From Soul Master To Soul Pastor
by Otis Stokes
The soulful, emotive Gospel-tinged vocals of Al Green are legendary. His steamy, mellifluous falsetto can turn any song into, well, a religious experience. And although he has only produced one #1 pop record (with what has become his signature song “Let’s Stay Together”) he is undoubtedly renowned worldwide. As a product of the “Memphis Soul Sound,” Green ruled the early 70s with R&B hit after hit. “I’m Still In Love With You,” (#1 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Chart) “So Tired Of Being Alone,” (#7 Hot Soul Chart) “You Ought To Be With Me,” (#1 Hot Soul Chart) amassing eight gold singles between 1971 and 1974. And although “Love And Happiness” was never a single, it became a huge radio hit in terms of airplay and a crowd-pleasing favorite during Green’s live performances. In his autobiography, “Take Me to the River,” Green said of the song: “Love And Happiness was like mixing explosive chemicals, everything had to be added at just the right time and at just the right dose. The tempo was the most important thing to Willie, and, if you listen close, you can hear Teenie counting off with his foot on a cardboard box for the take that nailed it.”
Finding his love for singing at the tender age of 10, young Albert Greene starting performing with his brothers in a group called the Greene Brothers. Raised in a devout religious family, Al was kicked out of the family home in his teens after his father caught him listening to Jackie Wilson.
Green was heavily influenced by Gospel, R&B and especially the style of one of his idols Elvis Presley. Green once told New York Nightlife Magazine about his influences. “Mahalia Jackson, all the great gospel singers. But the most important music to me was those hip-shakin’ boys: Wilson Pickett and Elvis Presley. I just loved Elvis Presley. Whatever he got, I went out and bought.”
In high school, Al formed a vocal group called Al Greene & The Creations. Two of the group’s members, Curtis Rodgers and Palmer James, formed an independent label called Hot Line Music Journal. In 1968, having changed their name to Al Greene & The Soul Mates, they recorded the song “Back Up Train,” releasing it on Hot Line Music. The song became a hit on the R&B charts. But unfortunately, the album of the same name didn’t do well, and no other single from the LP charted.
While performing with his group, Al met Memphis record producer Willie Mitchell who asked Al to sing with him at an upcoming Texas gig. After the performance, he offered Green a contract to record with his Hi Records label. Having noticed that Al had been trying to sing like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett and James Brown, Mitchell became his vocal coach, working with him to find his own voice. Before releasing his first album with Hi, Green removed the “e” from the end of his name. Subsequently, Green released “Green Is Blues,” which became a moderate success.
His follow-up album, “Al Green Gets Next to You,” featured the hit R&B cover of The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You,” recorded in a slow blues-styled version. The album also featured his first significant hit, “Tired Of Being Alone,” which sold half a million copies and was certified gold, becoming the first of seven consecutive gold singles Green would record in the next couple of years.
Beginning to establish himself as an R&B force, Green’s next album, “Let’s Stay Together,” solidified Al’s place in soul music with the title track becoming his biggest hit, reaching number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. The album became his first to be certified gold. His follow-up LP, “I’m Still In Love with You” went platinum with the help of the singles, “Look What You Done for Me” and the title track, both of which went top ten on the Hot 100. His next album, 1973’s “Call Me,” spawned three top ten singles including “You Ought To Be With Me,” “Call Me (Come Back Home)” and “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).”
Green’s album, “Livin’ For You,” released at the tail-end of 1973, became his last album to be certified gold. However, Green continued to have hit singles that fueled his already hot career with the likes of “Livin’ For You,” “Let’s Get Married,” “Sha-La-La (Makes Me Happy),” “L-O-V-E (Love)” and “Full Of Fire,” that lasted until 1977. But, apparently dealing with some kind of inner turmoil, Green’s personal conflicts began to affect record sales. He had developed a burning desire to become a minister of the faith and finally left Hi Records for Myrrh Records and recorded only gospel music for the next decade or so. During that period, Green co-starred with Patti LaBelle in the Broadway play “Your Arms Too Short To Box With God.” Many speculate that an incident of domestic violence in 1974 that resulted in Green being doused with a pot of hot grits, had much to do with him “finding religion.”
According to public record, Mary Woodson White, a then girlfriend of Green’s, assaulted him before committing suicide at his Memphis home. Although she was already married, White reportedly became upset when Green refused to marry her. At some point during the evening, White poured a pot of boiling grits on Green while he was bathing, causing severe burns on his back, stomach and arms. She then found his .38 caliber revolver and killed herself. The police found a note in her purse declaring her intentions and her reasons. “The more I trust you,” she’d written, “the more you let me down.” Green did admit that this tragedy was a “wakeup call.”
In 1976, Green became an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis and continues to serve in this capacity, delivering services down the street from Graceland. Shortly after his conversion, Green returned to recording R&B, but interest and sales had waned as his music drew mixed reviews from the critics. In 1979, Green injured himself falling off the stage while performing in Cincinnati and interpreted this as a message from God. He then concentrated his energies towards pastoring his church and Gospel singing. His fortunes in Gospel began to change when, from 1981 to 1989, Green recorded a series of gospel recordings garnering eight “Soul Gospel Performance” Grammys during that period.
In 1985, he reunited with Willie Mitchell along with Angelo Earl for “He Is The Light,” his first album for A&M Records. Green returned to secular music in 1988 recording “Put A Little Love in Your Heart” with Annie Lennox. Featured on the soundtrack to the movie “Scrooged,” the song became Green’s first top 10 pop hit since 1974. Green had another hit in 1989 with “The Message Is Love” produced by Arthur Baker. In 1993, he signed to RCA Records and with Baker again as producer, released the album, “Don’t Look Back.” Green received his ninth Grammy award for his collaboration with Lyle Lovett for their duet of “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Green’s 1995 album, “Your Heart’s In Good Hands,” was released around the same time he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2000, Green released his autobiography, “Take Me To The River.” Two years later, he earned the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and recorded a hit R&B duet with Ann Nesby on the song “Put It On Paper.” The year 2004 was a banner year for Green in terms of awards as he was inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Gospel Music Hall of Fame, The Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 65 on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” Green was also honored as a BMI Icon at the annual BMI Urban Awards. He joined an impressive list of previous iconic honorees including R&B legends James Brown, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley.
Green returned to the concert stage touring regularly sometime in 2005, where he performed his impressive array of R&B hits. It appears that the demand for Al Green’s secular catalogue is greater and more profitable than for his Gospel repertoire.
In what must be considered one of the most prestigious awards to earn, Al Green, along with fellow honorees, Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin, Sting and Patricia McBride, will receive the coveted Kennedy Center Honors Award for 2014 this December. The Kennedy Center Honors has upheld a tradition of recognizing the lifelong accomplishments and extraordinary talents of our nations’ most prestigious artists. The honorees, who will be seated with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, are being recognized for “their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.” And speaking of lifetime contributions. I’m sure one of Green’s proudest moments was to have President Obama honor one of his song contributions when the President did his rendition of “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser in Harlem in 2012. That must be as good as it gets for any performer, secular or Gospel. I believe that deserves an “Amen.”