Most people know Take Me to the River as that funky song in that Talking Heads movie. But there’s more to it than that.
We think it’s an intriguing tune, so we dug into its history and found some additional great covers.
Let’s take a look!
Who Wrote Take Me to the River?
Al Green is an American soul singer-songwriter, most famously known for his two hits, Take Me to the River and Let’s Stay Together. Both of which were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Green started singing when he was ten years old and adored the gospel-rock and R&B singers of the day, such as Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett, and Elvis Presley. His father was deeply religious, though, and kicked him out of the house when he caught a teenage Al listening to Jackie Wilson.
When our great soul-singer was around 23, Willie Mitchell, a Memphis record producer, discovered him and signed him to Hi Records. Over three years of hard work and vocal coaching, Green attained moderate success and one gold single, Tired of Being Alone.
Then, in 1972, he released Let’s Stay Together. The album was certified gold, and Green effectively cemented his place in soul music history.
Personal issues brought him to the ministry in the mid-70s, and he stopped singing secular music for a while. However, in the late 80s and 90s, Reverend Green attempted a comeback. While it was a slow return, he eventually succeeded with popular releases in the 2000s, earning a couple of Grammys with his 2008 album, Lay It Down.
The “last of the great soul singers” has received 11 Grammys and one BMI Icon award throughout his career. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In addition, the Kennedy Center honored him in 2014.
About the Song, Take Me to the River
Al Green wrote the lyrics for Take Me to the River and collaborated with guitarist Mabon Hodges on the music. He released the hit on his 1974 album, Al Green Explores Your Mind, and it peaked at #26 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Many say the words are both carnal and spiritual. You could certainly equate the chorus with baptism.
Take me to the river, dip me in the water. Washing me down, washing me down.
Yet, he talks about love gone wrong in the verses.
I don't know why you treat me so bad Think of all the things we could have had Love is an ocean that I can't forget My sweet sixteen I would never regret
Keep in mind he wrote this song about two years before he became a minister. Were the lyrics a sign of his inner torment and desires? Was he already thinking of being born again through baptism?
While the Take Me to the River wasn’t initially a #1 hit for Green, other covers made it more popular than ever. Which one brought him the most royalties? The simplified version placed into the wiggling wall-mounted fish Big Mouth Billy Bass.
Here are our seven favorite versions, not including Billy Bass, in order.
#7 Syl Johnson
About the Artist: Syl Johnson, who recently passed on February 6, 2022 (RIP), sung blues and soul in a style similar to Al Green. In fact, Johnson was also working with Hi Records. So their producer, Willie Mitchell, convinced Syl to record Take Me to the River, hoping to increase his popularity.
Cover Released: Johnson released his cover in 1975, and it climbed to #7 on the Billboard R&B charts.
#6 Levon Helm
About the Artist: Helm was a country singer and actor, who was in over 20 movies and TV shows. While never making it big on the music charts, he had the respect of many more famous singers and musicians such as George Harrison, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen.
Cover Released: Levon released his light country version of Take Me to the River in 1978.
#5 Lucinda Williams
About the Artist: Lucinda Williams is a singer-songwriter in the blues, folk, and country scenes. She’s earned three Grammys and is in VH1’s 100 Greatest Women in Rock & Roll, plus Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time and 100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time. Her Take Me to the River version has a funky-blues vibe ground out to a deep base sound.
Cover Released: The musician had a stroke shortly after releasing Take Me to the River in 2021 but has since returned to touring.
#4 Tina Turner
About the Artist: The Queen of Rock and Roll probably doesn’t need an introduction. She’s been singing since she was a young child, starting in the local choir. HBO published a documentary about her in 2021, and she sold her music catalog the same year for a reported $68 million. Tina earned 12 Grammys and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Cover Released: Ms Turner released her cover of Take Me to the River in 1986 during the early years of her comeback.
About the Artist: Foghat is an English rock band best known for their song Slow Ride. Yet they’ve made one double platinum, a platinum, and eight gold records. The band still plays out and has concert dates set for this year. Foghat’s bluesy-rock with slide guitar brought the hit to a new level.
Cover Released: The band released their version of Take Me to the River on the 1976 album Night Shift.
#2 Annie Lennox
About the Artist: Annie Lennox is a singer-songwriter and activist most well-known as the front person for the new wave band, the Eurythmics. She’s had a lucrative solo career, releasing seven studio albums since 1992. Medusa, her second solo LP, containing the cover of Take Me to the River, went double platinum.
Cover Released: With such an incredible voice and distinctive style, you know Ms Lennox’s 1995 cover of the song had to be high on our list.
#1 Talking Heads
About the Artist: Talking Heads was one of the parents of 80s new wave. They were together for 11 years and pumped out eight albums during that time. They came back to each other a couple of times in the 90s and 00s but didn’t release new music after 1988. However, their influence continues today.
Cover Released: Talking Heads released their slower, groovier version of Take Me to the River in 1978. But it was their remake for the 1984 film, Stop Making Sense that propelled the song to its ultimate fame.
Which Cover of Take Me to the River is Your Favorite?
Our top seven covers of Take Me to the River include a range of vocal and musical styles, from blues and country to rock and new wave. While many people might appreciate versions from their favorite genre, most would agree that Talking Heads is the best out there. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments!
Sunday 13th of February 2022
ha - utterly disagree...there is only one version of Take Me To The River and that is the Al Green version. All others fall hopelessly short :)