Sometimes songs from one generation can be covered in quite a different way by musicians and singers from the next.
One such song is Take Me To The River first released in 1974, written by Al Green. Here was a singer who moved freely between soul and gospel styles, and at his best was writing songs full of nuance – perfectly capturing both body and soul.
Take me to the river, drop me in the water
Push me in the river, dip me in the water
Washing me down…
Al Green’s original is a light and funky number which creates the imagery of the river as both a place to be cleansed and also a possible location for, well, carnal pleasures. Horny horns and a lewd bass hinted that, though the lyrics were pious, Mr. Green had something altogether secular on his mind.
Green wrote the song with his regular guitarist Teenie Hodges while staying in a rented house at Lake Hamilton, Arkansas, The guys had been sent there for three days in 1973 in order to come up with new material by producer Willie Mitchell, and he’d followed his tried and tested formula, walking the line between spiritual and secular.
Critic Tim De Lisle describes it as “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.”
Some found it a song about his relationship to God, who washes him down in baptism and turns him from vice to virtue. Others saw the river as a metaphor for lovemaking. He’s asking for baptism, a cleansing. Lying back in the waters and having his soul and body washed down; a ritual purification.
Al Green’s version was never released as a single – just a track on his ‘Al Green Explores Your Mind’ album of 1974. Labelmate Johnson’s version uses the same musicians and producer, but slows it to a Memphis shuffle, adding a little harmonica for good measure.
Al Green always said that he prefered Johnson’s version, and as Green became a pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in 1976, he dropped the song from his own sets.
The first rock version of the song was recorded in 1976 by hard rockers Foghat, as part of an album of stadium-pleasing boogie rock numbers. They’d hit pay dirt the previous year, with the road-tested classic Fool For The City – their version of Take Me To The River feels a little like filler with its Peter Gunn bass line and extended riffing. Quite why they chose to stomp all over a soul song is anyone’s guess.
I much prefer this acoustic take from much later – 1994.
Levon Helm’s version of the song is worth a listen – Levon, as drummer/singer/mandolin player in The Band, had already achieved so much. His music, with The Band and in the many musical projects he worked on subsequently, was steeped in Americana and mythic American imagery, and his natural, easy vocal style was much loved. Here he pulls in some to Stax session men, including the legendary Steve Cropper, but it still doesn’t make the cover a great one.
The song is so good and durable that not even a Muppet could blow it as long as the arrangement is followed. Steve Leggett, All Music Guide
David Byrne and Talking Heads came straight off a tour and flew down to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record their second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food. On their previous album it was David Byrne’s angst driven goals that drove the music. This time around it was the rhythm section of Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth that came to the fore.
The superior facilities of Compass Point and producer Brian Eno’s sense of space and atmospherics made for a hugely creative take on Al Green’s original. Talking Heads’ definitive version of the song – and the one that made the song a true classic – was the only cover that the band ever did.
Weymouth slows the pace, Jerry Harrison cuts in with splashes of organ – in the manner of a percussive instrument, with a delay and an echo , and David Byrne adds a touch of menace to the delivery. Eno would later describe the recording as “perfectly poised between pop and soul. It created a field of charged rhythmic space – stark but tense. Always off balance and therefore always moving forward”.
Tim DeLisle again: “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”
“Coincidence or conspiracy? There were at least four cover versions of this song out at the same time: Foghat, Bryan Ferry, Levon Helm, and us. More money for Mr Green’s full gospel tabernacle church, I suppose. A song that combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend. All praise the mighty spurtin’ Jesus.” David Byrne
Here’s a 1980 version, that’s lost a little of the mystery of their recorded version, but makes up for it with a gospel backing and a growling bass.
All Star Texas Blues Band
A marvellous mix of the Foghat and Willie Mitchell styles led by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck – part of a CBS Records convention in Hawaii, March 1984.
Steve Winwood / Eric Clapton
At the Action into Research for Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) Concert in London, 1983, a show put together partly by Ronnie Lane. A concert particularly notable in the fact that it was the first occasion on which Clapton, Beck and Page (all former Yardbirds) had played together on the same stage.
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