Al Green strives for perfection

by Matt Rogers

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Al Green

“Since I can remember, women have wanted to get next to me, and when I sing, it’s like they’ve received a personal invitation. There’s no use denying it. I’ve tried.”
–Al Green 1

“All I know is that I met him, and he’s the luckiest motherfucker who ever lived.”
–Willie Mitchell 2

 

Originally published as “Labor of Love” in Wax Poetics Issue 28, 2008.

 

“Do I act normal to you?”

When one of the greatest pop icons to ever grab a microphone asks you this, you just might be forgiven for thinking you’ve misheard the question. For it is safe to suggest few geniuses—musical or otherwise—could ever be mistaken for us and our genus normalis brethren, and the Reverend Al Green is no exception. In fact, “normal” would not be high on the list of adjectives most would ascribe to this indisputable soul legend. “Smooth,” definitely. “Charismatic,” of course. “Hitmaker,” uncontestable. “Lady-killer,” without a doubt. “Normal?” Uh…

Despite an excellent documentary film and readily available autobiography for those curious enough, Al Green’s life still baffles, still exudes mystery, lore, and rumor like no singer before him. Still trying to get a grip on Al Green? No worries, so is he.

“The truth is, introducing the real Al Green is like introducing three different people…and more often than not, they’re all fighting with each other…. You never know which Al you’re going to get. And neither does he.” 1

Fact is, it’s hard to imagine someone who has lived a less “normal” life. Long before he defined early ’70s pop and soul, selling millions and millions of records the world over, Al Green was one Albert Greene. And he was poor. Born April 13, 1946, in Dansby, Arkansas, a town too small to warrant a stop sign, he and his family of twelve came from a long line of sharecroppers, whose only two certainties in life, for generations, were poverty and the church. Everyone in the family went to church, and everyone could sing. Albert would lie in the bed he shared with his four brothers, dreaming of one day becoming like his cousin Herman, who was starting to make a splash around Memphis as Little Junior Parker and whose 45s, like Al’s cherished Jackie Wilson’s, were forbidden fodder in the Greene’s two-room shotgun shack. Instead, Al’s father tried to channel his sons’ energies within the family’s gospel group.

“They call it show business. I call it indentured servitude.” 1

 Life would be turned on its head, though, when the family abruptly uprooted from Arkansas to the Northern promise of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and its enticement of factory jobs. Rural dirt was replaced by urban soot, and it was here that the young Al would get his first taste of street life. His father, unable to find a job, became more determined for the family’s gospel group, which would perform locally and regionally but failed to make a dent. The choir was the only thing holding Albert in school, and by the time he was sixteen, he had his own R&B group, the Creations. His foray into secular music, however, got him (and his busted 45s) kicked out of his family’s abode and onto the street, which is where the other side of Al Green would become cultivated. He found refuge with a prostitute and got dapper. Honing their vocals, the Creations performed regularly in town backed by a pre-Motown Junior Walker and his All Stars, before changing their name to Al Greene and the Soul Mates and cutting a few records, including a minor hit, “Back Up Train,” in ’68 that landed them a gig at the Apollo Theater. But Green knew the group wouldn’t last. He dropped the last “e” from his last name and set out on his own.

“One year, I’m a rock star; the next year, I’m a gospel preacher. I don’t understand.” 3

Like one of his idols, Sam Cooke, the Reverend fits into the crowded pantheon of gospel and pop singers who have been tormented by the tug-of-war between church and club. It’s no secret the pulpit has informed and shaped popular music, let alone soul music, from the get-go—there is a list of singers perhaps as thick as the Bible itself who’ve crossed the pew lines and brought that sacred fire and phrasing to the land of milk and honey(s). “The battle between the secular and the sacred,” he writes in his book, Take Me to the River, “has brought down more great Black musical artists than drugs or loose living or any other hazard of the trade.” None, however, have been enmeshed any deeper, or had such internal battle play out so publicly as Al Green.

