*The moment I saw President Obama on the evening news singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” from his campaign podium at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, I figured his “impromptu” performance (backstage, he’d told aides that he was going to do it) would spark sales of the soul classic.
Sure enough, later that week it was reported that downloads of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” increased by almost 500 percent.
Obama’s antics briefly cast Green, in the Apollo audience that night, in a different kind of national spotlight. However, by singing Al’s song, Obama scored a hit of his own–and not simply because his version has since become a popular ring tone.
Rather, after playing chess with an ever ailing economy, wrestling with a truculent Congress and pushing the GO button on top secret Navy Seal operations–not to mention dodging stones thrown by would-be Republican presidential nominees–Obama very much needed the levity supplied by publicly singing a song, especially “Let’s Stay Together.” The tune possesses an enchanting power all its own.
It’s true. When Tina Turner covered the song in 1983, it rekindled a career that hadn’t seen much chart action in America since her Ike and Tina days. The success of her “Let’s Stay Together” cover opened the door to her superstardom.
It was Green who originally released the tune in 1971; co-wrote it with his producer, Willie Mitchell and famed Stax drummer Al Jackson, Jr. And yet the song rescued Green, too. Before he cut it, the singer had released three albums to minor success. “Let’s Stay Together” wasn’t merely his breakout hit; it was what show business terms a smash, reaching number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, on which the record stayed for 16 weeks. Today, Green’s impassioned reading of “Let’s Stay Together” is one of those performances that epitomizes modern soul.
The generational, global appeal of “Let’s Stay Together” lies in its very title. Indeed, if Etta James’ “At Last” is the ultimate wedding song, then “Let’s Stay Together” is the foremost anthem of kiss-and-make up.
Lyrically, those first two lines, particularly the second, are everything: “I’m so in love with you/WHATEVER YOU WANT TO DO, IS ALL RIGHT WITH ME.” There it is, right there. This is a song about love, to be sure, but “Let’s Stay Together” is really about what often ends up as one of the great challenges in a loving relationship: reconciliation. Compromise.
The rest of the tune is spent reaffirming said love and making a case for keeping the relationship together.
Seal can relate. He’s the latest performer to record “Let’s Stay Together.” There is no irony. Recently separated from supermodel Heidi Klum–her choice, according to him–Seal is out there singing for his life.
And in another way altogether, so is Obama.
Imagine: a heartbroken pop star and a wily, enterprising Commander in Chief, both, for very different reasons, calling on the same dynamic, curative magic of one of the greatest soul songs of all time, both men hoping to prevail, “whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.”
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]