Take Me to the River

Album: Al Green Explores Your Mind (1974)
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  • Al Green wrote this song with guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges in Lake Hamilton, Arkansas during a three-day stay at a rented house.
  • Just two years after the release of this song, Al Green fully embraced his Baptist roots and became an ordained minister at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, Tennessee. Growing up in a strict religious household, Green was encouraged to sing - as long as it was gospel music. But that didn't keep Al from sneaking in forbidden records from worldly R&B singers like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke (who started out as a gospel singer). The combination of these influences is what defined Green's career and came to a head in this song, where the singer struggles between his desire for physical and spiritual love. The verses tell us he's smitten with a girl who's more interested in stealing his money and his cigarettes than stealing his heart. He begs:

    Hold me, love me, please me, tease me
    Till I can't, till I can't take no more

    But in the chorus, he's back at the old church altar:

    Take me to the river
    And wash me down
    Won't you cleanse my soul
    Put my feet on the ground

    Baptism is always a hotly debated topic among Christian denominations - is it necessary for salvation? Is adult baptism superior to infant baptism? Is full immersion necessary? And the list goes on. As for Green, he's singing about the full immersion style practiced by John the Baptist (who also baptized Jesus) in the early days of Christianity where the subject was completely submerged in the water and their sins were washed away.

    Green explained that the baptism isn't just about cleansing from sin but about fulfilling a need that transcends romantic love: "Well, how is a person gonna cleanse your soul and put my feet on the ground? That's like I'm talking to somebody that's gonna be higher than somebody who just simply says, 'I love you and I'll see you after dinner.'"

    The sentiment is echoed in his 1977 The Belle Album, the beginning of his transition to a gospel music career. "It's you that I want but it's Him that I need," he sings in the title song.
  • Green occasionally included gospel songs on his secular albums - he penned the song "Jesus Is Waiting" for his 1973 gold album Call Me - but after a more serious religious turn as a pastor, he took a hiatus from R&B in favor of holy tunes. His released his first gospel album, The Lord Will Make a Way, in 1980.
  • The new wave band Talking Heads covered this song in 1979, taking it to #26 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. "We played it live in the studio," bass player Tina Weymouth remembered. "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."

    The Talking Heads version endured on Classic Rock radio; many listeners had no idea it was a cover song.
  • The Talking Heads version was a breakthrough for the band, whose only chart entry to that point was "Psycho Killer," which reached #92. When their rendition of "Take Me To The River" became a modest hit, it earned them an invitation to perform the song on American Bandstand, giving them their first significant TV exposure.
  • This song was also covered by the blues-rock band Foghat (the first white band to cover the song) in 1976, by Brian Ferry in 1978 and by Levon Helm in 1978.
  • Green's version may have been the original, but it was never released as a single. His producer Willie Mitchell brought the song to Blues/Soul singer Syl Johnson, who added a harmonica and some grit and landed a Top 10 spot (#7) on the US R&B charts in 1975. It also climbed to #48 on the Billboard Hot 100, which was the highest peak on the mainstream chart in Johnson's career.
  • This song also shares a title with Green's autobiography, released in 2000.
  • Green opens this song with a dedication to Memphis Blues musician Junior Parker, "a cousin of mine who's gone on, and we'd kinda like to carry on in his name."
  • This was one of a number of tunes sung by Big Mouth Billy Bass, an animatronic singing toy representing a largemouth bass that was popular in the early 2000s. Al Green said he received more royalties from the fishy figurine's kitschy cover than any other recording of this song.
  • Green insisted he was only responsible for the religious aspect of the song, having been inspired by watching his mentor Reverend James Turner perform a baptism ceremony in the Saint Francis River in Arkansas. "After seeing this and really enjoying it I wrote, 'Take me to the river, wash me down, cleanse my soul, put my feet on the ground.' And that's all I wrote," he said. "All this about the cigarettes and the 16 candles? That's Teenie."
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Comments: 1

  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn March 17th 1979, the Talking Heads performed their covered version of "Take Me to the River" on the ABC-TV program 'American Bandstand'...
    Forty-one days earlier on February 4th, 1979 it had peaked at #26 {for 1 week} and spent a total of 17 weeks on the Top 100...
    Between 1977 and 1986 the NYC quartet had eight Top 100 records; with "Burning Down the House" being their biggest hit, it peaked at #9 {for 1 week} on October 16th, 1983...
    As stated above, “Take Me to the River” was written by Al Green; and it appeared on his eighth studio album, 'Al Green Explores Your Mind', and on March 16th, 1975 the album reached #1 {for 1 week} on Billboard's Top R&B Albums chart, and #15 on Billboard's Top 200 Pop Albums chart.
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