Memphis based Hi Records, which had both Green and Johnson as part of their stable of artists, decided not to release Al Green’s original as a single, but rather saved the song for Johnson’s single release off of his “Total Explosion” LP. It proved to be the most successful single of his career charting at #7 on the R&B charts and #48 on the Hot 100. Only one single did better on Billboard’s Hot 100 at that was the 1974 release of “I Want to Take you Home” which peaked at #40.
There are numerous similarities between Johnson’s and Green’s recordings of this tune and this can be attributed to the fact that, while the final mixes of the two were different, the arrangements are basically the same, were both produced by Willie Mitchell, and featured the likes of the same rhythm and horn sections.
The Hi Rhythm Section featured Howard Grimes on drums and the three Hodges brothers: Charles on organ, Leroy on bass, and Mabon “Teenie” (the song’s coauthor) on guitar. The Memphis Horns, featuring Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love. appeared on nearly all of the recordings at cross-town rival Stax/Volt Records. They really became part of the unique Memphis sound. Originally a six-piece, the Memphis Horns eventually dwindled to only Jackson on trumpet and Love on tenor sax. Willie Mitchell’s brother James provided the horn arrangements.
Al Green’s Original
Although the two versions shared enough musical DNA to prove the same ancestry, they were unique vehicles of expression. Notably, Syl Johnson’s version has him playing harmonica – which greatly adds to the appeal of his rendition. Additionally, Johnson’s mix is hotter as well. This was presumably done for the benefit AM radio audiences listening via small speakers in their cars and on transistor radios. The AM factor was often considered in relation to a single's mix down of recordings. Remember 1975 was still before the popularity of FM radio completely overtook AM, the invention of boom box, and custom car audio that accentuated the low end of songs. Finally, the horns are out front (right channel only) in Johnson's single and not subdued as they were in Green’s original.
Even with the better mix, Johnson’s version has been relegated to the forgotten song bin, as when oldies stations play "Take me to the River" – it is nearly always Al Green’s recording that is played. Green dedicated this record to his late cousin, the Little Junior Parker. Although the song has some strong religious undertones and it remains a popular Green recording, he dropped it from his repertoire when he became the minister of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. Rolling Stone places Green’s version at 117 of the top 500 recordings of all time.
Talking Heads’ Hit Version
The song took on a third life in 1978 when Talking Heads recorded “Take me to the River” for their second LP, “More Songs about Buildings and Food.” Coproduced by Brian Eno, the Talking Heads version was a head-on collision that occurred at the intersection of R&B and Punk. David Byrne admitted in The Independent that he was drawn to this song because it “combines teenage lust with baptism - not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend.” While not as good as either Green or Johnson’s recording, it was the hit version charting in the US at #26 in 1979.
And now you know the reason why I picked Syl Johnson’s version to feature.