Is there a greater soul singer than Al Green?
That is mostly a rhetorical question, or more precisely it’s not a question at all but rather a Zen koan meant to clear the mind. Of course there is no greater soul singer than Al Green, unless you like them rougher (in which case Otis Redding is your man) or churchier (Solomon Burke is for you) or stranger (in which case Stevie Wonder rings your bell). There is no better soul singer than the smooth, the beautiful, the seductor, The Reverend Al Green.
Arista recently reissued Al Green’s first album, Back Up Train, originally recorded in 1967 when the singer was just 21 years old and still billing himself as “Al Greene.” Performing a set of songs mostly written by producers Palmer E. James and Curtis Rodgers, Back Up Train is more or less a promising prelude to what would become an unparalleled career as king of smooth soul. None of the songs are particularly weighty, mostly being generic but likeable soul workouts, although the title song and “Stop and Check Myself” (which was co-written by Green) do stand out as choice cuts.
The real interest on Back Up Train is in hearing Al Green’s famous voice before he quite figured out how to use it. All the pieces are there, buried under generic Fauxtown arrangements: the moans, the croons, the shouts, growls and hiccups and the bell-clear beautiful tone, everything that Green would eventually ride to the top of the heap. In general the attraction of the album is in hearing Green dig into this fairly forgettable batch of songs and come up with moments of real emotion. Listening to Back Up Train is like reading Einstein’s high school physics papers, scanning for hints of the evanescent brilliance that would one day make him immortal.