By the time Al Green was 25 years old in 1972, he had become one of the biggest stars in pop and soul. After about five years of developing his unique style, scoring a few R&B; hits along the way, the Arkansas native landed a No. 1 pop smash that year with "Let's Stay Together."
A long stream of hits flowed over the next four years: "I'm Still in Love With You," "You Ought to Be With Me," "Call Me (Come Back Home)," "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)." The seven albums Green released during that period, including a greatest hits collection, are all regarded as classics. He created a transcendent body of work - an immaculate synthesis of funk, country-blues, gospel and sophisticated pop - whose influence has long seeped into modern rock, R&B; and Southern hip-hop.
He could have stopped there, simply trading on his musical legacy - as so many other revered soul acts do these days as they criss-cross the nation on concert tours. Instead, he's still pushing his celebrated sound, and has been able to make his newer material sit well alongside the classics. "I think Al Green is still growing," says the artist, who often refers to himself in the third person.
Not many are like Green.
Some of his contemporaries seem stuck in time - even if their voices are not what they used to be.
Aretha Franklin, for instance, vocally skates through her shows these days. During a recent appearance at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Queen of Soul delivered a predictable string of her co-opted '60s classics - "Think," "Respect," "Chain of Fools" - with hardly any of the fervor of her heyday. Frayed in the upper register, where she apparently still wants to sing, her voice has diminished with age and years of smoking.
The O'Jays, another soul act that often shared the Top 10 with Green back in the 1970s, perform today with a new member. But in concert, the acclaimed trio hardly ever ventures into its newer material, which may be a smart choice because much of it can't hold a candle to the Philly International classics. So the O'Jays dole out the tried-and-true numbers everyone expects them to sing, including "Back Stabbers" and "Love Train."
I imagine it's incredibly frustrating to have to sing the same songs year in and year out - no matter how "classic" they have become.
But in concert, the more imaginative artists find fresher takes on old hits, which makes for a more thrilling live experience. I remember about three years ago catching a Prince show, where he turned "Little Red Corvette" into a folkish acoustic ballad. And it worked.
When I saw Gladys Knight last year, she imbued such overdone standards as "The Man I Love" with the same grits-and-butter soul vocals heard on "Midnight Train to Georgia," her signature. For those artists who are still in top form vocally, such experimentation works on stage and in the studio.
One big reason Green has continued to thrive: his voice.
It has remarkably become richer and more powerful with age, allowing Green to suffuse his new songs with the same warmth and vitality of his classic work - but somehow they all feel fresh. Green and others argue that he's still writing his musical legacy.
On May 27, the Memphis-based singer-songwriter and 9-time Grammy winner will release Lay It Down, an R&B; album richly evocative of his glory years at Hi Records. The CD features modern pop-soul hitmakers such as John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Corinne Bailey Rae, and to refresh his sound a bit, the artist collaborated with folks who weren't even born when "Let's Stay Together" blared from transistor radios so many years ago.
"I have no idea how this record came about," says Green, 62, who crafted his sound in the 1970s with the incomparable Memphis musician-producer Willie Mitchell. "We just talked about it and made it happen - me and the people at Blue Note [the artist's label]. In the studio, [the musicians] played the same, identical pattern as the mold. And Willie Mitchell was the mold. It sounds like music that comes full circle."
On two previous albums for Blue Note - 2003's I Can't Stop and 2005's Everything's OK - Green reunited with Mitchell and the Hi studio band that played on all of his '70s classics. The results were often amazingly solid, with Green sounding more invigorated than he did 30 years before. But Lay It Down is a crisper evocation of the Al Green sound.
"Eighty percent of Lay It Down was freestyle," says co-producer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots. "It was spontaneous. Al wanted to make the whole record that way. I don't think we would have gotten the same results if we weren't there in the moment creating."
In crafting songs for the new album, Green worked in much the same way he did back in the '70s at Royal Recording Studios in Memphis.
"Al wrote those songs on the carpet in the studio," says Green, speaking from a tour stop in New Orleans. "The band working out the changes and I'm writing the stories and the songs. I didn't think about it as a great big hard thing. Everybody was working as a unit. I still have to have it like that."
His style over the years has smoothly blended with contemporary textures: New Jack Swing, synth-pop, even modern country. In concert, he often blends the old with the new, the sacred with the secular.
But the down-home, Southern-fried warmth and sanctified energy that drove Green's greatest hits haven't diminished. On his latest albums and in concert, you get the sense that Green is still excited about making music. He sounds very much in the moment - his tangy voice still capable of soaring to a chilling, crystalline falsetto.
Not many of his contemporaries perform with such unvarnished musicality these days. Green's male peers, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, are long dead. Several of his female contemporaries - Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples, for instance - have lost much of their vocal firepower.
"I always put Al Green just a level below Aretha, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye," says Mark Anthony Neal, author of Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation and professor of black popular culture at Duke University. "You had folks who were great artists and musicians. Al wasn't a musician. But he can still generate an audience for himself. His new album is going to bring people to him who don't know 'Let's Stay Together.'"
Maybe so. But Green certainly has nothing to prove. He sees his music - the classic hits and the new material - as part of a continuum. Lyrically, the new tunes may not be as tightly focused as the songs from his lauded past. But the sound that made the gregarious, self-described "country boy" a star nearly 40 years ago has lost none of its verve.
"I just want to be free enough to be myself," Green says. "As long as the tuition is paid for the kids and my old lady ain't trying to hit me upside the head with a frying pan, I'm fine. The music will take care of itself, man."
Spoken like a soul legend.