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Al Green's landmark R&B album 'Call Me' turns 50

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Al Green is widely considered one of the greatest pop singers ever, known for his soulful ballads. His commercial peak was the decade of the 1970s. Rock critic Ken Tucker realized recently that this year is the 50th anniversary of what he considers Green's greatest album, 1973's "Call Me." Ken knew he wanted to do a piece to celebrate this rhythm and blues landmark.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME")

AL GREEN: (Singing) Call me. Call me. Call me. What a beautiful time we had together. Now it's getting late, and we must leave each other, yeah. Just remember the time we had and how right I tried to be. It's all in a day's work.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In Al Green's song "Call Me," the singer addresses a woman he's passionately in love with, who at this moment is not feeling that same passion. What they once had isn't working for her anymore. Green acknowledges her fading feelings for him even as he can't resist reminding her of, as he puts it, the beautiful time we had together. What he wants to tell her most of all is that she can call him any time, and he'll be there for her. In Al Green's musical universe, men and women are almost always operating on a level romantic playing field.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME")

GREEN: (Singing) The best thing I can do is give you your love - is give you your love, baby - that you're going away, feeling as free as a dove. And if you find you're a long ways from home, and if somebody's doing you wrong, just call me, baby, and come back home.

TUCKER: Al Green constructed this superb nine-song album for Hi Records in Memphis at Royal Studios in close collaboration with co-producer Willie Mitchell. Essential to the sound was the Hi Rhythm Section, which included the three Hodges brothers, bassist Leroy, Charles on keyboards and guitarist Teenie Hodges. Howard Grimes played drums. In the 1970s, the warm intimacy of the music that came out of Royal Studios attained an almost mystical force. When I went there to interview Green and Mitchell in 2003, Willie Mitchell yelled at me when I moved my hand to sweep away a spiderweb in a dusty corner of the studio. Don't touch it, he said. It's all part of the sound. I was not at all sure that he was kidding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU OUGHT TO BE WITH ME")

GREEN: (Singing) Sit right down and talk to me about how you want to be. You ought to be with me. Yeah, you ought to be with me. Thinking about what people do, talking about how I love you, thinking there's nothing to what they say. You're going to be with me anyway.

TUCKER: That's "You Ought To Be With Me," one of three hit singles off "Call Me," along with "Here I Am (Come And Take Me)" and the title song. Green's phrasing is unique. He uses a falsetto croon that can deepen into a growl, enunciating lyrics conversationally. "Call Me" was Green's sixth album and includes two superb covers of country music - Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and this one, Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUNNY HOW TIME SLIPS AWAY")

GREEN: (Singing) How am I doing? Well, I guess I'm doing fine. It's been so long, and it seems like it was only yesterday. Ain't it funny, funny, funny how time slips away, hey.

TUCKER: This album also includes "Jesus Is Waiting," a gorgeous early example of the gospel music that would at one point take over Green's career when he became the Reverend Al Green. And the most underrated song on "Call Me" is "Stand Up," a quietly vehement piece of sinuous funk with politics that imply as much about the importance of Black assertiveness as anything that Sly Stone or the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye were offering during this same period.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND UP")

GREEN: (Singing) I think it's time to stand up and identify yourself. Stand up and identify yourself. What's your name? What's the nature of the game? Who you are, how far you come, where have you been, oh, yeah. Stand up - you've been promised just one day, and that's today.

TUCKER: When I read that this was the 50th anniversary of "Call Me," I had a visceral reaction. I was momentarily overwhelmed, recalling the pleasure that this album has given me over the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE I AM (COME AND TAKE ME)")

GREEN: (Singing) I can't believe that it's real - the way that you make me feel. A burning deep down inside, a love that I cannot hide. Our love is you and me, baby. That makes the world go round. And if you've been doing loving with me, laying all my troubles down. Here I am, baby - come and take me. Here I am, baby - baby, come and take me. Take me by the hand...

BIANCULLI: Rock critic Ken Tucker. Al Green's album "Call Me" was released 50 years ago this month. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie version of another classic from the '70s - the 1970 Judy Blume novel, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELVIN JONES' "ANTHROPOLOGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.