Interview: Al Green
Urban America got a hip new soundtrack in the 1970s, and Al Green's was a leading voice in the soul-music chorus. With a honey-sweet tenor, he bowled over listeners with hits such as "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love With You" and "Look What You've Done for Me." Working with Willie Mitchell, owner of Memphis' Hi Records, Green became legendary for his sexy, instantly recognizable singles.
Born in 1946 in Forest City, Arkansas, Green showed an early interest in music. By the age of 9 he had formed his first group, a gospel quartet called The Greene Brothers. The band busily toured the South throughout the 1950s before relocating to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Soon after, Green's father caught him listening to the then-risque music of soul forefather Jackie Wilson and kicked him out of the group. By age 16, however, Green had returned to the stage, first fronting The Soul Mates and then embarking on a solo career.
In 1974, at the height of his popularity, Green was violently attacked by former girlfriend Mary Woodson. After breaking into his home, Woodson poured hot grits on the singer as he bathed, and then shot herself with his gun. Green saw the tragedy as an act of God and became devoted to the church. Two years later, he bought and became pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis.
After giving himself almost entirely over to gospel music for years, Green returned to pop last year with the critically acclaimed disc, I Can't Stop.
Last week Green chatted with Seven Days from his home in Memphis, just a day before he finished recording a new album for Blue Note Records, The Music Man.
SEVEN DAYS: When did you first know that you wanted to be a singer?
AL GREEN: When I heard Sam Cooke sing with the Soul Stirrers on a radio station called WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee. When I heard that, I just remember one thing, saying, Boy, if I could only... I wanna be like that. I wonder if I could ever do that? And, ba-da!
SD: Nobody argues that during the '70s you made some great music, but how did you feel at that time? Did you ever feel like you were losing control?
AG: [Screaming] Heck, no! I never felt like I was losing control... I've always committed my work to the Lord and let him do the controlling. We step back and let Him do it, and then we know that it'll be OK. Whether we're talking about "I'm Still in Love With You," or "Love and Happiness" or "Let's Stay Together," any of these songs, it still has a flavor of r&b, gospel, pop. It still has the same positive message.
SD: What motivated you to return to making secular pop music?
AG: Understanding. Wisdom. Knowledge. That allows you to say to your fellow man or fellow person, "I love you. I would like to be sincere with you."
SD: What is it like making music for you now? Have you slowed down in the past 25 years?
AG: No, I speeded up. I have sped up, man. When I wake up in the morning, I look around and be thankful that I woke up that morning [laughs]. And then I always say, "OK, what do you have for me today?" And sometimes He answers and sometimes He don't answer. He says: "You just gotta get out there and start doing it. And once you get out there, you'll realize that I've blessed you. That's why when you play a place there won't be enough seats. See, I'm going to give you the spirit of prosperity. I don't want you to preach to people. I want you to go into the casinos, the clubs. I want you to go to people who ain't got no mind of the goodness of God. But I want you to make mention of it. And then the band goes and plays "Let's Stay Together" -- [singing] Boom-bomp-ba-bomp, and I go, "I'm so in love with you..." And everybody starts havin' a fit and I start throwin' flowers like a madman.
SD: What's the most important thing in your life?
AG: The most important thing in my life is to be able to be happy, to communicate with people. And the most important thing in my life is to be able to get in my truck, go to Wal-Mart, go to K-Mart or go to anywhere I wanna go, without an entourage, bodyguards, secretaries. We went through that 25 years ago.
SD: What was it like recording back at Royal Studio with all your old friends?
AG: [Laughs] "Extra" came in and filmed part of the session, and I was going [nervously], "Oh, my God, this is a TV program." But they said, "Hey Al, can you sing something?" And I got to singing there in the studio and it was just wonderful.
SD: How do you get yourself into the mood to record a vocal take?
AG: I don't have a mood I can get into that I don't live. After 25 years in the business I have to live this way all the time. I can't turn it off, like, after 5 o'clock.
SD: How did you manage to get so suave, anyway?
AG: Suave? I really don't know. He just said, "Just do what I tell you." Yesterday I was riding to the studio and it started to rain. And I said [clears throat], "OK, Lord, what love song do you want me to sing?" And he said, "Here, take this melody." And the guys are waiting for me at the studio, and here comes Al with his guitar and notepad, and he's playing this melody that God has just given him in the car. He don't even have the words to it yet! And the band records the thing and, while they play it back, I write the song. And that turns out to be one of the best songs on the CD. And you had no idea, He just gave it to you in the car! I love that.
SD: You have remained happy and successful throughout a very long career. What advice do you have for younger musicians?
AG: Hang in there. Trust in something bigger than yourself. You've got to have self-esteem, but don't put yourself too high. Because if you are number one, there is only one direction that you can go. But don't be at the bottom of the list, either, because God gives you these things you can use, like talent, love, all these things. Be somewhere in the middle, so you can work your way up and keep prospering.