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By Jim Schutze
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By Alice Laussade
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.
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!