“We’re doing it because we all idolize Al Green. Ever since word got out that we were doing this project our phone’s been ringing off the hook.”
That was the answer The Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson gave when recently asked about one of his recent collaborations. While visiting his record company in 2005, Thompson picked up Loretta Lynn’s 2004 Van Lear Rose album, the singer’s late-career collaboration with The White Stripes Jack White. “I couldn’t stop listening to it,” related Thompson. “I thought, ‘Why can’t that happen on the black side of music?’”
His first attempt, working with reclusive soul singer Bill Withers, got pushed aside when an executive at Blue Note Records asked Thompson if he would be interested in producing Al Green, who was looking to work with a member of the hip-hop community. Nah I’m cool…thanks anyway man….Wait! Of course!
In 2005 at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, the pair’s first meeting, the result was one of a Behind the Music segment. “Every time anybody did something else, I turned around and wrote another song,” Green confides. “We ended up with eight songs in that one night. I hadn’t had an experience like that, ever!”
Sure the man can sing, but behind every great singer is a stellar backing band. The on theyformed was built around the rhythm section of Thompson and bassist Adam Blackstone and featuring the Dap-King Horns (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Amy Winehouse), met about seven or eight times to complete the album (due out May 27th). The final product — featuring duets with Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend and Anthony Hamilton — should be looser, funkier and more emotional than anything Green has released in decades.
Green’s last two albums (2003’s I Can’t Stop and 2005’s Everything’s OK) reunited him with producer Willie Mitchell, who led all of his classic sessions for Hi Records in the Seventies. Thompson describes those records as “solid but sonically frustrating,” and says that he had a different ambition for Lay It Down.
Most of the time when legendary artists put out a work after sometime they go one of two ways. The standards-filled “Tony Bennett route” or the cameo-stuffed “Santana route,” Thompson strove for the opposite: a return to dirty-soul-filled goodness. “I told Adam [Blackstone] to play wrong notes and to remember they didn’t have tuners back then,” said the drummer, who co-produced with keyboardist James Poyser. “We needed to undo the education we had in order to play that simply.”
Green, however, had no problem staying loose. “I always write in the studio,” he said. “While the band learns the song, I’m finishing the words.” On one particular day, Green was watching some nature program Discovery or PBS (”I watch a lot of wildlife,” he says. “Animals make more sense than humans most of the time”). And the concept of wild animals turned into wild love — and, quickly, into the lyric for “I’m Wild About You.”
By recording everything live and acknowledging Green’s fleeting patience, Thompson and Poyser were able to capture Green’s undiminished voice. “I wanted to make the true follow-up to The Belle Album, which is considered the last quote-unquote real Al Green record,” ?uestlove says. “And I do think this is his most heartfelt record since then.” Thompson eventually found the secret. “The key is that you have to mute everything else,” he says, “and let Al shine.”
Hear two songs here
Check out the behind the scenes footage of the making of Lay It Down below
Buy Al Green music here
Buy The Roots Music here