Al Green tours like he’s 45, looks like he’s 35 and sings like he’s 25.
At 60, the soul legend is so full of life that it is hard to get him to focus on one topic for very long and so full of songs that he can hardly get a full sentence out without breaking into one.
In an era of iconic soul singers like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Wilson Pickett, Green set himself apart with his soft falsetto and aching, passionate delivery on songs like “Tired of Being Alone” and “Let’s Stay Together.” If four words can sum up a man, Green’s four would be the title of his 1975 album: Al Green is Love. Few singers have devoted so many songs, albums and years to love – wanting love, finding love, making love, losing love, missing love.
Though his career has certainly had its dips and dives, Green has emerged unscathed. He has been inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, sold more than 20 million records, won eight Grammy Awards and inspired so many births, sociologists could probably study his music as a cultural phenomenon like the baby boom at the end of World War II.
Green turned to church in 1976 and became the Reverend after a distraught girlfriend threw a pot of boiling grits on him, causing serious burns, and then took her own life. By the late 70s, he had begun concentrating almost exclusively on gospel music.
In 2003, he returned to making secular music with long-time producer Willie Mitchell for the critically acclaimed, I Can’t Stop, and in 2005, he released Everything’s OK, his most recent offering.
Currently, he is working on a new album with Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots and is touring with the B.B. King Blues Festival alongside B.B. King and Little Richard (Richard took Etta James’ spot after she recently fell ill), all while tending his flock as pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, Tennessee.
Green recently talked to Glide about his past, present and future from a hotel room in Michigan and of course, he’s not bashful about referring to himself in the third person.
How has the B.B. King Blues Festival been so far? Do you all get along?
We’re all friends. I’ve been knowin’ B.B. for years and he’s just a great guy – I loved him from the beginning and he’s even sweeter now. And Richard, I’ve been knowin’ Richard I don’t know how long – since Omaha, Nebraska. That’s years ago.
You come from an era of soul singers, like James Brown and Otis Redding, who all had an edge to their voices, almost a scream when they sang, but you seem to create the emotion and tension in the song by understating it with your falsetto. Is that something you did on purpose to maybe try to be different from them?
I’m not trying to be different from anybody that I know of. I don’t even know how I got to where I am. I have no idea. Every now and then I look up and go, “What is God doing?’ (laughs) From “Tired of Being Alone” to “Let’s Stay Together” to “I’m Still in Love With You,” I really don’t know how or why I’ve been singing these songs all this time. I’ve been ministering for 30 years. I met Willie Mitchell in 1970 and this is 2007 – I’ll let you do the arithmetic. We felt that by this time the crowds should be thinning out and everything would be dissipating, but you know, we went over to Madrid, Spain and there were so many people, they couldn’t all get in the place. There were more people outside than there were inside.
And so I really don’t know how we’ve managed to come to where we come to. But people will say, “This song came out when I was in college and I met [my husband or wife], and we used to always play ‘Let’s Stay Together,’ and that was our song, and we got married to this and played it for our wedding song,” and they keep going about personal things they were going through. I heard a thousand stories, baby.
Is it hard to be a famous musician and a preacher at the same time?
No. People come to the church, to the tabernacle, and take pictures out in front of the sign. They come out there and just sit out there. I can’t leave the house because there’s a horde of people out front. And I’m staying at the tabernacle right now because they’re remodeling the house, so sometimes I have to sit down the street because there’s people in front of the tabernacle, in front of the gates.
Then there’s sometimes I just come down there and get out the car and just start huggin’ and kissin’ ‘em, that’s all. And that’s all they want! They don’t want to hurt you, they just want to say, “I just love your music; I’ve been listening to you so long.” So I just start huggin’ ‘em and they say, “I just didn’t know he would do that. I mean, he just got out of the car and hugged me. I thought he might be a little stand-offish,” or something. And I’m like, “I don’t know how to be stand-offish. I was raised in Michigan. I been waitin’ down the street for two hours. Y’all won’t leave (laughs).”
Does the way you sing affect the way you preach or vice versa?
I think it’s all mixed in together. I can’t sing no better than the way I can preach, and I can’t preach no better than the way I can sing.
Do you remember the first time you ever performed?
I sung with the high school choir and I was in the Glee Club. I was always singing with a group of people, it wasn’t like me performing so much as it was a vast choir thing. And then after that, I just kind of started singing in the shop class because the machines was running and nobody could hear me no way, and I had on ear muffs and goggles. One day, I turned the machine off, the lathe, and I looked around and all the whole class is standing behind me saying, “This guy can sing,” and I’m thinking, “You gotta be kidding me. I mean, come on. What are you doing, standing behind me like this?”
I just never took it seriously and I don’t take it seriously now. I don’t do nothing to sing, I don’t have no special thing I gotta rub before I go sing. I don’t even practice. I just go out there, (sings) Spendin’ my days thinking ‘bout you, girl. Whatever, you know? I don’t know how to be a big shot or something. I mean, we just regular ordinary people.