“They’ve staked a no-man’s-land in my soul, separating the sacred and the profane. What you see is what you get, depending on who’s winning the war, from day to day and from hour to hour.” 1

It’s a fool’s game, certainly, but draw up your list of the greatest male pop singers, and though some may be as good—Sam, Jackie, Smokey, Marvin, Curtis—none were better than Al Green. Particularly at helping you and that special someone slip into something just a little bit more comfortable. Armed with a quiver of slinky, sensual songs that praised love, beauty and happiness, and delivered with an unmatched tenor and charisma, unmoored and siphoned from the church, Green created music that got under you skin, while your skin got under the sheets.

“That influenced my pop, because of the magnetics that I got out of the gospel to be inspiring and to inspire and to have that electricity—see, it takes electricity! You can’t create the charisma for fire. Either you have the fire, or you don’t have the fire.” 3

His song titles say it all: “Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “Love and Happiness,” “Simply Beautiful,” “Livin’ for You,” “L-O-V-E (Love).” The people listened as his songs blanketed the top of the charts again and again from 1971 to ’75. Of course, he didn’t achieve such dominance alone. He had become part of an indomitable hit-making team led by the indefatigable Willie Mitchell at Memphis’s Royal Studios. Having met the down-on-his-luck twenty-two-year-old Green at a shared gig in Midland, Texas, in ’68, Mitchell took Green under his musical wing. In relatively short fashion, the producer established the singer, the studio, and the record label for which they recorded, Hi Records, as Memphis’s crown jewel. It was a team that would become Memphis royalty. Elvis may have been the King, but Al Green was soon its High Priest.

Mitchell harnessed Green’s creative, spiritualized energy, buttressing it with a steadfast, creative team of musicians, fortified primarily by the Brothers Hodges—guitarist Teenie, bassist Leroy, organist Charles—drummer Howard Grimes, the Memphis Horns, as well as a White trio of honey-voiced backup singers, Chalmers, Rhodes, and Rhodes. In Robert Mugge’s ’84 film, The Gospel According to Al Green, Willie Mitchell recalls telling the eager singer “to soften up some…you need to settle this music down…[so] I began to write some jazz chords and try to get another sound for Al.” It was a sound that Green—who moonlighted in the jazz clubs of Grand Rapids—would embrace, a perfect combination of the dynamics demanded of a jazz singer with the verve of soul. It also didn’t hurt that one of pop music’s greatest drummers and key element to crosstown rival Stax Records’ 1960s success, drummer Al Jackson Jr., was a frequent presence at Royal. He would help pen such Green smashes as “I’m Still in Love with You,” “Call Me,” and “Let’s Stay Together,” before his murder in 1975.

It was a tragedy that had followed another tragedy in Green’s life a year earlier, one that helped hasten the sacred pull Green had already started to feel in ’73 while at the height of his commercial success (check out his ’73 Soul Train performance of “Jesus Is Waiting,” broken arm and all). Mary Woodson was her name, and she wanted Al Green for her husband. They were friends, and, unbeknownst to him, she was already married and had three kids. Late one night, having just finished a recording session at Royal, they were at his house. She mentioned marriage; Green demurred. Soon after, Green found himself writhing in unspeakable pain, a pot of scalding grits having just found his back: “I seen this whole pot of water, and, all of a sudden, I’m full of it! Boom. Man, I’m in total pain and shock… Reached back, man, and I got two fingers full of skin.”3 Moments later, Woodson would be dead from two self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

“I gotta figure out what to do! I mean, I got a million-dollar career goin’ here, and I’m telling folks they need to be born again. I mean, this is trippin’ me out, I tell ya!” 3

The clarion call of the pulpit was growing stronger, and he would at times find himself in mid-trance, preaching to his audience during his sets, raising the eyebrows of both his band and fans alike. It was something he couldn’t deny nor control, so he bought a Memphis church, named it the Full Gospel Tabernacle, and began life as a preacher. Mitchell sent the Reverend on his own, and, in ’77, Green delivered his last secular album, Belle. And then his secular career was, more or less, over.

Al Green never disappeared, however, and he never stopped making music. Ironically, he never won a Grammy for his pop gems, but throughout the ’80s and ’90s picked up several. In 2003, tempted once again by the secular music world, he teamed with his former producer, Willie Mitchell, and crew for I Can’t Stop, singing once again into his favorite mic number nine. Two years later, Everything’s OK would follow.

