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The Green Brothers - Soulsville

 

THE GREEN BROTHERS

 

Liner Notes by By Rob Bowman

 

          If you ever needed proof that there is a God, the totally improbable story of the mighty, mighty Green Brothers debut CD just might do the trick.

          The story rightly begins of Good Friday April 12, 1974. That night Stax promotion man and legend-in-his-own-right Dave Clark was in the Motor City attending a WCHB gospel talent show hosted by local disc jockey Bertha Harris at Detroit’s Ford Auditorium. While any number of talented artists took to the stage that evening, it was the vocal pyrotechnics of Al and Bobby Green throwing down on a sanctified version of the Swan Silvertones’ “If You Believe” that made Clark sit up and take notice.

          The Green Brothers had been singing gospel for a number of years at that point and, in fact, had already appeared on record as members of the Spiritual Wonders, the Violinaires and as Bobby and Al. The Violinaires were nationally known and recorded for the Chess Records subsidiary, Checker, while the Spiritual Wonders and Bobby and Al had singles released on a handful of small-time vanity labels in Detroit.

          More than impressed with the Green Brothers’ enraptured performance, Clark headed backstage and asked them if they might be interested in recording for Memphis’ Stax Records.

          “Dave Clark asked us if we wanted to do gospel or R&B,” recalls Bobby Green. “Me and my brother said, ‘Dave, we would like to be where the money is. Man, we want to make some money!’”

          Although following the money meant going secular, Clark suggested that the dynamic duo record a demo of their version of “If You Believe” along with anything else they might have so that he could play the tape for Stax president Jim Stewart. Following Clark’s instructions, the Green Brothers went into a local studio and recorded demos with just bass and guitar of  “If You Believe,” an original entitled “Good Gosh Almighty” and, to prove that they could cut secular material, a cover version of a Chi-Lites’ 1974 hit, “Homely Girl.”

          Stewart was impressed and in June 1974, the Green Brothers were signed to Stax Records. At the time, Stax was engaged in economic war with its distributor, CBS Records, and its credit was stretched to the limit with Union Planters National Bank. Fiscal circumstances being what they were, it took several months before the Green Brothers were finally summoned to Memphis in February 1975 to cut their first single, a Mack Rice-Duck Dunn novelty song entitled “Dy-No-Mite (Did You Say My Love)” backed with a Green Brothers original, “Can’t Get Started.”

          “‘Dy-No-Mite’ was actually a rap record,” asserts Bobby. “It was a combination of rap and singing. That was the first rap record that my brother and I ever encountered. I was unfamiliar with rap and I had a problem in the studio. It was difficult for me as I was a singer. That was very different for us and it was different for Stax.”

          Duck Dunn had based the title around a favorite saying of J.J. from the television show Good Times. “It was kind of corny,” admits co-producer and Stax session guitarist Bobby Manuel, “but what are you going to do with that title. There were some other songs that they had that we did later on that really were a lot better. I think that was a situation of maybe trying to be a little too commercial.”

          “They were a killer act,” continued Manuel. “It was like Sam and Dave with a little different twist and more fire. Absolutely! That could have really been a big act for us but we did not have the time to develop it. Too much was snowballing right then to get what we needed on them and get them cut right.”

          By the time “Dy-No-Mite” was released in April 1975 on the Stax subsidiary, Truth Records, distribution of Stax product was virtually non-existent and the record died a quick ignoble death. Although the forty-five failed to capture the alchemical magic that the Green Brothers were more than capable of, it did give them a taste of what it felt like to record secular music at the fabled Stax studio at 936 E. McLemore Avenue down in Memphis. Suitably inspired, back in Detroit they spent a week writing seven songs that they hoped would be the basis of their next few singles and, with any luck, their first LP.

          Flush with excitement at the quality of what was their first sustained songwriting effort, they quickly recorded the songs in Bobby’s living room on a hand held General Electric cassette tape recorder. Rounding out the thirty-five minute tape was a cover of Gwen McCrae’s then current smash single “Rockin’ Chair.”