The old recordings have so much character to them. When you go to record new music, is it hard to get that indefinable quality to it?
I just go in there and I already wrote the songs out, Willie’s already done the music, and we go and show the musicians how it goes. Then the band cuts it, and then Al comes in and sings it.
Within the first second of “Tired of Being Alone,” you can tell that everything is right about it – the sound of the recording, the music, the playing. What do you think gives certain songs that magic, where you can tell it’s a classic right away, whereas other good ones might be forgotten?
“Tired of Being Alone” just draws you right in (sings the opening notes). It just sucks you right in, so when I start singing, I’m so tired, you’re already caught. The other day when I was singing it in Ireland someplace or Scotland and I didn’t think the people would know “Tired of Being Alone,” but they knew every single word and note. I missed one of the high notes and one lady said, “Aw, come on Al, sing the song right (laughs).”
How did that song come about?
“Tired of Being Alone,” I wrote in Detroit. I was going with a girl named Laura Lee, who is a singer also, and she was working at Phelps Lounge, and she’d be leavin’ me at home at night because the bar opens at 10 o’clock and don’t close until two. So I was just sittin’ wonderin’ one night over by the Detroit River on Lafayette Street in downtown Detroit, and I kept playin’ this song, you know, (sings) I’m so tired of being alone, I’m so tired up on my own, won’t you help me girl as soon as you can, you know, just joking. I got that from Larry (Green’s guitar player, Larry Lee, no relation to Laura) because Larry would say, “I don’t give a damn when you help me, just as soon as possible.” And on the road, we get on the road so much, we’d have to make everything a joke because if it’s not a joke and you try to be serious about it, you’d get completely downright mad.
Most of your songs are about love and relationships, which is a pretty common thing for songs to be about, but few people have stuck with that as much as you have. Your whole career seems to be about relationships. Why is that?
Well, don’t tell anybody, but I had a lot of ‘em. I haven’t had the best of luck with them. It sounds like a lot of fun to have a suite, and my dad and my brothers were on the road with me at the time, and I had a woman in every corner, all around the whole suite, man, nothing but women. We’d have our little incense burning, you know. My dad said, “Al, why don’t you just pick one and send the rest of them home?” I said, “Uh, really?” He said, “They all got the same thing.”
I don’t know, man, I was 22 or something. I was just out there and by the grace of God, I’ve been able to sing these songs. Now these songs are becoming like a type of an anthem or something for people’s lives. All these things people tell us on the road, I kind of say, well, maybe these songs have been a help to some people to get over some trials, tribulations, a bump in the road, whatever.
The song "I’m Still in Love with You" is one of my favorites. Where did that come from? Do you remember where were you when you wrote it and what was happening?
[I was in] Hamilton, with Willie Mitchell and (guitarist) Teeny Hodges and Willie’s daughter. Willie brought his piano and plugged it into the wall with a little amp on it, and he was playin’ this (sings a few notes). And I say, “What is that?” And he says, “I don’t know, get a pen and write something to it.” So, I say, “I don’t know, um . . . Spending my days thinking ‘bout you . . . I’m still in love with you.” He says, “Well, what does that mean?” And I say, “I have no idea.” So we went and wrote it down, and then we were packing up the car, we were putting luggage in the back of the car and I said, (sings) love and happiness. Then Teeny went (sings a low note) with his voice, holding a sustained note. He says, “How are you going to start it off? I said, “Well, I ain’t wrote it yet,” and he goes (sings the opening guitar riff of “Love and Happiness”). So, I go, “Well, let’s write it down when we get to the studio.” And we drove 160 miles back to Memphis, went straight to the studio that night and cut “Love and Happiness.” I don’t know how it come about, it just come about.
A lot of people, like Little Richard, who come out of a church background have had a hard time reconciling their secular music with God or gospel. But even as a Reverend, you still sing the old songs. For you, is there recognition that sexuality or sensuality and holiness don’t have to be separate things?
Well, the things that are holy are holy, and the things that are sacred are sacred, and the things that are natural are natural, and there is a great difference between the one to the other. So I can’t mislead you and tell you that it all goes together – I would be lying. But a lady in Florida, the place where we started this tour, asked me, “How is it that the Reverend is going to team up with B.B. King, who is a blues artist, or is playing the devil’s music? How do you reconcile that?” I said, “Ma’am, the whole world is based on love, love, love.” She sat down.
I’ve heard you’re working on a new album with ?uestlove from The Roots. How is that going?
The Roots, they got a nice band. Now, I’m cuttin’ with them in New York, and I get to meet them. They’re nice guys. I like it, because the music they give me is so different than Willie’s. It’s hip-hopish, but then again, they tell me, “Al, no no no, you gotta sing just like Al.” I say, “Well, you’re changing the music,” but they say, “Let me do the music and you sing like Al.” It’s working out real good.