There were three men in the beginning of the 1970s who had the firepower to compete with Marvin Gaye: Al Green, Donny Hathaway, and Bill Withers. (At the end of the decade there was also Teddy Pendergrass, but I’m still trying to finish the beginning of the decade.)

These gentlemen were at their peak in the years 1970 through ’73, when I was in high school. (Pendergrass was at his peak when I was in disco.) Despite a few not-too-positive comments (what is this blog without not-too-positive comments), it was a pleasure to spend an entire day with them so I could write this post.

Al Green
My problem with Al Green is that his music follows an arc from make-out songs to soft rock to Jesus. But Green had a run of excellent discs in the early ’70s starting with Al Green Gets Next to You (1971). The big hit was “Tired of Being Alone.” The big flaw was “Light My Fire.” Sadly, there is nothing flammable about Green’s version.

Let’s Stay Together (1972) features the deservedly-popular title track, of course, but also a stunning reclamation project: Green’s cover of The Bee-Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” Making something this artful out of something that awful must’ve been like making drinking water out of the Dead Sea.

I’m Still in Love with You (1972) includes my favorite, “Love and Happiness,” where Green lets the first 34 seconds go by before he even thinks about singing. There’s also a terrific version of “Oh Pretty Woman.” The soft rock seeps in with Call Me (1973), but Call Me also has “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” so I still rate it as a Buy.

Donny Hathaway
The late Mr. Hathaway had a voice from a galaxy far, far away. His duets with Roberta Flack were popular (Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, 1972). But I never liked his material; I thought his voice was better suited for Broadway or even opera.

I was sleepwalking through his debut, Everything Is Everything (1970), which is pleasant, when “The Ghetto” came on. That was like stepping on the third rail. This is a true lost classic of the ’70s, a song the teenaged me only heard on the underground radio stations in Boston. I’d completely forgotten it. What a gift to have it returned.

However, I suspect I like “The Ghetto” because there’s not much singing on this track.

Bill Withers
Here’s the formula for making unfair judgments about Bill Withers’ albums:

1. The album covers all feature photos of Withers.
2. As his clothes improve, his music does not.

My favorite Withers record is his first, Just As I Am (1971). What an easy-going man…an easy-going man who can get to the core of an incident or an entire life in two minutes. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which I know you love as much as I do, lasts two minutes. His tribute to his grandmother, “Grandma’s Hands,” is two minutes.

Give him another 30 seconds and you get his hair-raising cover of “Let It Be.” And when he decides to stretch out a bit and use three or even four minutes, he gives us “Harlem,” a rocker, and “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” a fresh look at an old subject.

Withers closes Just As I Am with “Better Off Dead,” a song about an alcoholic. Devastation.

His second album, Still Bill (1972), features “Lean on Me” and “Use Me,” but also “Another Day to Run” and the funky and adult “Lonely Town, Lonely Street,” “Take It All In and Check It All Out,” and “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?”

Withers’ third effort, Live At Carnegie Hall, marks the end of the great Withers records. (Yes, I know that he still has “Lovely Day” coming up in a few years, but he cancels that out with the sticky-sweet “Just the Two of Us.”) Live At Carnegie Hall opens with eight minutes of “Use Me” and includes a “Grandma’s Hands” that’ll grab ya by the throat.

Bill Withers is sad. Al Green understands sad but isn’t. Donny Hathaway was seamless.

Random Pick of the Day
Lou Rawls, Live! (1966)
Lou Rawls sang like another Nat King Cole but with human flaws. Rawls is best known for “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” a planetary phenomenon in 1976.

To my ears, all of Rawls’ interesting recordings are from the 1960s. This disqualifies him from any further discussion in my survey of black music of the ’70s, but I couldn’t let this album go unheralded. It was a very different, at times ferocious man who recorded these songs: “Tobacco Road,” “Stormy Monday,” and “I Got It Bad (and that Ain’t Good).” Even old-timers such as “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “The Girl From Ipanema” sound new here.

As much as I like Al Green and Bill Withers and sort of like Donny Hathaway, I find the women of the ’70s to be much more diverse and interesting than the men. Next up in the black music of the ’70s series: Stand by for…Diva Week!

 

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