          The original cassette recording was low-fi in the extreme. Alongside Bobby’s hair-raising falsetto and Al’s rough-hewn tenor and funkified rhythm guitar, it included the sounds of a neighbor’s barking dog and Bobby’s then one-year old son. The songs themselves were in little more than an embryonic state. Nonetheless the sounds Bobby and Al put down on that Scotch tape in the spring of 1975 were emotionally arresting and represented a stunning step forward in the evolution of the group as secular artists.

          Heading back to Memphis, the Green Brothers went back into the studio and began working on what they thought would be their second secular single, “I Just Wanna (Love You One More Time).” On the original cassette, the group sang the title line and hook of the song just once each time around. It was Stax session drummer Al Jackson who suggested that the song could be a hit if they sang the hook twice in a row. Given Stax’s financial woes, the recording was never completed, only the rhythm track with a scratch vocal making it to tape. In December 1975, Stax was forced into involuntary bankruptcy. Several months earlier, the one check that the company had issued to the Green Brothers had bounced.

          Down-but-not-out, in 1977 the group released one more single, “Sweet Lovin’ Woman” backed with “Lack of Attention,” on ex-Stax producer Don Davis’ short-lived Tortoise Records. Neither side was written by the group. After “Sweet Lovin’ Woman” flopped, a disheartened Bobby and Al Green decided it was time for the Green Brothers to give it up. Bobby remained in Detroit and worked for the city’s fire department for the next twenty-seven years. Al moved to Florida and worked construction for his father’s renovation company. Within a few years, both brothers had even stopped singing in the church.

          In the late 1970s, Bobby’s three daughters, Keena, Kimmala and Michelle, cut an album as the Greens 3 that Bobby Manuel produced for Malaco Records. In the late 1980s the three girls took another kick at the can, forming a group called Sweet Obsession that managed to place five singles on Billboard’s R&B charts, two of which went Top Ten. Bobby was involved with the group as an advisor and road manager. When Sweet Obsession’s handlers absconded with the advance CBS had given the group to cut an album, a second generation of Greens felt they had been burned by the record industry.

          This might have been where the story ended if God did not act in mysterious ways. In January 2008, Bobby Manuel was going through some old tapes and chanced upon the original cassette that Bobby and Al Green had recorded some thirty-three years earlier. Popping it into his cassette player, he was absolutely floored by what he heard. These were songs that he knew could have been hits had they had a chance to have been properly recorded. There was a power and a majesty to them that bespoke the magic that happens when the spirit comes down and souls are transformed. Feeling the call of a higher power, Manuel attempted to track the Green Brothers down. Despite checking with various contacts including Don Davis, he came up empty handed and had all but given up.

          In late winter 2008, Bobby Green was sitting in his living room in Detroit watching the news with his wife when he saw that a tornado had swept through the Memphis suburb of Germantown, Tennessee. Although he hadn’t spoken to Bobby Manuel in twenty-eight years, Green felt himself moved to pick up the phone to see if his old friend from his days at Stax was okay.

          Upon answering the phone, an incredulous Bobby Manuel replied that he was fine and then in a rush of excitement told Green about his rediscovery of the cassette the Green Brothers had sent to Stax three decades earlier. When he told Green that “I hear some hit songs on there,” the retired singer couldn’t believe what was coming down the wire.

          “I said, ‘Bobby, you’re talking about thirty some years ago. What would you like to do with these songs?’ Bobby Manuel said, ‘I would like to cut these songs.’ I said, ‘On who?’ ‘On you and your brother!’ [replied Manuel]. I said, ‘Bobby, do you realize that I’m over sixty years old now. That was thirty-three years ago Bobby!’ He said, ‘Man, no one sings like this anymore.’”

          Manuel continued by asserting that the Green Brothers had never got their due, concluding by saying, “Bobby, let’s finish this.”

          “I had no idea of singing again,” smiles Bobby Green, shaking his head. “I said, ‘What did you say?’ He said, ‘Let’s finish this!’ The way he said that, chills were just all over me. I was so moved by what he said, I said, ‘Oh, my God . . . Bobby, let’s finish it.’”

