I first heard this record playing in the background as I browsed through the wax at my local Minneapolis record bar: Positively 4th Street. I had been a fan of Green’s since the days 10 years earlier, when he was on TV quite a bit and sitting atop the R&B charts. In those days I was an unhappy Believer and in search of role models or heroes. Dylan had not yet made his Christian move and I had never heard of T-Bone Burnett.
There was something in the lyrics of Belle that caught my ear that day. Could it be, I wondered, that this guy was a Christian? I couldn’t afford the $5.98 at the time but one day I eventually bought that record. It has been a prized favorite ever since.
About the best summation of this wonderful record comes from the No Ripcord site. I’ve copied it here in full.
OVERLOOKED ALBUMS #23: AL GREEN – THE BELLE ALBUM
Green has been called an heir to Otis Redding. Like Redding, he is a formidable singer-songwriter, but that’s where the similarities end. Green’s voice can be as gritty as Redding’s, but he’s never been a shouter. His voice is smoother, offering red-hot embers instead of sizzle. His songs are a virtuoso display of emotion peppered with sweet pleadings, swooping falsettos, and passionate growls. Green’s singular vocal timbre made him a constant presence in the early seventies with chart-topping hits such as Tired Of Being Alone, Livin’ For You, and Let’s Stay Together.
Come the mid-seventies, and all was not well. By his own account, Green’s spiritual beliefs were in conflict with the life he was living. His womanizing, drinking and drug consumption were leading to stress and mental anguish. It all came to a head on October 18, 1974 when an ex-girlfriend dumped boiling grits on Green while he was bathing, then killed herself with his gun. The incident was a wake-up call for Green to change his life. He decided to devote himself to the church, becoming an ordained pastor for the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis in 1976.
The three secular albums that followed his religious conversion were uninspired and sales were starting to sag as disco gained a stronghold in the charts. It seemed Green was still a man torn in two. He took time to regroup, building a studio and working on the songs that appear on The Belle Album.
The album marked a turning point in Green’s career. For the first time, he was working without the guidance of longtime producer Willie Mitchell and the familiar backup of the Hi Records’ rhythm section. He decided to handle the production alone and even played a great deal of the guitar parts. This was to be a personal album, and there would be no room for second-guessing.
The Belle Album is secular, but it barely fits that category. Green walks a tightrope between the soul music of the day and his spiritual concerns. Take for instance a song like Chariots of Fire, which has a tight funk groove in the style of James Brown. Your feet start tapping and you forget the song’s about gaining a path to heaven. Yet Green is aware he can’t have it both ways. This is a man who is no longer torn. He’s made his choice, and the title song makes a bold statement: “It’s you that I want, but it’s Him that I need”. Belle engages us as a sweet soul ballad, but in feel and delivery it’s pure gospel. By the song’s end Green’s testifying leaves no doubt that this is a love song to the Lord. This new-found joy permeates the pop-oriented Loving You, the breezy, piano-tinged Feels Like Summer, and the uptempo I Feel Good; all lavished with subtle arrangements and delicate shadings learned from Willie Mitchell.
In contrast, Georgia Boy has a simple bass and hi-hat groove. Green’s voice seems to ride over it as he extols being true to his country roots. All In All should have been a single; it has a great vocal performance, a pulsing Motown beat, and an infectious horn arrangement. Dream rounds off the album with a lazy, late-night feel that gives room for Green to improvise around the melody.
The title song climbed up to number nine on the R&B charts, but it didn’t rescue Green from slipping sales. In the carnal days of 1977, The Belle Album sounded out of time; the worshipers of Baal wanted none of it. Green would record one more secular album (Truth ‘N Time) before deciding to devote all his energies to gospel singing and pastoring his church. The decision was spurred by a bad fall from a stage in 1979, which Green took as a sign. After some false starts, he returned to full-time secular recordings with the release of I Can’t Stop in 2003. Green has been riding on an artistic and commercial crest ever since. With a revival of old-school soul underway, it seems the world has come full circle, and the public, now looking for authenticity, is finally giving Green his due.
The Belle Album is still Green’s best. I keep going back to it because its good-natured optimism is missing in today’s music. There’s no sermonizing here; the songs are about a man who has found peace and feels compelled to share his joy. “My heart was lost but now it’s found”, Green declares with a certainty that is disarming. Amen to that.
02 Loving You
03 Feels Like Summer
04 Georgia Boy
05 I Feel Good
06 All N All
07 Chariots Of Fire