Let's Stay Together

Let's Stay Together

The lesson of Al Green’s 1972 breakthrough album, Let’s Stay Together, is that soul music doesn’t have to go big to make its point. No disrespect to Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, or Solomon Burke, but while 1960s soul found its power in force of expression, Green introduced the possibility of finding it in restraint: the murmured delivery, the pillowy vibe, the way Willie Mitchell’s arrangements lean back where they could press forward. Green wasn’t the first or only artist to soften soul in the 1970s (the Chi-Lites come to mind, as do the Delfonics). But where the blockbuster strings and soft-focus dramatics of the Philadelphia and Chicago sounds projected sophistication for a Black, urban middle class, the best moments on Let’s Stay Together—including the title track, and Green’s cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”—were grounded in the same rural, Southern modesty as classic country. It was a connection Green would explore more explicitly a year later, with the hit follow-up Call Me. But Green didn’t just subvert the conventions of masculinity in pop and R&B with Let’s Stay Together. He also helped break down the walls between outward expression and inward feeling—it was pop music, but private. You can hear it in the way he slides into his falsetto on the “everything” in “I’ve Never Found a Girl (Who Loves Me Like You Do” or the chorus of “Judy”; the way Green buckles on the long “I” during the title track’s opening line, as though surrendering sweetly to the weight of his own affection. It was an approach that Green perfected during live performances from the era, which were revolutionary in part because it sounded like he was barely aware the audience exists. Instead, he sang directly to the subject of the song itself. It was a quality of intimacy and fragility you hear in everything from Green’s peer Marvin Gaye through Prince through the shy indie R&B singer who takes up the mic in their bedroom because it feels safer (and realer) to them than any stage. Of course, for some listeners, Let’s Stay Together will always be best exemplified by its title track—a song that has endured for decades. As these stories sometimes go, Green wrote “Let’s Stay Together” in 15 minutes. Interestingly, the spark wasn’t romantic, but sociopolitical: He was thinking about the dismantling of the Black Panthers, the assassination of Dr. King, the riots of 1968. Let’s stay together—not let things fall apart. A different take from Sly Stone’s, that’s for sure, but one that reflected Green’s approach as a performer: scaled back, simplified, domestic—the small and personal before the big and political. After all, if you can’t make it right with your lover, how are you going to make it right with the world?

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