Five years into his secular comeback, he tells us, “Al Green is back on that stuff!” Lay It Down marks his third album for Blue Note Records. And while I Can’t Stop and Everything’s OK were better than just okay, they failed to approach Green/Mitchell’s golden ’70s touch. LID gets closer to that heyday. Languid, yet excitable, full of Memphis vibe and church stomp, the songs are soaked unabashedly once again with hope and love.

The good reverend was kind enough to take a break from his busy Easter schedule and share a few words. He wants you to know that “it’s gonna be a hot summer!”

Al Green

 

How different was recording Lay It Down for you compared to the last three or four decades of your recording career?

I don’t think it was any different so much. We wrote the songs right there on the floor, right when the band was trying to get the changes down. So it was like fresh cream, baby. We wrote it right then and there! Wasn’t like having some songs sitting twenty years in the closet or nothing. This is fresh out the cow’s milk bag, baby! [howls]

So it was similar to how you, Willie Mitchell, and gang would record at Royal?

Yeah, that’s how we used to do it, just sit at the piano and write it out! That’s the way we write. I don’t know what we’re gonna do with all the songs we wrote way over the years that we’ve had all this time. ’Cause when we getting ready to do a project, we just go get a brand-new motorcycle, get it all shined up, and do it! That’s kind of like that song on [Lay It Down] called “I’m Wild About You.” It’s about wild passion, about wild love. It’s about wild, wild, wild! I mean, I don’t wanna ask for it, that would be criminal! You know I wanna take it, if I take it, then I sure hope you ain’t mad at me! [laughs] I like that one.

Do you feel like your songwriting has changed much over the years? The inspiration?

I don’t know, I don’t know. No, it hasn’t changed for me. That’s what’s called baby-makin’ music.

You got that right! How many babies do you think have been made while listening to your music over the years?

Well, over in London, they say a heck of a lot! So I guess they’re right. I don’t know, I haven’t really thought of it like that! I was in London, and a guy was saying that we make baby-makin’ music. I asked my manager that was with me, “What did he say?” He says, “You make baby-makin’ music,” and I’m like, “Really?!”

I think you’re probably responsible for your own population boom.

Yeah, I think that’s why they keep following that “Love and Happiness” and “Let’s Stay Together.” A lot of folk was born when that music was hot, ya know?

So you came up singing with your family.

Yeah, I came up singing with my brothers and my dad. We traveled around doing that. Just gospel.

When you were traveling with the family, were you on with other gospel acts like the Swan Silvertones?

Well, we never did threaten anybody as crazy as the Swan Silvertone singers, but, yeah, we were just on the placard with everybody else. Maybe if we shot a magic balloon up in there and floated it down in the middle of the concert and started singing, “Love and Happiness”… But we didn’t have enough money to buy a balloon! [laughs]

So when did your first group, the Creations, form?

Uh, when I was in eighth, ninth grade. That was Palmer James and Curtis Rogers. We had a group called the Creations, and that was my first singing outside of the family and the Book. We’d travel around, do Top 40 covers. I guess we sung about three, four years, different clubs, different affairs and things. Then I started to sing by myself for some reason, and my first job was in Cleveland or something like that. And then my next job was in the Apollo Theater in New York City. It scared me to death. I said, “My God, man, I am not ready for no Apollo Theater!” So I rehearsed. Well, at that time, I didn’t even have a band; I had to rehearse with the house band. I had rehearsed three songs, but they wouldn’t let me sing but one song, and that was “Back Up Train.” And they told me after that [song], that was it. Welcome to the Apollo! So I’d come out every show, sing my one song—tuh duhhh!—then that was it; I was gone off the stage. We got held over a week. [It was me], the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, and a lot of other folks. We would do, like, one, two, three shows a day.

Did you get to hang out much with the Staple Singers or Wilson Pickett?

No, because I’m not a hangout type of guy. I’m not the hangout type. I don’t hang out with people. I’m kind of like, um, I don’t know what I am. I don’t have any friends, I don’t have no hangouts, I don’t have no parties, I don’t have none of that. I’m just not a hangout type of guy. If they was sitting in my dressing [room], I still wouldn’t be hanging out with them, ’cause I’m like a—[laughs] I don’t know what I am, man! I can’t figure out what I am. I’m just the way I am, and that’s it! [pauses] Do I act normal to you?

