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With rare exceptions, Al Green has not stepped onto a concert stage since 1979. Sixteen years ago, during a concert in Cincinnati, he fell 12 feet off a stage and barely missed being seriously injured. Already a disciple of the Lord, preaching in front of his Memphis congregation most every Sunday morning, Green thanked Jesus and walked away from performing, vowing never to return. "The fall was God's way of saying I had to hurry up," Green said a decade ago, smack in the middle of The Gospel Years. "I wasn't moving toward God fast enough."
But in May at a VH1 invite-only performance at Deep Ellum Live, the Reverend Al Green stood at the edge of a stage one more time, handing out long-stemmed red roses to the ladies, moaning those baby-baby-baby songs and shouting the come-to-Jesus numbers like a preacher with a hard-on. Wearing a red sports coat that screamed louder than he did, his eyes hidden behind dark shades, his wrists and fingers obscured by shiny jewelry, Al Green ran through the hits--"Take Me to the River," "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?," "Let's Stay Together," the odd Marvin Gaye-Otis Redding-Sam Cooke medley--and a wrenching "Amazing Grace." With the Memphis Horns behind him, he whispered, preached, pandered, begged, pleaded, sleepwalked and soul-talked.
If it didn't provide the fiery sparks one hopes for when the words "Al Green" and "concert" are placed together, it was hardly a disappointment. He was just a legend with nothing to prove, a man of God walking among mortals who didn't even have to pay to get in.
"You know, it always means something different every time you go out there," Green says now, six months after that performance. "It's always a new experience, it's always fresh every time."
On this early December morning, the Reverend is not hollering or groaning. He can, in fact, barely raise his voice above a hoarse whisper, so heavy is he with exhaustion. Just moments ago, he had arrived back at his New York City hotel after having appeared on live television with Regis and Kathy Lee. He says he's been up for five hours already though the morning is still young, and for the first few minutes of the interview, he answers questions with nothing more than a groggy, soft-spoken "OK...yeah..yeah..right."
But when asked how it feels--just weeks after the release of his first all-secular album in 18 years, Your Heart's in Good Hands--to begin performing his old hits one more time in front of adoring crowds who've longed to hear "Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness," he quickly becomes excited and animated. Sometimes, he makes little sense; other times, he deflects a question with a vague aphorism. But no matter: Al Green quickly becomes the Reverend. Amen and hallelujah.
"You get greater variety of songs on the concert stage because the concert stage is where you can perform all of the songs," Green says. "We even do an Otis Redding song at the end of the show, 'Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.' But on the pulpit, you have another element and another elevation where you're dealing with Christian, sacred things. We can't vary too much from that unless we're careful how we deal with it. But still you can sing stuff like 'Precious Lord' and 'Amazing Grace' and 'Everything's Gonna Be Alright' and 'He's Coming Back.'" He pauses, then adds an ecstatic, "Yeah."
Since debuting in 1970 as a secular soul-star-in-the-making, Al Green has been the finest, purest, most natural singer ever to rule the pop chart. He's the last great R&B star, the bridge between Sam Cooke-Otis Redding and Prince-Terence Trent D'Arby. He embodies the history of black music (born in the church, raised in the brothel) and, as Your Heart's in Good Hands proves, he still possesses the most powerful voice since God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai.
During his heyday, he elevated even the trivial and mundane into the stuff of revelation, broke hearts and saved souls, reached the highest notes imaginable and took his audience to the lowest places possible. His cover of the Bee Gees' "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?," on 1971's Let's Stay Together, is a masterpiece of subtlety and redemption--sadness communicated through a whisper, heartbreak told through a moan.
Sam Cooke was the first good-boy-gone-bad, the sacred singer peddling secular soul once he fell out of the church pew and onto the concert stage. But Cooke was early '60s soul, his slick and safe RCA records predating the gritty Memphis revolution of the mid-'60s and early '70s. He could bring the house down or break your heart on "Twistin' the Night Away" or "Wonderful World," but Cooke's brand of R&B never reached as deep as Otis Redding or Al Green's. Cooke sang of innocent love, but Redding and especially Green preached desperate lust.
Cooke's music came from the church, and it was nurtured in an era of hopeful na•vetŽ--the days before Kennedy and King were murdered, a time when black artists still wanted to cross over to the white audiences. Even Cooke's own murder by gunshot in 1964--at the hands of a woman who claimed the singer had raped a friend and then turned his attention to her--marked the beginning of the end of an era.