          Convinced that this was worth a shot, Bobby Green next had to get his brother onside. In recent years, Al Green had suffered from a heart attack and was living in Florida on social security. Just a few months earlier he had undergone bypass surgery, could no longer get enough breath to sing and wasn’t even sure if he could move his muscles enough to play the guitar. When his brother called him to tell him about his conversation with Bobby Manuel, to put it mildly, Al was shocked.

          Bobby Green picks up the story: “He said, ‘Bobby, I don’t sing anymore. I’m an old man now.’ I said, ‘Al, listen, with God all things are possible. You can sing again.’”

          Al Green finally agreed to take a Greyhound bus to Detroit to get back together with his brother and see if they could still make music rapturous enough to set the spirit world in motion.

          In the meantime, Bobby Manuel sent Bobby Green a CDR of the original cassette. “I went out and put the CD in my truck,” said Bobby Green still shaking his head in disbelief. “I started to play these tunes and I broke down and cried.”

          The Green family did not even have a CD player in the house, so Bobby went out and bought a $129 portable deck so that he could play the recording for his wife, his daughters, and his son. His children were stunned, Keena breaking down and crying blurting out, “Dad, we didn’t know you could sing like that.” Bobby’s response was, “Baby, I didn’t know either.”

          The most incredible thing about this whole project is that neither Bobby nor Al remembered the songs. They had only ever tried to cut “I Just Wanna (Love You One More Time)” at Stax that one day and none of the tunes had ever been performed on stage. In effect, the only time they had ever played these songs was in Bobby’s living room to put them down on cassette back in the spring of 1975. Discombobulated by all that had happened, Bobby Green fasted and prayed, hoping that the Lord would give him and his brother the strength and the wherewithal to find their voices and be able to carry this project through.

          Over the next three weeks, the Green Brothers got down to business. While Al slowly began to work on his breathing, the two men began to try and find their voices again. For Bobby, it took several days of recultivating his voice before he began to find his way to singing the high parts. Gradually he built up both his confidence and his strength and the notes got cleaner and stronger. With Al it took a little longer, but over time he would find it within himself to once again conjure up his powerful squall. After a couple of weeks of rehearsal, his wife looked in on them and said, “It’s time for you two to go to Memphis. You’re ready. Now, you sound like the Green Brothers.”

          The sessions at Ardent Studios proved to be magical. Bobby Manuel assembled the finest rhythm and horn players that Memphis has on offer. At Bobby Green’s request, he reached out to organist Charles Hodges of the Hi Rhythm Section. For years now, Hodges has been a minister and, in fact, had not played on a recording session in eleven-and-a-half years. Although it took a few months to connect, Hodges immediately said he would be delighted to make the date. Oddly enough, although no one had thought this through, Hodges, pianist and arranger Lester Snell and Bobby Manuel had all played on the original Green Brothers Stax sessions back in 1975. As is the case with Bobby and Al Green, today they are all committed churchgoers.

          “When we went into that studio to record,” exclaims Green, “I knew that studio was anointed. I have never seen any session like this in my life. Oh, my God! We had a time!”

          The whole album was completed in a week with no song taking more than three takes. “If You Believe,” in fact, took only one take and, before editing, stretched out to nearly thirty minutes with the Green Brothers sermonizing and having church right there in the studio. The musicians were so moved that they didn’t want to stop playing. The vast majority of the vocals were cut “live,” harkening back to the way sessions were conducted at Stax in the sixties. The results are palpable as one can both hear and feel the spirit coming down as the musicians and vocalists respond to one another, driving the voodoo down as they engage in the pre-linguistic quintessentially human process of collective music making. Say amen, somebody, indeed!

          “It was like a live recording,” affirms Bobby Manuel. “That’s what the guys in the studio were feeling. They couldn’t believe the Green Brothers. It was like Otis days. They set it on fire. They took it to where it needed to be taken.”

          On the second day of the sessions, Bobby Manuel brought the original Scotch cassette into the studio and presented it to Bobby Green as a present. Bobby Green once again broke down and cried. Breaking down into tears seemed to be a regular occurrence with this project as the emotional quotient that marked each and every day in the studio was apparent to all concerned. It got the point where each day after cutting two or three songs, Bobby Manuel would say, “I can’t take anymore man, y’all can take a break. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He informed Bobby Green that he felt that, “God’s doing this.” Green’s response was simply, “I know it.”

