict inside 72-year-old Al Green today.
In 2003, Green headlined an all-day blues festival here in Madison, topping a bill that also featured Canned Heat, Sonny Landreth, Susan Tedeschi, and Dr. John. I would like to remember it as a dream-come-true, bucket-list event, but I don’t. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, or the heat of the long day, but more than likely, it was because I realized on that day that what I love most about Al Green’s great 70s records is the brilliance of Hi Rhythm, the band backing him on those records, and the production work of Willie Mitchell. Even in the 70s, Hi Rhythm was not his touring band, and without them, the Al Green you got on stage was not necessarily going to be the Al Green you hoped to hear.
I’d like to read a full biography of Mitchell, actually. His brilliance in consistently getting the best out of Green even when the singer wasn’t immediately willing to give it is the greatest accomplishment of his career. The most revealing scene involving Mitchell in Soul Survivor is set sometime in the early 70s, when singer Denise LaSalle observes that all of his stuff with Green sounds alike. Mitchell responds: “I will ride this horse until it falls dead.”
And he did.
I spent part of the week listening to the American Top 40 show from July 3, 1971, the first anniversary of the franchise. Casey says it started with seven stations (the number most commonly reported today is five), but a year later, the affiliate list was up to 118. The show had become popular enough to inspire the marketing of a 24-song compilation called American Top 40’s Double Dozen Album of Hits, Volume 1, with liner notes featuring Casey’s commentary on each song. The album was promoted as part of the 7/3/71 show, although the promo was snipped from the recent syndicated repeat.
People who bash the 1970s as a decade of silly, stupid music need to account for 1971, and especially the summer. The Top 40 in this week includes soul superstars the Isley Brothers, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, and the Supremes, as well as one-off hits including “Funky Nassau,” “She’s Not Just Another Woman,” “Mr. Big Stuff,” and “Want Ads.” Legendary rock figures are on the list too: the Stones, Ringo Starr, Carole King, James Taylor, Joe Cocker. It’s true that the Carpenters, Donny Osmond, John Denver, and the Partridge Family are a part of it, along with radio candy by the Grass Roots, Tommy James, Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, and Three Dog Night—but if it doesn’t always fit together smoothly (and it doesn’t), so what? This sort of radio democracy exposed even a casual listener to different stars and styles every single day. And it turned some of us into omnivores—people who wanted to hear everything.
And finally: I learned last week about three young women from New York City who, in 1966, formed a psychedelic trio called the Cake. Although they made only two albums, they wrote some of their own songs at a time when few women did that, and the three members were connected to some of the most famous figures in rock. The Cake was successful enough to appear on The Smothers Brothers Show in October 1967. Their story is fascinating and wild, and you can read it here.