Al Green


When someone tells you they saw Al Green at an airport and that they recognized him by the way he was singing you know it can only be true.

When the soul legend is in the mood, he just can’t help but sing out loud. And when Al Green sings, the voice is clearly driven above all by desire – both carnal and spiritual. It is both almost overpoweringly intense and unmistakably delicate. It is also so achingly beautiful, even an atheist like myself could admit it may even be divine.

The Reverend Al Green, they say, could sing the telephone directory and make it sound soulful. He pretty much proved it last July at the Royal Festival Hall. As the band softly started his next song (which never really did arrive), Al embarked upon one of those rambling intros that fall somewhere between sheer showbiz schmooze and gorgeous gospel inspiration. “It’s great to be back…in Lon-don, yeah. Yes it is,” he said with real soul. “We’ve just been over in…Nor-way. Then we flew down, down to Co-pen-hagen.”

Poetry. But then, since the death of Marvin Gaye, Al Green is probably the last truly great soul singer. Give him a half decent song (and his current album, ‘Don’t Look Back’, has 5 or 6 out-and-out classic Al songs), and no-one can touch him.

Any doubts about Al’s mood today are swiftly removed when he walks in. He sits down, gives a blinding smile and sings: “there’s nothing wr-ong/being in love with some-one, yeah”, and laughs long and hard. “Oh ba-by, love and happ-iness, hahaha.”

On stage and in person, Green brims with the sheer joy of being alive. Singing seems to make him so excited, whether it’s to a packed hall or a solitary interviewer. He can’t stop smiling, just can’t help singing.
“How sweet it is to be loved by you… Oh Marvin, he’s a fantastic person. Phenomenal.”
I daren’t remind that poor Marvin probably WAS a fantastic person but isn’t anymore.

With a new single, ‘Best Love’, produced by the Fine Young Cannibals musicians David Steele and Andy Cox, this month Green returns to the UK for more shows, although whether they can match the Festival Hall, where he roved the aisles with roses for the ladies and danced as raunchily as his Love Man days in the 1970s, is doubtful.
“I didn’t come here to be… casual,” he muttered at the start of the show. The way he sang (enthralled, emotional, euphoric) showed he meant it.

The most telling moment came when he began one number with a snatch of Otis Redding’s ‘Sitting At the Dock of the Bay’, a bar of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring it on Home To Me’ and Marvin’s ‘I’ve been really tryin’ baby’ before jettisoning them all for ‘Love and Happiness’ “by Al Green” as he put it.

This though is Al’s pedigree. Now 47, he was born the son of a preacher, in Arkansas, and started singing with the family gospel group at the age of nine.
“I used to play a lot of Presley records,” he remembers. “’Love Me Tender’, ‘Teddy Bear’… I liked that hahaha !”

A quick burst of ‘Teddy Bear’ shows just how much he liked it.
“I met Presley only once, in a men’s room at the Avalon Club in Memphis. He said, ‘you know what ? You look a lot like Al Green’. I said, ‘yeah, well there ain’t no doubt about who you are !’ Haha !”

Green’s big break came after a solo gig in Texas, where he was spotted by producer Willie Mitchell, the man behind the sound of Hi Records and the man who took Al Green to Memphis and developed his voice into one capable of expressing sighs and cries of joy and pain and make them as sensual as hell.

Between 1971 and 76, Green had 13 Top 40 singles including classics such as ‘So Tired of Being Alone’, ‘Let’s Stay Together’, ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’, ‘Sha La La’, ‘L.O.V.E.’, ‘Living With You’, and the sublime ‘Still In Love With You’.

“These songs are like… my children, my family,” he smiles. “You could say it was destiny, meetin’ Willie. I remember doin’ ‘Still In Love With You’. Willie says, ‘You’re not there yet’, and shut the machine off. This is for 6 days. Then 4 o’clock one morning, I called him. I says, ‘Let’s go’, punched the machine on, it’s 15 minutes to five, sung it first time. He said, ‘now that’s right’.”

The best tracks on ‘Don’t Look Back’ were done the same way according to FYC’s David Steele – in two or three takes.
“He was a dream…a musician’s fantasy. I felt like a kid coming off the sub’s bench in the Cup Final and scoring a hat-trick.”

“Andy and David play it in the Willie Mitchell/Memphis kind of style with a ’94 feel,” Green smiles. “They brought The Memphis Horns in and that knocked me out ‘cos I didn’t know they were going to do that.”

At the peak of Al’s success, he turned to the church, a decision thought to do with an incident in which, as he was sleeping, a girl called Mary Woodson emptied a saucepan of boiling hot cereal over his back, scarring him, and then shooting herself dead. He renounced the sins of the flesh, became an ordained pastor with the Full Gospel Tabernacle and started recording gospel. “I’m only a blessed man. I’m not a victorious man. I’m clay,” he says of his battle.

The suggestion that Prince has dealt with the same dilemma with slightly less success gives Al some concern.
“Is Prince dirty ? I don’t know about that. I just know about the artistic part of the artist Prince. I’m sure he can do great gospel. ‘Purple Rain’ is so soulful to me.”

Al Green’s behaviour is renowned to be quixotic to say the least, not always down to the Holy Spirit. During the interview, he waves enthusiastically to people in the restaurant, not all of whom seem to have really noticed him or necessarily even be there.

A straightforward enquiry about his ministry brings forth an impassioned head of steam, so blinding and powerful that in the end, he goes flying right past the meaning.
“Who am I ? What am I, that I should be able to judge another man’s problems ? If he should seek, he should find. And if he should knock, should the door be open to him… The wages of sin beget death, that God is eternal life… I can get all that information in there, and say, think of your fellow man, lend him a helping hand, put a little love in your heart, Annie Lennox. It’s all intertwined.”

Yes, the Reverend Al moves in mysterious ways. As he says when he describes ‘Sha La La’ and ‘Here I Am’: “They fall right in because that’s part of the character of the way Al is. ‘For The Good Times’ yeah. Al does that.”

Indeed he does. Amazingly, the first time he became aware of the effect of his voice was “in Manchester, England, 1972 or 73. I was singing ‘You Oughta Be With Me’. I was so, so spiritually, so, so much, into this song, everybody had stopped dancing, and started looking towards the stage and for some reason, I had tears coming down my face. The whole house was looking at me and saying ‘God, this guy’s serious’. That had never happened to me before.”

He doesn’t know where it comes from, neither his brothers or his father really had it.
“People say to me, ‘when you come off stage, you’re drained, sweating, you’re stripped.’ I don’t know why. Some of those songs, I feel so close to them, when I hear the intro, I just break out in a sweat all over, because of what they mean. I was given these songs to sing to the people and tell the people there’s so much love in the world. ‘Let’s Stay Together’, ‘Keep On Pushing Love’, the ‘Best Love’. The best love, the only love, the best kiss, the best joy. I love it. Haha. I don’t know if anyone gets it but I know what I’m talking about anyway.”

His exit is as characteristic as his entrance.
“Say hi to the ‘G’ and the ‘Q’,” he tells me, signing a copy of the ‘Al Green Is Love’ album.
The dedication is equally fitting. “Love and Happiness.”