Al Green: Stepping Back Into the Future

Photo courtesy Hi Records/Fat Possum

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

 

Photo courtesy Hi Records/Fat Possum
Photo courtesy Hi Records/Fat Possum

During 1989’s New Orleans Jazzfest, Al Green took the stage at the Saenger Theatre in a resplendent outfit — white jacket, white shirt, white pants, white shoes and lots of white teeth — and with a restless energy that had him rocking on the balls of his feet. As the band vamped, he handed out red roses to women in the first row (including a wide-eyed Bonnie Raitt) as if he were both a paternal preacher and a flirty Casanova.

“A lot of people think we shouldn’t do the old songs,” announced the Memphis singer who had abandoned a fabulously successful pop-music career to devote himself to gospel. “But what’s wrong with singing about ‘L-O-V-E’ and ‘Let’s Stay Together’? What is God if he isn’t L-O-V-E’?”

It wasn’t clear who he was talking to. Was it to the hard-core Christians in the audience — those starchily dressed African-American men and women proud that the church had snatched one of the century’s greatest singers back from the secular realm but still skeptical about his conversion? Was he talking to the T-shirted music lovers who wished he’d do his old hits — not because those numbers were non-religious but because they were better songs?

The more he talked, the more it seemed he was talking mostly to himself. He was trying to convince himself that it was okay to mix the sacred and the sensual, the love of God with the love of the flesh. It was as if he were trying to work out his deepest-seated problems in a public, improvised therapy session.

He was tip-toeing along the most unstable fault line in American music: the place where the tectonic plates of blues and gospel meet and grind against each other. These two musics — so similar in sound and emotion, but so different in subject matter — have always shunned each other in public while borrowing from each other in private. Nowhere else in American culture is the struggle between body and soul, biology and sublimation, played out so clearly. And no one has wrestled with these issues more vigorously than Green.

“There are tremendous message contradictions,” Green told me in 1983, “but as for musical contradictions, not so much.”

Back at the Saenger, he signaled to his terrific funk band, and they leapt into the sinuous R&B beat of his 1975 number-one hit, “L-O-V-E.” In his strange, slightly nasal Southern voice, Green cooed, “I decided to write this song about you,” with a seductive intimacy and built the number’s momentum by punching out syllables to reinforce the groove and then shooting overhead in a falsetto before shouting out the big chorus climax, “Give me more L-O-V-E, love!” By the time the three-man horn section took its break, Green was hopping around the stage on one leg.

As if to prove what kind of love he was talking about, however, he segued into “In The Holy Name Of Jesus.” Likewise, when he sang his famous arrangement of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” he ended with a whispered answer, “Only With Jesus.” He was trying his best to erase the boundary between his past and his present, the world and the church.

“People say you shouldn’t sing all those old songs if you’re a preacher,” he told the audience — or maybe himself. “I say, ‘Oh, yes, I should.’ God made man; God made woman; God made love.”

That’s the question, isn’t it? If there is a God who created human beings with powerful sexual and romantic urges, where do you draw the line between the divine and the sinful? Even if you’re an atheist, where do you draw the line between your most idealistic urges and your most primal? Green’s music investigates these dilemmas as thoroughly as any book of philosophy.

At the Saenger he shifted to an explicitly religious song, “Jesus Will Fix It,” but it rocked harder and faster than any of the secular tunes. The lyrics may have been aimed heavenward, but music was aimed at the pelvis. As the band dug deeper into the groove, Green grunted and moaned about his trust in the Lord. He started jumping about the stage again and then leapt right into the welcoming crowd.

It was one of the most astonishing hours of music I have ever experienced. No experimental jazz band has ever improvised as intuitively as Green did that night. No singer-songwriter has ever explored the boundary between doubt and optimism so fearlessly. No R&B singer has ever achieved such otherworldly vocal effects. But for all his efforts to pull gospel and blues together, that fault line remained as unstable as ever.

Yet there wouldn’t be gospel music as we know it if not for Georgia Tom Dorsey. This pianist for blues queen Ma Rainey recorded the best-selling, raunchy 1928 hit, “It’s Tight Like That,” with Tampa Red. But when his wife Nettie died in childbirth in 1932, Dorsey had a religious conversion and wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a song that obviously drew from the Africanized blues tradition and sounded very different from the more European-sounding spirituals that dominated black churches. Soon black composers in churches across the country were setting religious lyrics to blues tunes, and modern gospel was born.

