What We can learn from Al Green
Those ‘old school’ soul singers – most of whom are still going strong – have a great deal to teach us today and here are some of the reasons why we should ‘take note!’ Being completely real is a vital part of any performance. If you are really feeling the sense of the lyric and the melody your audience will be right there with you, regardless of any imperfections.
Al was raised in the church in Tennessee and grew up with the raptured sounds of praise – a vocal release from the drudgery and even the pain of daily living in the south. If you were African American back then, as now, times were hard. Al took that release, that call, that cry and brought a unique sound to soul music. He didn’t just call out, he laughed and cried on those recordings!
To look at his work technically, he played with phonetic shapes and twang to move us all over our feelings – laughter, tears, rage, pleading, love language. If you watch Al in performance you can see his facial muscles, lips, and tongue playing with the lyric and stretching across vowel shapes and popping and thickening consonants to add feel. Al was unabashed at the mic! In short, he moved his very human feelings into the tone. He moved his tone into those same feelings – if you listen carefully you can hear it work both ways!
Recognise your vocal limits
In his young years, Al moved away from the church and, at times, was living a pretty wild existence: women, drugs, fast cars! In his recordings (particularly in the 70s) you can hear the fatigue at times. The human voice can endure a great deal but it has limits! There are creaks, breaks, breathy tones and even flat notes. But that feeling is ever present.
But pacing ourselves as artists is a necessary discipline in this now fast-moving industry where singers are dropped by companies when they can’t keep up with the tour. Get those early nights in, don’t have that last drink at the bar after the show, and cool down your voice at the end of the gig with some gentle humming, glides and sirens. Al returned to the church in later years and is still preaching in Tennessee today, enchanting his congregation with those sweet tenor tones
We think one of the most important qualities for a successful singer is to remain focused and unassuming in performance. We saw Al in London in the 2000s at Hammersmith Apollo. He sang every tune in its original key and was as focused and unassuming as ever. That focus allowed him to work, not just as a technician, but as a truth teller first, knowing that if he felt emotion, he could take his note and put it right alongside that human sound – and that’s exactly what he did!
The point is we all queued up and paid our money to see the Al who had inspired us for decades. We didn’t want to see a changed person whose music had lost that ‘fire’. So, staying real and remembering why you wrote those lyrics – that’s the real deal! Whilst We can now discuss Al’s technique, We would never want to remove his magic. But that’s part of my point – he believed in the heights of the magic of his music… he really believed!