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.'"
It took a while before the Green-Mitchell tandem hit its stride; the eighteen-month prediction was a year or two shy of the mark. Green's initial Hi single, a version of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand," didn't go very far, and his first album, 1970's Green Is Blues, only hinted at the pleasures to come. The long-player is dominated by cover tunes, including a run-through of "The Letter," a hit for the Box Tops; Green received only one co-songwriting credit on the entire package. Guitarist Teenie Hodges, a longtime Mitchell collaborator who would become a prime contributor to Green's best work, has been quoted as saying that Al felt his own compositions were weak. However, Hodges urged Green to keep at it and gave the singer guitar lessons that helped build his confidence.
This hard work paid off handsomely on Green's second album for Hi, 1971's Al Green Gets Next to You. The first single from the platter, a dynamic remake of the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You," was a surprisingly tough slab of vinyl that whetted appetites for "Tired of Being Alone," a Green-penned seducer that served as his introduction to the listening public. It also serves as the blueprint for the Hi sound, differentiated from the soul work put out by the combines at Motown, Stax and Atlantic by an utterly distinctive rhythm section. The credit for this breakthrough goes to Mitchell, who perfected a recording technique that placed the drums (usually played by either Howard Grimes or Al Jackson) at the front of the mix, so that the snares, the toms and the hi-hats positively snapped. Combined with the supple bass mastery of Leroy Hodges, these beats give "Tired" a propulsive feel that perfectly complements Green's gliding voice.
To this day, Green evinces puzzlement over Mitchell's studio wizardry. "I don't know what Willie and those guys did to those songs," he admits, cackling. "Those songs, those greatest hits--they put something on them or did something to them. Because those songs are lasting too long. I mean, they just will not go away."
What followed "Tired" was a veritable avalanche of tremendous albums (1972's Let's Stay Together and I'm Still in Love With You, 1973's Call Me, 1974's Livin' for You and Al Green Explores Your Mind among others) and an equally impressive parade of singles whose timelessness becomes more apparent with each passing year. Most of them, including "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love With You" and "Call Me (Come Back Home)," deal with love and relationships in uncommonly tender and sincere terms, and even Green's randier moments, like "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," are downright innocent compared with the fleshy proclamations of Marvin Gaye during this period. The extremely idiosyncratic "Let's Get Married," from 1974, is a case in point: Even when Green confesses that he once had "a girl in every town," he hardly seems like a lecherous user. Likewise, his ad-libbed reason for tying the knot--"might as well"--comes across as downright charming, thanks mainly to his tremendous personal magnetism.
Even so, Green still feels the need to justify his decision to sing sexy stuff. "These are songs with meaning," he asserts. "I'm not singing rap songs. I'm not talking about your mother. I'm not talking about your grandmother." Another boisterous laugh. "I'm not singing bad things about law enforcement. I think law enforcement is good, because I think we'd probably be in a fix if we didn't have it. These are not bad songs."
In a flash, Green is reciting lines from "Call Me"--"'Remember the time we had and how right I tried to be? It's all in a day's work. Call me.'" Dropping back into normal speech, he wonders, "Now, did I say anything wrong? Did I use a bad curse word or anything like that?" Answering his own question, he points out, "Did I use the physical thing of taking my shirt off, running to the edge of the stage, rolling my bottom end around? No. All I'm saying is 'I'm still in love with you,' or 'Call me--come back home. I love you and I've got a problem with you being gone.' It's not like today's songs. Today's songs are more or less saying you really need me more than I need you. So there's an arrogance to today's songs. There's a certain arrogance to the idea that, if you don't have me, you don't have nothing."
Perhaps Green protests this issue too much because at the height of his fame, he fell prey to a similar brand of cockiness--an attitude he changed only after he nearly lost his life. In the fall of 1974, an obsessed fan, outraged that Green refused to marry her, hurled a pot filled with hot grits at his face in the hopes of forever destroying his boyish looks. She subsequently committed suicide.
Green has seldom spoken of this incident, yet there's no question that it had a profound effect on him. His music, on albums such as 1975's Al Green Is Love and 1976's Full of Fire and Have a Good Time, began veering off on quirky tangents that baffled some fans, and his spiritual struggles kept bubbling up even during some of his most succinct songs. "Take Me to the River," a majestic, insinuating track that was in stores when he was attacked, exemplifies his internal conflicts; it combines baptismal imagery with an ecstatic, openly carnal narrative. Green now claims that this mating of seeming opposites was only partly his doing.
"See, I wrote 'Take me to the river. Wash me down. Cleanse my soul. Put my feet on the ground.' But when I went back to the studio with it, Willie Mitchell and Teenie Hodges and all these other people wrote, 'I don't know why I love you like I do, after all the changes you put me through.' That's right. See, I wrote the concept--like a guide letter, a guide sheet. And that's all I wrote. But after that, it was 'I don't know why you treated me so bad,' and 'Sixteen candles on the wall' and whatever else it went on about. That wasn't me. That was them."
On The Belle Album, Green's 1977 declaration of independence, Mitchell and Hodges weren't around to make such contributions. Green produced the album himself and surrounded himself with a comparatively new crew of musical contributors in tune with his desire to merge soul and religion. Numerous cuts were full-scale tributes to the savior: "I Feel Good" ("There's something about king Jesus/That makes you feel good") is among the best of them. But the signature line on the platter can be found in "Belle": Green sings, "It's you that I want but Him that I need."
