In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
When Al Green recorded “Let’s Stay Together” — arguably his masterpiece, definitely his sole #1 hit, generally one of the greatest soul singles of all time — he was singing to a roomful of drunks.
The producer Willie Mitchell, who had discovered Green and who had helped Green discover his own voice, knew that Green did his best work onstage, when he was able to play to an audience. So that’s what Mitchell gave him. Mitchell rounded up a few dozen neighborhood drunks, bought a bunch of wine for them, and got them all to sit quietly and watch Al Green record “Let’s Stay Together.” Decades later, Mitchell still had a gleam in his eye when he remembered it: “All the winos, they’re drinking wine, laying on the floor while we cut the record.”
Whatever Mitchell did to get that performance out of Green, it worked. It’s possible that Mitchell understood the miracle of Al Green’s voice better than Green himself did, and “Let’s Stay Together” is a pure showcase of that voice, of the feats it can accomplish and the feelings it can evoke.
Albert Greene was born in Arkansas. His ultra-religious parents were sharecroppers, and he was one of 10 siblings. When Greene was a kid, his family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he sang in a family gospel band. One day, when Greene was a teenager, his father found him listening to a Jackie Wilson record and kicked him out of the house. That’s almost a mythic origin story: a gospel singer persecuted for listening to pop, one who would later unite his worlds by bringing gospel-level transcendence to pop.
Not long after that, Greene and some friends formed a local band, Al Greene & The Soul Mates, and they scored a minor national hit with a simple and lovely song called “Back Up Train.” At some show or another, Willie Mitchell — a trumpeter and Memphis bandleader before he was a producer — heard that young Al Greene singing, and he recruited him to sing with Mitchell’s band at a Texas show where the promoter ripped both of them off. Mitchell heard potential in Greene’s voice, so he brought him to Memphis, got him to drop the last E from his name, and signed him to Hi Records, the label that Mitchell had started running.
Mitchell convinced Green to start exploring the things he could do with his falsetto, and that’s what we hear on “Let’s Stay Together,” the title track of the third album that Green recorded with Mitchell. Mitchell co-wrote the song’s music with Al Jackson, Jr., the Booker T & The MG’s drummer who became his main Hi Records collaborator. Green wrote the lyrics in about five minutes. Those lyrics are vague and universal and lovely, and they’d be nothing without that voice attached to them.
There are stories about how Green was never satisfied with the song, about how he kept demanding to record take after take, convinced his voice sounded too thin. And it does sound thin. That’s part of the magic. That voice glides and twists and spins with a rare unhurried grace. Green never howls or shouts or forces anything. He just lets that voice drift on the song’s currents. “I wanna spend my life with you,” Green breathes, as that voice radiates absolute joy and contentment and comfort. Green came from a gospel tradition, of course, and there’s grit in his voice, in the tiny subatomic rasp that creeps in when he dips into his lower register. But there’s no sweat. He never sounds like he’s trying.
A lot of it is the connection between Mitchell and his band. Mitchell knew how to make the beat work for him. Every element of “Let’s Stay Together” — the wafting organ, the lazily twirling guitar, the perfectly timed horn-bursts — is right there in the pocket. Even on a song as gentle as this one, Mitchell knew how to push the beat. Jackson’s drums have a horse-trot momentum. And maybe that’s what gives Green the room he needs to operate. Green can ascend heavenward and do triple-backflips with his voice; he knows that beat will keep him anchored.
And even when he’s pledging lifelong commitment, Green still comes off like he’s flirting. The idea of long-term unconditional love is a lot of things, but it isn’t necessarily sexy. On “Let’s Stay Together,” Green makes it sexy. Maybe the elegant simplicity of those words came from how quickly Green wrote them, or maybe he had that sentiment in him for years, just waiting for the right music to come along and unlock it. Because those words are so elemental that they seem like they’ve always been there: “You make me feel so brand new, and I want to spend my life with you.”
On “Let’s Stay Together,” Green would present himself as a simple man who only wants to be with one person forever, who has no use for any drama: “Why people break up, turn around and make up, I just can’t see.” His real life would not prove to be that simple. Three years after “Let’s Stay Together,” Green had a girlfriend who was married to another man, and she was furious that he wouldn’t marry her. When Green was in the bath, she threw a pot of boiling grits at him, burning him badly, and then took her own life with a gun.
And Green wasn’t just a victim, either. He was once arrested for beating a woman with a tree branch, and when his wife filed for divorce in 1981, she testified about severe beatings, including one particularly bad one when she was five months pregnant. Years later, Green admitted to spousal abuse. These days, Green is preaching in the same Memphis church where he’s been for years, and everyone who interacts with him speaks of him as a lovely man. I hope he is. We hate to think that someone capable of creating a work of surpassing and transcendent loveliness like “Let’s Stay Together” wouldn’t be worthy of his own song.
BONUS BEATS: A 1983 cover of “Let’s Stay Together,” produced by Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and Greg Walsh, helped ignite Tina Turner’s ’80s comeback. (It peaked at #26 in the US and #6 in the UK.) Here’s the video:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1994’s Pulp Fiction where Ving Rhames tells Bruce Willis that he has to throw his next fight, as “Let’s Stay Together” thrums reassuringly in the background:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s President Barack Obama, at a 2012 Apollo Theater fundraiser where Al Green opened for him, singing a line from “Let’s Stay Together” astonishingly well: