Al Green classics find new home at blues label

NEW YORK (Billboard) - If it’s up to Fat Possum president Matthew Johnson, the classic ‘70s recordings of R&B legend Al Green will soon be seducing a new generation of listeners.

Al Green poses with his awards after winning Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance at the 51st annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles February 8, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Johnson recently licensed the entire Hi Records catalog, which includes such classics as “Al Green Gets Next to You” and “Call Me,” as well as albums by Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson and longtime Green collaborator Willie Mitchell.

The first three releases under the deal will be remastered versions of Green’s “Greatest Hits,” “I’m Still in Love With You” and “Let’s Stay Together,” which will be in stores March 31.

Hi Records general manager and vice president Don Wilson said he liked what Matthew Johnson brought to the table.

“He was quite convincing and the terms were favorable,” Wilson said. “I didn’t want to go back with EMI, who had previously licensed the catalog. They reissued a big portion of the Al Green catalog, but I think Fat Possum will take the opportunity to go deeper.”

The Hi Records rights deal is the latest effort by 17-year-old Fat Possum to expand beyond its original focus on Mississippi Delta blues. Back in the early ‘90s, the label made a name for itself with raw, unvarnished recordings by modern Delta bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.

Since then, Fat Possum has expanded its scope into soul and indie rock. In 2002, the label released Solomon Burke’s “Don’t Give Up on Me,” a critically acclaimed collection of Southern soul that won a Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album. “Don’t Give Up on Me” found a surprisingly large audience, having sold 115,000 units to date, according to SoundScan. Fat Possum also struck it big with the Black Keys, whose 2003 album “Thickfreakness” and 2004 album “Rubber Factory” have sold 107,000 and 134,000 units, respectively, according to SoundScan.

The label’s latest success story is multi-instrumental indie musician Andrew Bird’s “Noble Beast,” which debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 for the week ended January 25 and has sold 48,000 copies to date. For the week ended February 8, Heartless Bastards, another Fat Possum act, debuted at No. 150 on the chart with their album “The Mountain.”

Johnson noted that the label has taken risks. “We’re always in survival mode,” he said, adding that “my vision has always been, ‘Everything changes, or it’s dead.’”

Johnson said that he wants to acquire more catalogs, although he won’t specify which ones he’s looking at.

“Right now, I’m just enjoying the success we’re having,’’ he said. “I never thought when this started I’d have two records in the top 200.”

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)