Lives of the Great Songs: Soul with plenty of body: Take Me to the River: Some songs are born great, and some have greatness thrust upon them by clever art-school graduates. Tim de Lisle follows the path of an elastic classic

BEFORE it meant music, rock'n'roll meant sex. It was a bit of slang, used by black Americans, especially in the South. Black music, at the time, was either jazz, blues, or (especially in the South) gospel. When blues and gospel met country & western - the white man's music - the result was steamy enough to be called rock'n'roll. So sex and religion, sin and sanctity, are there in rock's genes, deep in its DNA.

The mixture can be found in dozens of the stars' CVs - out of the choirstall and into the studio - but no one illustrates it more vividly than Al Green. Before he was 10, Al was singing in a gospel quartet with his brothers. At 13, he left the group: the story goes that his father fired him for listening to the profane music of Jackie Wilson. At 18, in 1964, he became a nightclub singer. Seven years later he was a star, crossing over from the Billboard R'n'B chart to the pop chart with the silkiest string of hits in soul music. On record sleeves he wore a white suit. In concert he was more often topless. The term 'sex god' was much used.

In 1976 he completed the circle by being ordained a pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle. He bought a church on the outskirts of Memphis and became its minister. He's still there today. And still making records, though for a long time they were gospel, not soul, and when they are soul, they are not very physical - the words are all about love, and vague enough to apply equally to God and woman.

Al Green's spiritual rebirth is often traced to 1974, when he had a brush with death. An ex-girlfriend, Mary Woodson, burst into his house in Memphis while he was having a shower. She poured boiling grits over him, then shot herself dead with his gun. He went to hospital with second-degree burns.

That was in October. In December he released the LP Al Green Explores Your Mind, featuring a song called 'Take Me to the River'. Musically, it was much like any other track sung by Green and produced by Willie Mitchell, the Southern-soul maestro who ran Hi Records, the Memphis Horns and the Memphis Strings: R'n'B with lashings of subtlety, a light, easy, late-night sound, in which the strings, the horns, the organ, the guitars and that wild-honey voice blend into a single swinging, winning thing. It doesn't sound like a band playing: it sounds like a lot of instruments humming.

Lyrically, the song was something else. This is where the two Als meet. In the verses, it's the sex god speaking:

I don't know why / I love you like I do

With all the changes / You put me through

You take my money / My cigarettes

And I haven't seen / How to have you yet

I wanna know / Won't you tell me

Am I / In love to stay?

In the chorus, the servant of God takes over -

Take me to the river / Wash me down

Won't you cleanse my soul / Put my feet on the ground

but not for long:

Hold me / squeeze me

Love me / tease me

Till I can't / Till I can't

I can't take no more

So he's in love, and he's not sure if she's in love with him. Why this need for baptism, for ritual purification? The answer doesn't arrive until the fifth verse:

Love is a notion / that I can't forget

My sweet sixteen / I would never regret

The split personality doesn't extend to the music. When the words tear themselves away from romance, the music goes on boiling up, so there's a delicious contrast: it's the oldest game in town, body v soul, and judging by the squeezing and teasing, soul is not coming out on top.

None the less, 'it's almost a gospel song,' Willie Mitchell says. 'The music is R'n'B all the way, but the words - it's really a message song.' I asked if he'd thought it a great song at the time. 'Of course,' he said, with a twinkle in his voice. In fact he didn't put it out as a single, and the only evidence that he rated it is that he recorded it again a year later. The singer was the Chicago blues-and-soul-man Syl Johnson. As well as Green's producer, Johnson had most of the same musicians - the Hi house band, featuring the Hodges brothers, Leroy (bass), Charlie (organ, piano) and Mabon (a distinctive twangy guitar). 'Take Me to the River' was one of several songs written by Green with Mabon Hodges, the youngest, known as Teeny. 'Al would do the words,' Mitchell says, 'and Teeny did the music - well, he and Al together.'

Syl Johnson's version (on Total Explosion, Hi/Demon) was faithful: even the horns remained the same. But he did add a wailing blues harmonica (one of many instruments for which the song would find room), and a grittier vocal, and behind him Mitchell put the crisper, more Northern soul sound that he had weaned Green away from. This time the song was a single, and reached the US R'n'B Top 10.

Another year on, and 'Take Me to the River' was recorded by white people for the first time: Foghat, a mid-Atlantic blues-rock band whose sleeve portrait (for Night Shift, on Rhino) reveals not just the shoulder-length perms of the period, but shoulder-length permed moustaches too. Why they did 'Take Me to the River' is not clear. If they wanted to do another fast, loud, heavy jam, you wouldn't have thought they needed to desecrate a soul tune.

At this stage nobody would have called the song great. That changed in 1978, when it was sung by two men who had achieved a measure of greatness and a third who was heading that way. Levon Helm, drummer and singer with The Band, included it on his second solo album, Levon Helm (MCA, import only). One of The Band's hallmarks had been a powerful sense of Southern history. Helm cut his record at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a historic Southern studio, and used some of the crack players he had grown up listening to, including Steve Cropper, who had co-written both 'Knock on Wood' and 'Dock of the Bay'. The result was impeccable, but not very interesting: a photocopy of Syl Johnson, with the horns blown up.

Four thousand miles away, in Montreux, Bryan Ferry was recording 'Take Me to the River' for his album The Bride Stripped Bare. 'I did it in quite a traditional way,' Ferry says. 'I love the Al Green version, the feel of it. I'm one of his greatest fans. All that music that comes out of Memphis has always been quite magical for me.' His version is actually unassumingly different. There are only four players - two guitars, bass and drums. And the bass is not just a base: it meanders along, with unexpected elegance, while the guitars have a conversation - one bluesy and crunchy, the other bright and countrified, with a twang that Teeny Hodges would recognise. The vocal is very Ferry, stylised but not soulless.

MEANWHILE, in London and New York, a New Wave had broken, and men like Helm and Ferry were being made to feel old by a generation of angry young punks. Among the new bands was an East Coast art-school quartet called Talking Heads. They weren't punks at all, but they played fast and tight enough to attract the same sort of press. When they toured Britain with the Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone was shocked by their taste. 'They were so strange. We were into the Sex Pistols and stuff like that, and they were into this whole funky thing. They were listening to Al Green.'

On that tour they met Brian Eno, who had been in Roxy Music with Ferry until they discovered that the band wasn't big enough for the both of them. For their second album, Talking Heads went to Nassau, with Eno as producer, and recorded 'Take Me to the River'. It was the only cover they ever did. David Byrne was drawn to it because it 'combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend.' The rest of the band liked the fact that it was funky. It was bad luck on Bryan Ferry: 'Unfortunately their version was very good. They turned it inside out.'

Talking Heads had pulled an art-school trick - apply an idea, a little lateral thought, to something conventional. 'We played it live in the studio,' Tina Weymouth, the bass player, would recall. 'It sounded so great when we played it back that we immediately imposed a rule on ourselves - no additional playing, except single notes. Just one ping or bop or pang.' Eno's sense of space sees to it that the backdrop is wide open, with a huge drum in one speaker, a cymbal in the other, and a juicy bass-line oozing between the two. On top are some lovely splashes and sploshes, bursts of churchy organ and squeezed guitar, arranged in endless variations. Over all that comes Byrne's voice, the sound of a cerebral young man mellowing into something like soulfulness (and discreetly adjusting the words, so that 'I haven't seen how to have you yet' becomes 'I haven't seen the worst of it yet'). Every sound is distinct: Willie Mitchell's soup has been replaced by a stir-fry. This, not the original, is the standard by which other versions will be judged.

America saw this, and gave the group, and the song, their first run in the pop chart. (It reached No 29. It has yet to be a hit in Britain, a fact that will one day be rectified by an advertising agency.) It set Talking Heads on a new path: two years later they went on tour as a nine-piece funk band, aiming for the ecstatic release that Byrne had found in African music. 'Take Me to the River' would always come near the end of the show, a natural climax.

You can hear how it sounded on The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982, recorded in '81) and the album or video of Jonathan Demme's concert film, Stop Making Sense (1984). In '81 the expanded band did something unheard-of: it had two bass players, Tina Weymouth for the upper octaves and Busta Jones for the lower. The effect is almost too good. And the song kept on growing. In '81 they added some gospel backing vocals; in '84 they got really carried away, and included a guitar solo.

Next came another twist: the song was sung by a woman. It was 1985, the age of the toy-boy; the woman was Diane Schuur, a mature mainstream jazz singer, who did it with more power and gloss than feeling (on Schuur Thing, GRP). In 1987 Tina Turner followed suit, on the 12in single 'What You Get is What You See'. Her comeback had begun with an Al Green song, 'Let's Stay Together'. Here she used the same producer, Martyn Ware of Heaven 17, without the same dividends. Tina got over-excited, yelling 'Wash meh]' before the music started; Ware felt the need to use all 48 tracks, and both forgot that what had made 'Let's Stay Together' so good was its restraint.

In 1988 the song appeared on another 12in B-side, 'There's No Deceiving You' by the Blue Ox Babes on Go] Discs. They sped it up, and added a promising boogie-woogie piano and a country fiddle. But the singer is a bored punk, who doesn't wake up until the final chorus. Finally, in 1991, the song is recorded, as all great soul tunes must be, by the Commitments, for Alan Parker's film. Their version is big without being moving (the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the Andrew Strong). But it's fun. It sounds like a dozen Irish people having a good time, which is what it is.

THE SONG still holds some mysteries. Was the 16-year-old a real person? Why did Al feel so bad about her? Who was Little Junior Parker, the cousin to whom the song is dedicated?

To find out, I rang the Reverend Green in Memphis. Did he remember writing the song? 'Sure I remember.' Could he tell me about it? 'I just made a new record, and it's called Don't Look Back. And that's what I'm doin'.' I tried rephrasing the question. He wasn't fooled.

It didn't matter. The great songs are more than the sum of their facts. They are canvases, spaces for musicians to express themselves, and for listeners to draw their own conclusions. For me, it's all in that line about 'all the changes you put me through'. 'Changes' strikes an odd note. You'd expect 'trouble' - and when the verse is reprised, you get it. Why 'changes'? Because this song was going to be all about transformation. It marked Al Green's conversion from heart-throb to pastor. It marked Talking Heads' graduation from a cool white sound to a warm black one. The message is clear: if this song doesn't change you, you won't get much change out of it.

To hear 'Take Me to the River', tune in to Gary King on Virgin 1215 at 9.30-10am today, or make an appointment at the National Sound Archive, London SW7 (071-589 6603, no charge). The 'Independent on Sunday' would like to thank the NSA for its help with this series. 'Lives of the Great Songs' returns later in the year, when there will also be a book, published by Pavilion.

(Photograph omitted)

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