And there wouldn’t have been early rock and roll and R&B without gospel. On an early 1954 session for Atlantic Records, Ray Charles took the old hymn, “My Jesus Is All The World To Me” and turned the phrase, “I’ve got a Savior way over Jordan; he’s saved my soul, oh yeah,” and had changed it to “I’ve got a woman way across town; she’s good to me, oh yeah.” “I Got A Woman” was a #1 R&B hit, and is often described as the first “soul” record.

But as much as it excited some listeners, it horrified others. It was sacrilegious, they said, to take a song of God and turn it into a bluesy declaration of lust. What they didn’t say was how shockingly easy it was to make the change. It was as if Charles was proving that divine worship and romantic lust were not as different as people liked to believe. Soon he was turning “This Little Light Of Mine” into “This Little Girl Of Mine” and “Hallelujah! I Love Him So” into “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.”

The now-70-year-old Green, whose classic albums for Hi Records have been back in circulation since the blues label Fat Possum acquired the rights in 2009, grew up in Forrest City, Arkansas, (40 miles west of Memphis) and later in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was hearing and singing gospel music before he even knew what it was.

“I was raised on it,” he told me. “It was put in my cornbread. I ate it. My mother and my father, they were Baptists. We were raised in church, and we sang at home. I started when I was a little pee-wee. I was just raised on the sound of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, and the whole trip. Yeah, that was in the house.”

Green joined his brothers in the family gospel group, the Green Brothers, and his shimmering tenor gave him the lead spot. Green, however, was soon slipping down to the local record shop to hear the latest sides by Cooke — who by then had emigrated from the church to the go-go — and by Jackie Wilson, whose wriggling hips and ecstatic falsetto Green would soon emulate. When his father discovered this new enthusiasm for the devil’s music, he kicked young Al out of the group and out of the house.

Like so many soul singers, Green’s complicated, conflicted feelings about the church were thus tangled up in his feelings about his parents. When I asked him if his parents liked his pop music, his big smile, the tapping of his big diamond ring on the table and his exultant “yeahs” suddenly dried up. “No,” he said. “They were gospel folks.” A long pause followed.

In 1967 Green had a modest hit with “Back Up Train,” but it wasn’t till he met trumpeter Willie Mitchell in Midland, Texas, in 1969, that he had the right collaborator. He followed the trumpeter back to Memphis. Mitchell was a staff producer for Hi Records there and had already assembled a superb band anchored by the Hodges brothers: guitarist Teenie, keyboardist Charles and bassist Leroy. All Mitchell needed was the right voice.

Green’s was that voice. It seemed to defy gravity as it grew in intensity as it rose in pitch. It had a soft-slurring sensuality that blended the urbane sophistication of Northern soul with the holy-roller roots of Southern soul. A remake of the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You” went to #11 on the soul charts in 1970; “Tired Of Being Alone” sold a million in 1971; “Let’s Stay Together” topped the pop charts that same year. For the next four years Green dominated the singles charts with a consistency matched only by Elton John.

But the tension between blues and gospel never went away. He had a born-again conversion experience in 1973, but he continued his R&B career as if nothing had happened. But the seeming conflict between the two gnawed at him.

“At every concert, at every gateway, every doorway, every time a stage light would come on,” Green told me, “I had trouble delivering the message that was not about the transformation in my life. People were asking, ‘What’s happening with this guy?’ But I couldn’t explain it to them. Nobody would have believed me. Nobody wanted to believe me, because they wanted to deal with what they were dealing with: love and happiness and kicks and the whole thing ‘We’re not going to get stoned?’ they’d say. ‘Oh, man, please.’”

All these conflicts came to a head in 1977’s The Belle Album, the crowning artistic achievement of Green’s career. He announced to the world — through eight, brilliant, original songs — that Jesus had become his number-one priority. The whole album was addressed to a woman, Belle, explaining that his desires for her now had to be subordinated to devotion to the Lord. On the title track, he sang, “It’s you that I want, but it’s Him that I need.” Green then ascended into the most unearthly falsetto one is ever likely to hear, as if his body had finally given up all resistance to his impulses, spiritual or otherwise.