          “We couldn’t have planned anything like that,” Green told me. “It was an awesome, awesome session.”

          The results speak for themselves. Bobby and Al Green effortlessly trade off lead lines and then come together to sing effervescent harmony. Bobby’s stratospheric falsetto is enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck while Al’s gritty tenor gets you right in the gut. Between Memphis stalwarts Steve Potts and Jimmy Kinard, the pocket is laid back and deeper and wider than your average iron ore mine. The horn section consisting of old-timer Jack Hale and second generation Memphis soul men Jim Spake and Scott Thompson alternate between strutting and stomping on numbers such as “I Just Wanna (Love You One More Time),” playing short ear-catching hooks on songs such as “If We Can’t Get Together” and serving the function of background vocals as horns routinely did at Stax on numbers such as “Soulsville” and “I’ve Got Everything But You.” Keyboardists Snell and Hodges add color and sanctified soul throughout the record while guitarists Al Green and Bobby Manuel funkify the proceedings in the extreme. Collectively the ten instrumentalists and vocalists conjure up an intoxicating stew, equal parts soul and gospel, liberally spiced with elements of blues and funk.

          Highlights abound. Tracks such as “Soulsville” and “Your Love Lifted Me” could have easily been recorded and released back in the heyday of Stax. On the ad lib fade ending of “I’ve Got Everything I Need,” it sounds like the Holy Ghost himself has entered the studio as Bobby and Al reach deep inside their souls conjuring up a level of deep-seated enraptured emotion that Bobby Manuel responds to with one liquid crystalline blues-infused lick after another. Similar insanity takes over the breakdown of “I’ve Got Everything But You.” It is uncanny how much all involved in these sessions were able to organically encapsulate the spirit of those bygone days without sounding for a minute like they are trying to sound retro or revive anything. Until I heard the CD I would never have believed that it was possible in 2009 to make a record like this, even in Memphis, Tennessee.

          All told, the CD consists of new recordings of the seven originals included on the demo tape the Green Brothers cut in 1975, plus new versions of the Swan Silvertones’ “If You Believe” and the Chi-Lites’ “Homely Girl” which they had recorded on the first demo tape they had sent to Stax in the spring of 1974, a new original that started out as a Bobby Manuel instrumental called “Soulsville” and. serving as a bonus after thought, a final song, “Worldly Christian,” written by Bobby Green’s wife, daughter and son. The latter features Keena Green, laying down an outrageously intense lead vocal that at points strongly reminds me of another Detroit native finally getting her due, Bettye LaVette.

          “Without almighty God working through Bobby Manuel, this would not have happened,” asserts Bobby Green. “I can’t believe he held onto a cassette of the Green Brothers for thirty-three years. I know God intended this to happen.”

          “It’s more than just a CD,” stresses Bobby Manuel. “It’s really touched lives, given people hope again. It’s just unbelievable. What amazes me is people hear that when they hear the CD. They don’t realize it, but that’s what’s getting them. That’s the deal. It’s the power of all that emotion in there. I have never done a recording like that where it seemed like every spirit in there was just in tune. It’s incredible to me.”

          Coming from a man that has played on literally hundreds of sessions and dozens of hits, that is saying a lot.

          There is a maxim that is common in southern churches that goes: “God may not be there when you want him, but he’s always right on time.” To my way of thinking, the story of the Green Brothers and these songs is a perfect example of just how true that statement can be. I know that for Bobby and Al Green, in the mid-seventies the writing of these songs embodied their hopes, aspirations, and dreams. At that time, for whatever reasons, fate was not on their side. As I find myself in late May 2009 playing these recordings over and over, reveling in the majesty, power and intoxicating soul of it all, it seems to me that the Green Brothers first CD is, indeed, right on time! 

Rob Bowman is a professor of music at York University in Toronto and the Grammy Award winning author of Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records.

 

 
   
   
 


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