Green's Day

Al Green no longer separates church from state of mind.

There's a good reason why Al Green, perhaps the greatest male soul singer still among the living, appears on so many late-night television shows but is seldom interviewed by the programs' hosts. While his performances are instantly accessible, his conversations are determinedly non-linear. He's unfailingly chipper and pleasant, but he free-associates like someone who's just nibbled his first magic mushroom. Fording his streams of consciousness requires no small amount of deciphering (he seems to believe that all pronouns are interchangeable), as well as an aptitude for knitting together sentences that lack even the most rudimentary transitions. But this chore is definitely worthwhile--because when Green is unable to get a firm grasp on the words he wants, he's apt to start singing.

"'Sugar pie, honey bunch,'" he croons with a delicate sweetness that instantly uncovers new layers in "I Can't Help Myself," a 1965 favorite by the Four Tops. "Now, these are the songs that we were raised on," he says, before returning to the melody--"'Can't help my-ssssself.'" After the briefest of pauses, he asks, "You see? They've lasted thirty, forty years." Suddenly, he's singing again--"'I've got sun-sh-eye-eye-ine on a cl-ow-ow-oudy day." Then, just as unexpectedly, he stops. "That's 'My Girl,'" he explains to any Motown novices within earshot and bursts into a long, rhythmic laugh.

On paper, many of Green's monologues make little sense. But the longer he speaks, the clearer his observations seem--and the more obvious the connections between his rambling discourses and his approach to music become. Soul is essentially a very tangible, earthy style: Classic practitioners such as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett dug into the music as energetically as possible, using their rough-hewn voices to tear at the passions lurking just below the surfaces of their songs. By contrast, Green's singing is much more ethereal. Many of his tunes are loosely structured, allowing him to effortlessly skip from note to note, phrase to phrase. He refuses to be moored to the strains of his material, preferring to use his almost mystical vocal gifts to lift his compositions, and those of others he respects, to hallowed heights. Because the man is a minister who officiates services at his own Memphis church every Sunday he's in the area, it would be easy to suggest that his throat has been touched by the hand of God--no doubt Green believes that this is the case. But this claim does little justice to such a complex and mercurial figure. For instance, Green once thought secular recordings were the devil's work. Now he feels that they may contain the secret to salvation.

"When you get into the gospel thing, you run into a whole gamut of things--that you've always got to be like this in order to be or attain something," he insists, falling into a preacherly cadence. "But that's not always the case. Once I had been in gospel for about fifteen years, I went to seek and to look for guidance, so that I might be able to find myself in what I was doing. And I was told by the Lord, 'I gave you these songs. Like "Love and Happiness"--there's not a place or a household in Colorado nor in Denver that doesn't need love and happiness in it. So I want you to sing that.' And I'm going, like, 'Huh? Excuse me. Huh?' And He said, 'I gave you "I'm Still in Love With You," too. And I did that because I love you. I gave you these things as drawing cards. All these things are drawing cards that I gave you.' And you see how long they've endured? 23 years, 24 years. Twenty years these songs have been there and people are still singing along."

Green (born Albert Greene in 1946) knew early on that singing was what he wanted to do with his life. After moving with his family from his hometown of Forest City, Arkansas (near the Tennessee border), to Grand Rapids, Michigan, he became the star of a gospel act peopled by relatives and loved ones. This wasn't the only kind of music he loved, though--and his fondness for Jackie Wilson, a thrilling vocalist who used church-music influences to inform his melodramatic black pop, eventually caused Al's father to kick him out of both the house and the group. Forced to choose between the light and dark sides of sound, Green chose the latter. He formed a combo called Al Green and the Soul Mates, and enjoyed a minor hit with 1967's "Back Up Train." But despite this achievement, riches did not flow his way. He had to travel from town to town, club to club, in order to keep his belly stocked with food on a semi-regular basis.

This situation began to change in 1968, when Green crossed paths with Willie Mitchell, a performer, songwriter, producer and arranger who spent most of the Sixties working his way to the top of Hi Records, a Memphis-based rhythm-and-blues label. In the liner notes of Hi Times: The Hi Records R&B Years, an impressive box set released in 1995, Mitchell described to writer Robert Gordon his first meeting with Green. The place was Midland, Texas, and after hearing him live, Mitchell asked the young singer to return with him to Memphis to record. Green asked how long it would take for him to become a star. When Mitchell responded, "Eighteen months," Green decided he couldn't wait that long. Nevertheless, he accompanied Mitchell north and accepted a loan and the producer's address before going his own way. Shortly thereafter, he appeared on Mitchell's front porch. "One morning early the doorbell rang at my house," Mitchell told Gordon. "I was getting some cabinet work done and I let the guy in and pointed out where he needed to go. He said, 'No, man, don't you remember me?' And I said, 'Yeah, the cabinets are over there.' He said, 'No, I'm Al Green.'"

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