"Take Me to the River" is a 1974 song written by singer Al Green and guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges. Hit versions were recorded by both Syl Johnson and Talking Heads. In 2004, Al Green's original version was ranked number 117 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.[1]


 [hide*1 Recorded versions

Recorded versions[edit]Edit

Al Green[edit]Edit

The original version was recorded by Al Green as a track on his 1974 album, Al Green Explores Your Mind, produced by Willie Mitchell and featuring musicians Charles,Leroy and Mabon Hodges (The Hodges Brothers), drummer Howard Grimes, and the Memphis Horns.[2] Green and Mabon Hodges wrote the song while staying in a rented house at Lake Hamilton, Arkansas, for three days in 1973 in order to come up with new material.[1] According to Mitchell, Green wrote the words and Green and Hodges wrote the tune together.[3] Green dedicated his performance on the record to "...Little Junior Parker, a cousin of mine, he's gone on but we'd like to kinda carry on in his name.."[4][dead link] According to one writer, "Green's song squares the singer's early religious convictions with more earthly interests", but when the singer became a pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in 1976, he dropped the song from his repertoire.[5]

Writing in The Independent in 1994, Tim de Lisle wrote: "Musically, it was much like any other track sung by Green and produced by Willie Mitchell, the Southern-soul maestro who ran Hi Records, the Memphis Horns and the Memphis Strings: R'n'B with lashings of subtlety, a light, easy, late-night sound, in which the strings, the horns, the organ, the guitars and that wild-honey voice blend into a single swinging, winning thing. It doesn't sound like a band playing: it sounds like a lot of instruments humming."[6]

Syl Johnson[edit]Edit

The record company, Hi Records, did not release Green's track as a single, but instead passed the song to his labelmate, Syl Johnson. Johnson's recording of the song, featuring most of the same musicians as on Green's version, but with additional harmonica and a grittier vocal performance,[3] reached #48 on the US Billboard Hot 100in 1975, and #7 on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart.[7][8]

Talking Heads and later versions[edit]Edit

"Take Me to the River"

U.S. edition

Single by Talking Heads
from the album More Songs About Buildings and Food
B-side "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel"
Released 1978
Format 7"
Genre New wave
Length 3:36 (edited version)[9]
Label Sire

Sire 1032

Writer(s) Al Green, Mabon "Teenie" Hodges
Producer(s) Brian Eno, Talking Heads
Talking Heads singles chronology
"Pulled Up"


"Take Me to the River"


"Life During Wartime"


In 1976, Foghat made the first recording of the song by a rock band, on their album Night Shift. Two years later, it was recorded separately by Levon Helm and Bryan Ferry on solo albums,[3] and then by the band Talking Heads on their second album More Songs About Buildings and Food. Their version, recorded with co-producer Brian Eno in Nassau, Bahamas, was edited and released as a single, and reached # 26 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1979,[3][7] as well as hitting the singles charts in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Thomas Ryan wrote of Talking Heads' version that it "broadsided the status quo by combining the best ingredients of conventional pop music and classic soul music, stirring them together, and then presenting the mix in the guise of punk rock."[10]

In the liner notes for Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads, singer David Byrne writes: "Coincidence or conspiracy? There were at least four cover versions of this song out at the same time: Foghat, Bryan Ferry, Levon Helm, and us. More money for Mr Green's full gospel tabernacle church, I suppose. A song that combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend. All praise the mighty spurtin' Jesus." Live versions were included on Talking Heads' albums The Name of This Band is Talking Heads and Stop Making Sense.[3]

"Take Me to the River" has also been covered by several other performers including Levon HelmDiane SchuurTina TurnerThe Blue Ox BabesAnnie LennoxToni ChildsMax on the RoxDave Matthews BandCanned HeatThe Dresden Soul SymphonyGrateful DeadDelbert McClintonManáThe CommitmentsGov't MuleGuy SebastianPhish,The GizmosElement Of CrimeAlabama 3Claudja BarryTom Jones and Eva CassidyBruce Springsteen has used the chorus during live performances of the epic Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.

Big Mouth Billy Bass[edit]Edit

In 2000, the tune was used in the popular animatronic singing toy "Big Mouth Billy Bass". The recording was arranged and produced for the toy's manufacturers, Gemmy Industries, by Al Thomas of Designer Music.[citation needed] According to Teenie Hodges, he made more money in royalties from that version than from any previous versions.[11]


Syl Johnson version[edit]Edit

Chart (1975) Peak


US BillboardHot 100[7] 48
US BillboardHot Soul Singles[8] 7

Talking Heads version[edit]Edit

Chart (1978–79) Peak


Australian Singles Chart[12] 26
Canadian Singles Chart[13] 34
New Zealand Singles Chart[14] 20
US BillboardHot 100[15] 26

Other uses and awards[edit]Edit

Al Green also used the title Take Me to the River for his autobiography, published in 2000.[16]

In 2004, Green's original recording was ranked number 117 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.[1] The song was used as the title track of the award-winning 2008 compilation album Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story 1961-1977.[17][18]

The song played prominent role in an episode of the HBO series The Sopranos in which a Big Mouth Billy Bass played a major role; its lyrics reminded protagonist Tony Soprano of his murder of Big Pussy Bonpensiero. It also was used in the movie Blood In Blood Out.

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