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Making Hits

In 2000, NPR’s listeners voted Al Green’s 1971 hit “Let’s Stay Together” one of the 100 best songs of the 20th century. With its plea for two people to hang in there, whether times are good or bad, it quickly became an anthem for lovers. But it was what Green learned about delivering a song that made this one work and gives us some clues about our own path to greatness. By the time he was 20, Green had already formed his own group, the Soul Mates, who scored a minor hit with “Back Up Train.” He then went solo. But wherever he went, “Back Up Train” was all people wanted to hear. He grew frustrated. Then, one night in Midland, Texas, he found himself on a bill with Willie Mitchell.

Mitchell was a jack-of-all-trades on the Memphis music scene. He was a trumpeter, bandleader, songwriter and head of Hi Records, a friendly rival to the better-known Stax. On the night that he and Green first met, Green took to the stage and sang “Back Up Train” for all it was worth to impress the headliner. Mitchell didn’t care much for the song, but heard something irresistible in Green and agreed to become his producer.“He asked, ‘How long before you think I’ll have a hit record?’ “ Mitchell remembers. “I said, ‘About 18 months.’ He said, ‘I ain’t got that long.’ But he was very young then.” Young, impatient and broke, Al Green wanted to go places, but didn’t have too many options. He and Mitchell started working together, and 18 months later released their first hit.“Tired of Being Alone” was the first in a series of hits for the team, and it wasn’t long before they released a new chart-climber, “Let’s Stay Together.” Mitchell sketched out some chords, and he says it took Green just 15 minutes to write the words. But Mitchell says the time it took to record the song was an eternity.“It took us a hundred and some hours to put the song on tape,” Mitchell says, “because Al was saying, ‘What do you want, man?’ I said, ‘Well, I want you.’” “I’m in here trying to blow the studio top off,” Green says, “and Willie kept saying, ‘No, just say it.’ I’m going, like, ‘I think I need to just muscle up and sing it.’ He said, ‘Don’t try to handle the song, Al. Just let the song happen. Just let it ooze out.” “I wanted his golden voice on it, and he kept giving me somebody else’s voice,” Mitchell says. “And that’s why we just kept going over and over and over and over again. Yeah. When he nailed it, I said, that’s the one." Here are four easy takeaways. 1. Things take time. Green was in a hurry to have a hit record. The singer scoffed at Mitchell’s estimate of “18 months”. How long have you been in your role? Put in the work. Your time will come. You might even enjoy a little early success, but don’t rest there. Al’s first hit was not his biggest. 2. Don’t be fooled by a fast start. “Let’s stay together” started with a few chords and lyrics written in 15 minutes. But it was the 100s of hours and take after take that got it to the radio. Our work is sometimes like that, too. See it through. 3. Trust your mentor. Talented people sometimes need others to help them realize their potential. Sometimes they’re going to tell you things that are hard to hear but trust them. Your mentor wants you to shine. It reflects on them, too. As Green’s success did on Mitchell. 4. When you’re flexible, you grow. Every time you use your talent a different way than you’d imagine, you’ve expanded your talent and increased your marketability. When Al stopped shouting and started singing — there was plenty of love and happiness to go around.

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