Old school soul singers like Al Green can take us to church! – Says Rachel Bennett.
Every Sunday, as a young single mum in London, and a non-church goer, I used to roll back the carpet and take my son dancing in our 4th floor flat to the sounds of Al Green – he was my Sunday soul preacher.
His raw and honest sound touched a part of me that, at that time, I didn’t understand like I do now.
Those ‘old school’ soul singers – most of whom are still going strong – have a great deal to teach us today and here are some of the reasons why we should ‘take note!’
1. Stay in the moment
You can see his facial muscles, lips, and tongue popping and thickening consonants to add feel.
Being completely real is a vital part of any performance. If you are really feeling the sense of the lyric and the melody your audience will be right there with you, regardless of any imperfections.
Al was raised in the church in Tennessee and grew up with the raptured sounds of praise – a vocal release from the drudgery and even the pain of daily living in the south. If you were African American back then, as now, times were hard
Al took that release, that call, that cry and brought a unique sound to soul music. He didn’t just call out, he laughed and cried on those recordings!
To look at his work technically, he played with phonetic shapes and twang to move us all over our feelings – laughter, tears, rage, pleading, love language.
If you watch Al in performance you can see his facial muscles, lips, and tongue playing with the lyric and stretching across vowel shapes and popping and thickening consonants to add feel.
Al was unabashed at the mic! In short, he moved his very human feelings into the tone. He moved his tone into those same feelings – if you listen carefully you can hear it work both ways!
This is a young Al performing what was probably his greatest hit:
2. Recognise your vocal limits
In his recordings (particularly in the 70s) you can hear the fatigue at times
In his young years, Al moved away from the church and, at times, was living a pretty wild existence: women, drugs, fast cars!
In his recordings (particularly in the 70s) you can hear the fatigue at times. The human voice can endure a great deal but it has limits!
There are creaks, breaks, breathy tones and even flat notes. But that feeling is ever present.
But pacing ourselves as artists is a necessary discipline in this now fast-moving industry where singers are dropped by companies when they can’t keep up with the tour.
Get those early nights in, don’t have that last drink at the bar after the show, and cool down your voice at the end of the gig with some gentle humming, glides and sirens.
Al returned to the church in later years and is still preaching in Tennessee today, enchanting his congregation with those sweet tenor tones
3. Remain focused
I think one of the most important qualities for a successful singer is to remain focused and unassuming in performance.
I saw Al in London in the 2000s at Hammersmith Apollo. He sang every tune in its original key and was as focused and unassuming as ever.
That focus allowed him to work, not just as a technician, but as a truth teller first, knowing that if he felt emotion, he could take his note and put it right alongside that human sound – and that’s exactly what he did!
The point is we all queued up and paid our money to see the Al who had inspired us for decades. We didn’t want to see a changed person whose music had lost that ‘fire’. So, staying real and remembering why you wrote those lyrics – that’s the real deal!
Whilst I can now discuss Al’s technique as a singing coach, I would never want to remove his magic. But that’s part of my point – he believed in the heights of the magic of his music… he really believed!
Rachel Bennett is a London-based vocal coach and singer songwriter. She is the lead singer / songwriter of RAIE and a Musical Director for theatre, television & recording studios across London. She has associations at WAC Performing Arts and Media College and Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama. You can learn more about Rachel on her Website or Facebook. You can see more of Rachel’s writing here.