Sunday Sermon: Al Green, Greg Maddux, And The Power Of Softness

Greg Maddux used to talk about throwing softer rather than harder when he was in a tight spot. Back in August of 2004, Mark Prior told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci:

“He’s helped me tremendously,” Prior says. “I’ve always gone harder whenever I’m in trouble. He’s got me thinking, Go softer when I’m in trouble. I never thought that way before, and it’s helped me develop confidence in my changeup.”

In another profile (August of 1995), Maddux told Verducci about a game in 1988 against the Cardinals, when he was still pitching for the Cubs. Maddux lost in the 11th inning when Luis Alicea hit a fastball for a seeing-eye single with the bases loaded.

“I pitched 10 scoreless innings and lost because I was afraid to throw a changeup,” he says.
“Now,” says [then Giants pitching coach, Dick] Pole, “if he gets a full count on you with the bases loaded, he’ll throw a change up. That s.o.b doesn’t even care about walking in the tying run.”

Sunday Sermon: Al Green, Greg Maddux, And The Power Of Softness

I love the idea of doing something that seems counter-intuitive but at the same time makes all the sense in the world. After all, how many times do we see a reliever over-throwing when he’s in a jam late in the game? In this case, going with a softer pitch like a changeup, shows a greater sense of confidence and strength than going with a power pitch.

I was reminded of this recently when I read Peter Guralnick’s outstanding book on Southern Rhythm and Blues music, Sweet Soul Music. Willie Mitchell, who was responsible for producing most of Al Green’s major records, is like the Maddux of music. Mitchell’s full and warm production style helped make Green a star; moreover, he knew how to harness Green’s talents (like many soul singers, Green had strong gospel roots). Mitchell tells Guralnick:

“Well, you see, after we had done ‘Tired of Being Alone’ and ‘I Can’t Get Next to You,’ I said, ‘Al, look, we got to soften you up some.’ I said, ‘You got to whisper. You got to cut the lighter music. the melody has got to be good. You got to sing it soft. If we can get the dynamic bottom on it and make some sense with pretty changes, then we gonna be there.’ He said, ‘Man, I can’t sing that way. That’s too soft. That ain’t gonna sound like no man singing.’ We had the damnedest fights, but I think ‘Let’s Stay Together’ really sold him that I had the right direction for him musically, ’cause, see, all the things I told him turned out to be true. Like ‘Let’s Stay Together’ he didn’t like at all, but when we put it out, it was gold in two weeks. So we softened and softened and softened.”

…Willie Mitchell and Al Green would soon take soul music–real, unabashed, wholehearted soul music–to quiet, luxuriantly appointed places it had never been before.

A terrific example of what Mitchell describes can be found on Green’s I’m Still in Love with You, the album that also features “Love and Happiness” and “I’m Glad You’re Mine.” The last cut on the first side is called “Simply Beautiful,” and the song has a special feel to it that is hard to describe. Intimate is the best word I can come up with. Anyhow, a record producer friend of mine explained to me a few years ago that the unique quality of the record was achieved by Mitchell turning up the recording levels on all of the microphones in the studio, and then getting Green and the musicians to play as softly as possible. Softer than soft. The results are subtle but powerful. It’s like Green is right in your ear.

So often, we see hard as virile, powerful, masculine, and “soft” as an insult. But vulnerability is often the greatest sign of strength, the most powerful tool, no matter what art form you are talking about.

Can I get an Amen?

And while we're talking Sweet Soul Music, here's some more on Willie Mitchell:

[Mitchell] had mastered the technology of recording, developed his own distinctive bass sound (a Willie Mitchell production is immediately recognizable for its “bottom”), and found in the eight-track, tube-amplified Ampex recorder that Hi already possessed machinery in which he could place an almost mystical belief.

…It has been said that Green in later years would spend more than a hundred hours on a vocal part, putting together, note by burbling note, each little comment and countercomment to elegantly stated melody, and while “Let’s Stay Together” appears to have been assembled a little more spontaneously than that, it conveys the same decorative filigree, the same sort of layered elegance with which Willie Mitchell and Al Green would soon take soul music–real, unabashed, wholehearted soul music–to quiet, luxuriantly appointed places it had never seen before.

Here’s a little something from Mitchell that will be familiar to the hip hop heads out there: