by Tom Hallett
When soul/R&B singer Al Green first began honing his vocal
chops in the mid-Sixties, the word "soul" had a very different connotation
than it does nowadays. Today, Webster's dictionary has added a new definition
for soul: "The deep spiritual and emotional quality of black American culture
and heritage," or "strong expression of this quality in a musical
performance." That's something, huh? To have helped to create and nurture
a cultural phenomenon so powerful that stodgy ol' Webster's dictionary breaks
down and redefines the meaning of a word. One listen to Green's music is all
most people need to understand how and why the man and his contemporaries managed
to—and there's simply no other way to put it—change the world.
Green grew up between
the deep South and Michigan, all the while exercising his mighty pipes in various
churches along the way. His parents, strict Baptists and no-nonsense folks,
weren't exactly thrilled with Al's choice of vocation, but supported him as
best they could. By the mid '60s, he'd been a part of several successful cover
bands, but still hadn't found his true voice or his own musical niche. That
all changed in 1968 when he met Memphis musician/producer Willie Mitchell at
a live show in Texas.
Beginning in 1971, Green, Mitchell and the Royal Studios team
began issuing a string of now-classic albums on Hi Records, all chock full of
singles that rocketed to the top of the charts and remain soul standards to
this day. Tracks like "Tired Of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together"
and "Call Me" defined the term "soul." Sung over a vintage
1950's RCA ribbon microphone (dubbed No. 9 by Mitchell), the tunes resonated
with a beauty as yet unmatched in the soul category. By the time 1976's Have
A Good Time came out, Green was an international superstar/sex symbol, and music
would never be the same.
But like most tales about superstardom and the music business,
Green's has a dark side, as well. Though he'd become a born-again Christian
in 1973, he continued to tour and record secular music and to live the lifestyle
of a "no-good, woman-chasing champagne-drinking good-time-having Saturday-night
blues-singing man." That lifestyle caught up to him in 1974, when, as he
was bathing in the privacy of his own home, an angry ex-girlfriend broke in,
dumped a pot of boiling grits on his back, and killed herself with his gun.
While recovering, he began studying the Bible in earnest, and by 1976 he'd bought
the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis and become an ordained minister.
He released a couple more secular efforts, though none topped
those early albums, and when he fell offstage and seriously injured himself
during a 1979 appearance in Cincinnati, he took it as a sign from God and retired
from the worldly music business. Since then, he's pursued a career as a gospel
singer and hometown pastor, cultivating a large flock of fellow believers. He's
won countless Grammy Awards for his Christian albums, become a poster child
for clean living, and raised a slew of children and grandchildren in the ensuing
decades. In the back of his mind, however, he always wondered if he'd done the
right thing in rejecting all the great music he'd helped to create over the
Recently, with the blessing of his congregation and—most
importantly, he says—his mother, he set about reconnecting with the now-75-year-old
Willie Mitchell and whipping up a fresh batch of hot soul nuggets at Royal Studios.
Working once again with original band members Teenie and Leroy Hodges, along
with his longtime drummer Steve Potts, Green laid down the 12 cuts that make
up his latest, the 2003 Blue Note album I Can't Stop.
From the urgent, driving beat and smooth, horn-laden grooves
of the title track to the edgy, guitar-augmented roadhouse feel of "Play
To Win" and the lonely, string-dripping cry of "Rainin' In My Heart,"
I Can't Stop is not only the closest Green has come to those glory days of the
early '70s since his initial "retirement," but it's also arguably
the best soul album to come down the pike in over 25 years. Mitchell, though
now in his mid-70s and battling diabetes, is still the greatest living soul
producer around, and along with the band who created all those great licks and
fills in the first place, has molded an album that today's computer-aided, production-heavy
board jockeys should be paying mighty close attention to.
Pulse spoke with Green recently from his home in Memphis, where
he was frantically—albeit cheerfully—trying to balance his upcoming
Sunday sermon with tour plans, Mitchell's recent hospitalization and the sixteen
new tracks he's written since I Can't Stop was recorded. Still as bright, upbeat
and full of positive vibes as ever, the 58-year-old Green was fairly bubbling
over with energy and excitement as he discussed his reunion with Mitchell, the
new songs and the state of music today:
Pulse: Hey, I really like this new album, Reverend. Great stuff!
Al Green: Oh, OK. Well, we've got another one comin' out for
you, too. I've been doin' some writin'. I've got 16 of 'em done already, and
I've just been waitin' on Willie to get out of the hospital. After I'm done
talking to you, I've gotta go sing 'em!
Pulse: How is Willie doing?
Green: He's doin' a lot better now. He had his sugar diabetes
thing. And you know Willie—he wanna take a little nip of vodka and take
his medicine. (Laughs) I was telling him, no, that don't work. The alcohol is
gonna void out the medicine. So they took him to the hospital, and they told
him, hey man, you gonna have to cut the alcohol if you gonna take your medicine.
So he's doin' much better now.
Pulse: Are you enjoying working back at Royal again?
Green: Oh, man, that's like bein' back at home. Yeah, all those
people—Willie Mitchell and the Hodges brothers ...
Pulse: How'd you like singing through that old No. 9 mic again?
Green: Oh, I think that's good too. The mic [has] been around
for I don't know how long. Willie, he had them check it up, so it's stuffed
with everything new. I've sung so many songs through that mic—"Let's
Stay Together," "I'm Still In Love With You," "Tired Of
Being Alone," all these songs I sang on that cotton-pickin' mic! So Willie,
he's superstitious, he just won't use no other mic on the album but ol' No.
9! That's his trip, so I let him trip.
Pulse: How did your congregation at church feel about you cutting
a new secular album and touring—were they behind your decision?
Green: Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! I let my mom hear it first,
and she goes, "Mmm-hmm." I says, “OK, well, Mama, how do you
like the music?” And she says, "Mmm-hmm." And I'm just getting
ready to go downstairs and she says, "Al," and I say, “What?”
And she says, "It's REALLY nice." So once I get her approval, I think
we got it, you know?
Pulse: How about the young people in your church? Do you connect
with them well?
Green: Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! They know where it's
at, man. They're not missin' a beat.
Pulse: What do you think of the music they call R&B nowadays? It's not really
the same kind of R&B you guys were making back in the '70s ...
Green: (Pauses) Well ... I listen to everybody. I listen to
Mary J. (Blige) albums, I listen to Tevin Campbell, I listen to Macy Gray, Nelly.
I listen to a lot of 'em. You know, I feel the music that was done in the era
in which we did it—that's gonna be a trademark special kind of music.
And it says a certain thing. How hard is it to pull on my heart strings when
the man is taking my whole heart, you know? There you go. See, 'cause this music
goes back to The Temptations, The Four Tops, Junior Walker, I mean some of that
music—Aretha Franklin! It's hard to replace Aretha Franklin!
Pulse: It'd be hard to replace Al Green, too!
Green: (Laughs) That's my thing! So, yeah. Otis Redding, some
of those people are the basis of what soul music is all about, and when you
start saying, I'm gonna top that ... You know, I think what the record industry
is saying now is, "I'm from Missouri—show me!" Yeah, because
the music sounds great that people are doin', but it don't have—some of
it, not all of it, but some of it—don't have the hard-core, grits-and-eggs,
toast, somethin' that sticks to your ribs type [of a feel].
Pulse: What about rap?
Green: I think if you've got a positive message ... I think
that a lot of rap guys are cleaning up a lot from the days of Tupac and Biggie
Smalls ... cleanin' up from drugs and violence. You don't have to be about all
that. Right? You can write cool love songs that everybody will like, on the
college campus or whatever, and still have a super career without [thinking]
you have to be in a gang type thing in order to have it.
Pulse: What is the songwriting process like for you nowadays?
Green: I like to get together with Willie. Willie does the
music, but he don't know how it goes! So he plays like (starts singing), "Bah-bing,
bing, bing, bing, bing ..." And he don't know how it goes! So I sit down,
I say, “Wait a minute.” I just go (starts singing again), "One-two-three-four
... bing bing, bah-bah, bing bing, bah... I'm so in love with you ..."
We need each other because he can't write the words, and I can't write the music.
When we get us two together with the Hodges brothers, we kind of have a field
Pulse: Did you have any particular moments in the studio with
Willie this time around you can talk about?
Green: Well, there's always moments in the studio with Willie
to talk about! What can't you talk about!? He's all over everything! But we
let him have his way, because he knows what he's talking about, and he knows
more about it. When he takes the album out to L.A. and comes back with it mastered
and you hear it, you say, "Oh! Oh, OK!" That's the way you know he
knows what he's doing.
Pulse: Who's in your touring band this time around?
Green: Oh, it's all the same guys who've been playing these
songs for years. The Hodges brothers ... the original back-up singers, the New
Royal Horns. Oh yeah! Oh, yeah! That's because we want the guys who really know
the music, the people who were there when the music was cut. We didn't want
some guys who just learned the music yesterday, no. These are the people who
cut the music! Oh, yeah! That's gonna make it sound like it's supposed to sound.
Pulse: OK, I've got one more for you, Al.
Pulse: What are Al Green's three favorite love songs?
Green: Hmm ... it'd have to be "Simply Beautiful,"
"Let's Stay Together" and "I'm Still In Love With You."
But I like "Tired Of Being Alone," too.
Pulse: That's great! I was thinking, how cool would it be if Al Green's three
favorite love songs were his own! I don't think there's anybody out there who
could find three better love songs than that!
Green: Oh, boy! (Laughing) Yeah! You gotta get them juices
Al Green plays the Guthrie Theater on Mon., Mar. 29. 7:30 p.m. $75. All Ages. With Debbie Duncan. 725 Vineland Place, Mpls. 612-377-2224.