“It was hard for me,” he said of changing genres in mid-career. “You’re already up there at the top with all the charade that goes with it. But that doesn’t make or break a man.” Is it possible to have both Belle and the Lord? “Yeah, if you have them right. If you find some Belle you like, and you love her, marry her. That’ll be your Belle, and then you don’t have to worry about the other Belles. That’s right. Yes, yes. I have my Belle. Ding-a-ling-a-ling.”

In 1978, Green released Truth n’ Time, a worthy enough footnote to The Belle Album. But after that he moved to the Christian label Myrrh and began releasing albums of all religious material. The singing and playing were still admirable, but they felt constrained, as if Green could no longer explore his doubts and conflicts, because religion was supposed to erase all uncertainties. As a result, none of his post-1979 recordings come close to his pre-1979 studio work. Green continued to make brilliant music, but you could only hear it on the stage.

Or in his church. In 1976 Green became the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in South Memphis, just down the street from Graceland. You go south on Elvis Presley Boulevard and turn right on Hale Road. There you’ll find the wood-and-brick church with its octagonal sanctuary. The eight wooden beams arch past the crazy-quilt, stained-glass windows above the semi-circle of pews. Almost every Sunday Green is there preaching and singing.

I’ve visited half a dozen times, and I’ve never received anything but a warm welcome. The service begins at 10 a.m., but Reverend Al doesn’t make his first appearance till 11:30 or noon. He strolls into the sanctuary in his modest afro, thick glasses and a floor-length black robe highlighted by purple stripes and gold piping. He greets the congregation like a TV talk-show host before reading a bit of scripture. As he tries to explicate the passage, it becomes clear he’s ad-libbing every bit as much as does on the codas of his live numbers. His digressions may cause him to break into song, and the five-man band is expected to recognize the chord changes quickly and back him up.

When I visited in 2009, for example, Green made a joke about trying the tolerance of his congregation with his leisurely, meandering approach to preaching. He urged them to be patient by singing Kris Kristofferson’s “One Day At A Time.” He punctuated the song by shouting, “Hee haw!” and breaking into giggles.

“You’re not going to hear that in any other church this morning,” he boasted. “You can do something like that when you own the church.” He laughed again, but tried to get serious. “I’m sorry I can’t be what you want me to be, but I have to be what the Lord wants me to be. God is love, and He brings us happiness, ‘Love and Happiness.’” Here he sang just the chorus of his old hit. “Don’t come here just looking for a song,” he admonished us, “because a song can’t save you. Only God can save you.”

A few minutes later he was singing Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light.” He then answered the congregation’s unspoken objections by saying, “Some people say, ‘How can you sing that song in church by a man who stayed drunk 24 hours a day?’ I say, ‘That’s between him and God. I don’t care if he drank; I only care that he saw the light.’” He then sang Audio Adrenaline’s 1990 hit, “Can’t Take God Away,” with a dizzying mix of low growls and falsetto screams.

Green’s church services are astonishing pieces of theater, full of improvisation and wacky humor. One time, when his exegesis of the Bible got so convoluted and bizarre that even Green couldn’t follow his own train of thought, he just threw his arms up in the air and declared, “Sometimes I walk into a room and forget why I came in there. ‘Why did I come in here?’ I ask myself. They say it’s when you start answering yourself that you’re really in trouble.”

Maybe that’s the secret of Green’s ability to bridge the gap between blues and gospel: his willingness to laugh at himself when things get too knotty. A current of childish, playful humor has always flowed under his steamiest love songs and his holiest hymns, giving them a buoyancy our more self-important artists too often lack. When his anguish over reconciling the secular and sacred halves of his career becomes too much, he just chuckles it away.

“I’m proud of our past,” he told me in 1983. “We sang about the love message, not the trip-out message. I don’t turn my back on it at all. If people want to dance, I think they ought to dance. I think people who are familiar with my past and accept it will also accept our future. So we are stepping back into the future. Whew! That’s a heavy statement. I just thought of that myself. My granddaddy would love that. He’d say, ‘Bam! Tell ‘em, boy.’”

James Carr: Dark Night of the Soul

Velvet Ditch Blues: Goner Records And The History of Memphis Punk