I’m sorry?

Do I act normal to you?

Well, I wouldn’t know normal if it smacked me in the head, so I don’t know!

There ya go, thank you! That’s exactly what I was saying. Normal could be normal for someone else but not normal for another person!

Well, when did you really start seeing and hearing performers that inspired you, and you said, “Hey, this is what I want to do?”

Umm, I really had an Elvis Presley collection of records, myself. I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I liked all the Elvis records. I never had any idea I would move to Memphis, Tennessee; I didn’t know Elvis lived in Memphis. I don’t know…Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, you know, I liked them. See, we were used to the Motown era and the Stax era.

And the Hi Records era.

Yeah, well, it don’t make no difference. Hi Records and Stax is all really Memphis.

So between Hi Records and Stax, was there much rivalry, or was it just a big collective making that great Memphis music at the time?

No, that wasn’t the way it was. It was very choppy. Everybody was very selfish; it was each company against the other. And now, later on, it turned out to be really all for the good. Because everybody would be cutting something to the best of their ability and making it the best they could make it, ’cause they knew that the people across town would try to match it with something else. So we did “Let’s Stay Together,” and then Sam and Dave did [sings] “I’m a soul man, bahdahdahdadadaa, I’m a soul man.” So I said, “Okay, then fine: [sings] Spending my days, thinking about you, girl!” And then they said, “Oh hell, then we gotta get Isaac” to do whatever. Oh man, that’s how it was.

So it drove people to do better.

There ya go. It makes people actually work harder. Even if there’s nothing but struggles, and the stressed-out part of every time you put out something, somebody’s trying to outdo it. And that was really healthy for both companies. ’Cause Isaac Hayes and the Hot Buttered Soul and the Shaft thing and that whole nine yards, well, that was fine, but Al Green came out with “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy),” and that sold five, six million. So that’s the way it was at the time.

Now me and Isaac work on shows together sometimes and start talking about it and hug one another and laugh. It got really silly. I cut a song called “One Woman,” and the next week and a half, Isaac had “One Woman” out, and you know that peeved us off, “Damn, man, I just put out ‘One Woman’ last week!” So we laugh about it, ain’t about nothing. Memphis music was Hi Records and Stax!

You had Al Jackson Jr. working both studios, so crucial to both places.

Well, Al Jackson could play where he wanna play! That’s his prerogative, to play where he wanna play. If he wanna play on an Al Green session, he can play on an Al Green session! Who’s to tell him he can’t play with Al Green, ’cause he’s the drummer over at Stax? He can play wherever the hell he wanna play! Al Jackson Jr. was a visionary. He was a great guy, wonderful guy.

Was he playing on a lot of those cuts, or would he just be composing and then have Howard Grimes playing on them?

Yeah, he was playing! Yeah, there were two, three drummers around, four, five guitar players…a bunch of people hanging around. Teenie Hodges and Skip [Pitts] and various ones; sometimes two, three guitar players playin’ on the same song. Me and Al [Jackson] played on “Tired of Being Alone.” Yeah, I play on “Tired of Being Alone.” And now that I played on it, I just think, hmm, now how the heck did I do that?

Well, your guitar playing is always so tasty; when did you actually learn to play the guitar?

After my brother beat me over the head about nine times for messing with his.

Oh, that’ll do it.

Yeah, that’ll do it. He’d say, “You think you’re T-Bone Walker?” He used to have a guitar, a big red one, a Rickenbacker. And I used to sneak and play it when he was gone, oh man! And he’d come back home and take his guitar out, and his strings were out of tune, and he’d say, “Al, you been messing with the guitar?” And I’d say, “Nope!” Well, he let me have one upside the head a couple of times, said to leave it alone, and I’d say okay. He’d leave home the next day: I’d be playing it again! I couldn’t help it, man. I don’t know. I had a certain…I just didn’t know how to play the guitar, but I had the desire.

Do you write songs, ideas for songs, on your guitar? Like, say, “Simply Beautiful.”

