Can he get an 'amen?'

Al Green returns with his first all-secular album since 1977

Green, like Redding and Wilson Pickett, was clearly influenced by Cooke's vocal style--the spiritual shouts of the church, the sensual whispers of the bedroom--and they share so many parallels: Green, who was born in 1946 in Arkansas to a family of sharecroppers, also came out of the church, and like Cooke, his conversion to the secular musical world was not an easy one.

At the age of nine, Greene (he dropped the "e" when he moved to Memphis in 1968) and his brothers sang in a gospel group called, appropriately enough, the Greene Brothers; but when Al's father caught him listening to singers like Jackie Wilson when he was 16, the old man became infuriated with his son and kicked him out of the brothers' group. Al would go on to form his own R&B band, Al Greene and the Creations, which scored a Top-10 hit in 1967 with "Back Up Train."

Green began recording for Willie Mitchell at Hi Records in the late '60s, when the two met during a performance in Midland, Texas. Hi Records was taking off in Memphis just as Stax Records was beginning to dissolve in the wake of King's assassination, breaking up the once-happily integrated sessions. And Green became the instant pop star. By 1970's Al Green Gets Next to You, he was all over the R&B and pop charts, reaching as high as Number 11 on the pop charts with "Tired of Being Alone." The following year, he topped the pop and R&B charts with "Let's Stay Together," since resuscitated through its use on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, and followed with such hits as "L-O-V-E," "Let's Get Married," "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)," and so forth.

For years, writers have tied Green's return to religious music to an infamous incident in October 1974, when Green was hospitalized with second-degree burns on much of his body. He had been taking a bath at his Memphis home when a former girlfriend dumped a pot of boiling grits all over his naked body, then picked up one of Green's guns and shot herself in the head. Green has long denied this was the Turning Point--he instead points to a dream he had a little later on--but there's no mistaking that the albums from 1975 on, beginning with Al Green is Love and ending with The Belle Album, hinted at an awakening in which the spiritual and the sensual became inextricably intertwined.

Belle--released in 1977, shortly after Green was ordained a minister and purchased the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis--was the most obvious declaration of his newfound religious fervor, and his final all-secular album until Your Heart's in Good Hands. Containing the line, "It's you that I want but Him that I need," Belle was the man's sweet kiss-off to the pop world, and not long after that he retired from the concert stage and set up shop behind the pulpit.

Throughout the '80s, Green would release nothing but gospel albums on the Myrrh label, with such titles as I'll Rise Again and Trust in God, but never did he sacrifice the soul in the Lord's name, keeping the funk even as he kept the faith. He would make a move back toward the secular with Soul Survivor and I Get Joy in the late '80s, but unlike Prince and Terence Trent D'Arby--two Green disciples who would wrestle with sin and salvation, always finding one in the other--Green had long since made up his mind. His love songs were pop like Amy Grant's were pop, hymns to the Lord obscured by secular language.

"It happens," Green says of his decision to record an all-secular record after 18 years. "You don't sit up in the car or in the mirror or something and just say, 'Well, I think I'll cut a secular album,' or, 'Well, I think I'll do a gospel album.' It just happened to be what happened this time, and we wound up intentionally cutting a rhythm-and-blues soul-music album. That's what we wanted to cut. We know where we're from.

"This isn't Trust in God. We cut it intentionally to be 'Your heart's in good hands, baby.' As long as you stand by my side, your heart's in good hands. What we really tried to get was family values--it's a term overused, and I don't want to overuse it--but it's about the husband, the wife, the kids, the dog, the good car, going on vacation. That's what we want here.

"What we're dealing with is something that's very creative that will speak to the hearts of a lot of people that you may not find in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. But I wanted to reach those people, too, and let them know there's love in the world."

He pauses, waiting for an amen, then adds his own: "Yee-ha!

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