Despite its extremely high quality, The Belle Album was among Green's worst-selling releases ever, and this lack of response precipitated his retreat from commercial concerns. After one more album for Hi (Truth 'n' Time) and a one-shot on London (Love Ritual), he devoted himself entirely to gospel music. He made a few forays into the pop world now and then--notably "Put a Little Love In Your Heart," a top-ten duet with Annie Lennox cut for the soundtrack of the Bill Murray movie Scrooged--but otherwise remained true to the Christian-music industry. He's recorded frequently, but his gospel LPs don't really capture Green at his best. Typical of them is 1992's Love Is Reality, on Word/Epic. A misguided attempt to update Green's sound by dosing it with New Jack Swing, it buries Green beneath a flood of extraneous instrumentation and obtrusive background vocalists.
When asked about these projects, Green, who refers to himself in the third person more frequently than anyone this side of Bob Dole, expends little effort defending them. "There was a lot of good material, but the overwhelming section of the public is not so much into 'The Lord Will Make a Way' or 'Precious Lord' or 'Take My Hand,'" he acknowledges. "They didn't embrace that because they felt, 'That's not really where I want to go. That's not really where I want to be. I want to see the whole person. I want to see all of Al Green. I don't want to see part of Al Green. I don't want to see the section that you want me to see and have you try to pull a curtain over the section that you don't want me to see.'
"So, in order to give them that, we put together a show last year to show all of Al Green, not hiding anything. We said, 'If we're embarrassed, let us be embarrassed. If we're ashamed, let us be ashamed.' And we did all of the songs--'Love and Happiness' and 'Amazing Grace.' And now everybody knows what I do. They've seen us on television. They've seen us on Rosie O'Donnell. They've seen us on Letterman. They've seen us on the Leno show. And they know what we sing. They're just fooling you if they say they don't. They know that Al Green has been doing this for 25 years, and they know he puts on a heavenly--I won't say 'hell of a,' but a heavenly good show."
This decision to reembrace the mainstream led to Your Heart's in Good Hands, a secular album MCA released in 1995. Too bad it wasn't more of a triumph: Although A-list players and producers (including Arthur Baker, Narada Michael Walden and members of Jodeci and Fine Young Cannibals) made contributions, the enterprise smacked of compromise. Rather than let Green be himself, his handlers tried to reconfigure his music to fit the marketplace, with predictable results. Green, too, feels that Good Hands could have been stronger.
"I think I just needed more time to really work the music, and to go in and cut things," he says. "You need to just keep cutting and keep cutting, see. You get better as you go along. I wrote some of that stuff in the bathroom of the hotel room. I was on the floor with the shower running and it's getting steamed up in there. And then we'd go in the studio, and instead of spending two or three days on them, they'd go with one take. They'd be saying, 'That's great, fantastic.' And I'd say, 'I don't even know the song yet. Can you let me sing it a couple more times?' And they'd say, 'You can sing it if you want to, but we're keeping the first take.'" He erupts in laughter. "So a lot of first takes are on that record. 'Love Is a Beautiful Thing,' I like that one, and of course, I like 'Your Heart's in Good Hands,' the one I did with Narada Michael Walden. But the rest, I don't know.
"I sang 'Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)' for two or three weeks straight in Willie's studio. I'd do that before he even turned on the tape machine. And when he did, he'd say, 'That sounds good, but I want it to sound even better.' We'd do it over and over, until we got"--he sings--"'spending my day thinking 'bout you, girl.' He might keep the first take, but he'd want me to keep singing it. So I guess these other folks didn't know Al Green the way Al Green knows Al Green. They'd be like, 'That's great, that's great, that's great!' But they didn't let me sing it and sing it and sing it until I really felt in myself, 'Now you can take it. Because I'm there now.'"
For his next album project, Green hopes to reunite with Mitchell--"We're going to go into the studio and kick it around a little bit," he teases. In the meantime, he's concentrating on live performances, having recently reasserted his onstage preeminence during some high-profile gigs. He delivered probably the best single set during the concert celebrating the grand opening of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, thrilling the crowd with renditions of "Tired of Being Alone" and Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." More recently, he led an all-star sing-along of "Love and Happiness" that capped the closing ceremony for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Viewers won't soon forget the sight of Green and his famous friends (such as Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Little Richard and the Pointer Sisters) getting down while Vice President Al Gore stiffly clapped his hands as if he were at a barn dance. "Yeah, we were kicking butt," Green announces a second before breaking up again.
Because of this higher profile, Green's church is becoming a legitimate tourist attraction--something that seems to have caught him off-guard. "Oddly, strangely, a lot of whites are coming down to the church," he says. "And a lot of blacks as well. But basically, I'm color-blind. People just enjoy it when you be yourself. I said to them yesterday, 'You know me. I've been singing "For the Good Times" and all these songs, and I've been telling you how good is the man upstairs--how good it is that He can make something good out of something that was not good.' And the people were loving it.
"Afterward," he notes, "some of them were confused whether to call me 'Reverend Green' or 'Al Green.' And I told them about this time I went to Berlin, and there were people whispering in the car. I asked the driver what they were whispering about, and he said, 'They want to know whether to call you "Reverend Green" or to call you "Al Green."' And I said, 'I'm the same person I've always been. I'm not some big, big, big, high-minded person. I still live forty miles from where I was born.' So I told them, 'Just call me Al.'"
Janus Jazz Aspen at Snowmass Summer Festival '96, with Al Green, the Robert Cray Band and Marva Wright. Noon Sunday, September 1, Snowmass Town Park, 1-800-
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