Oh yeah, that’s right! That’s Al playing that! [sings intro guitar line] Yeah, that’s me. I forgot about that!

How could you forget that one?

Man, see down here where we are, we don’t wear our accomplishments on our sleeves. You do a thing, sometimes you forget you’ve done it. Right now, I’ve got one, two, three, four, five books open on this table, and I guarantee you I can’t read but one at a time. But I’m a bookworm, and I like to know stuff. I have a library; therefore, I get books and look it up. I don’t just sit around going, duh. You get the hell up and look it up! And then, therefore, it puts me in the position to skip the dull parts and say what it’s about. To know with some affirmative what it is. That’s what my daddy taught me.

Right.

And my momma said, [heavy drawl] “You gonna be a little different than the rest of the children.” And I’m going like, “Why?” Because, I mean, I got my brothers and sisters, so therefore, we got the same mom and daddy. Why should I be any different? And she says, [lilting] “Well, you gonna be a little different, Al, so you just gonna have to get used to it!” I said, “Well, what could be different?” And she says, “Well, Al, you just gonna have to wait till it comes now.” So I just don’t know how different, or if I’m different at all. I guess I’m different, ’cause my brothers and sisters, they don’t…they love me…but they don’t…really know how to show it.

Your father sang; your mother sing as well?

Yeah, my momma could sing like a jaybird! It was just in the family, everybody in the family could sing. Everybody sings.

Speaking of family, Little Junior Parker was a cousin of yours. Did you guys ever sing together?

No, he was way before my time. I was too young. [giggles] I was still takin’ sandwiches to school! [laughs] But, yeah, I got to hear a lot of great people. Like the Hendrix guy. Got to hear him play the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock stage, and I thought it was just… Number one, it’s just odd for someone to come out on a heavy metal–type rock-and-roll stage and play the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Number two, everybody at Woodstock was stoned except Jimi! Not one of the [other] times did I ever see him was he not stoned. And he comes up with this fantastic idea to play the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Awesome! And he made his guitar sound like the jet planes and all that stuff. I mean, it was incredible! My guitar player, Larry Lee, used to play with Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys. Larry used to talk about him all the time.

Your pop music had so much church in it. Can you talk about the Hammond organ and how people respond to it?

Oh, we know people respond to it! But I’m not gonna give away [organist Charles Hodges’s] secrets. But Jimmy Smith! Oh my God, Jimmy Smith, oh man, on organ, he’s just the top, top, top, top, you know! He’s kind of like the Sidney Poitier of the organ, the cream of the crop. Anything about organ, Jimmy Smith, gonna know it!

Well, I’ll tell you what, it was nice talking to you and have a good and blessed and happy day. Now Mahalia Jackson and Satchmo and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, all these people are gonna be very upset with you, because you didn’t ask Al Green their influence in his career. Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and all these people, Lou Rawls, they gonna be really unhappy with you, so you write all their names down and say, “Al said these people are gonna be very angry with me.” [laughs]

What about Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions?

[sings falsetto] “Keep on pushin’!” Oh yeah, I did a lot of shows with Curtis and the Impressions, yeah! My God, he’s just incredible, just incredible. Those guys, oh man, they came up with some songs! [sings] “People get ready, there’s a train a comin’.” I mean, really incredible stuff.

Yeah, that’s when I was just getting started. We started in Cleveland, Ohio—don’t know why we kept going to this Cleveland, Ohio; I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean; it was a hotbed for something—and from there, we would go to the Apollo, to Detroit, to Chicago, then, wherever.

Well, you know what Sam Cooke says? What he said on his records all the time?

No, what’s that?

I don’t wanna leave! [laughs] But I gotta go! [laughs] I like that one, man. Man, he just tore the house apart, you understand me? And then he goes, “I gotta go!” Then walks away from the mic a little bit, then turns around, wooo, what a big tease he was! He was really incredible. Take care yourself! Happy Easter now!

 

Notes:

1. Al Green with Davin Seay, Take Me to the River, HarperCollins, 2000.

2. Wax Poetics, Issue 9, 2004.

3. Al Green interview, The Gospel According to Al Green, film by Robert Mugge, 1984.

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