Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Back Up Train”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

al green

Palmer James and Curtis Rodgers were high school classmates in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the mid-nineteen-sixties who took inspiration from a famed entrepreneur living on the other side of their state. As Rodgers later recounted, he and his chum figured that if Berry Gordy could make a fortune running Motown Records out of Detroit, then they could do the same in their hometown. The two formed a label they original dubbed Grand Land Records and released “Hot Wire,” a single with Rodgers’s band the People’s Choice. When the cut became a local hit, they heard from another high school friend who’d initially rejected an offer to record for the little label. A vocalist named Al Greene now wanted in, and he was told to show up at the studio. They had a song for him.

“Back Up Train” credited both Rodgers and James as songwriters (though the former claims it was mostly his handiwork). A soulful churner, the song was inspired by the constant time on the road endured by those in the music business and the homesickness that ensued. According to Rodgers, the session to record the song was almost scrapped due to a lack of funds, and then the manager of a local Woolworth’s, remembering when the burgeoning record mogul was an especially cordial and devoted patrons of the store’s record section, offered a gift of the needed funds.

To give the impression of a sprawling music empire, Rodgers and James created an entirely new label for “Back Up Train,” and so the debut single of the singer who’d lop off the last letter of his last name to go by Al Green came out on Hot Line Music Journal. The eager upstarts at the label started pushing the single to every radio station they could think of, and “Back Up Train” started to build. Eventually it hit the Billboard chart and starting climbing upwards.

“Back Up Train” stalled out at #41, but made it into the Top 5 on the R&B chart, but it didn’t quite establish Green as an up-and-coming star. His next few singles went nowhere. It wasn’t until 1971 that Green scored his first Top 40 hit, with “Tired of Being Alone,” the fifth and final single from Al Green Gets Next to You. It took Green’s label, Hi Records, months of work to get the song to break through, and they rushed the performer into the studio to quickly record a follow-up. That album was Let’s Stay Together, and its title track and lead single became a true smash, topping the Billboard pop chart and quickly entering the canon as one of the defining songs of nineteen-seventies soul.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

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