AL GREEN: STILL BRINGIN’ LOVE AND HAPPINESS by Steve Houk
Simply mention his name…and man, you can just feel the love.
And when you hear the familiar strains of his velvety voice, blanketed in that sweet timeless soul music, it’s easy to harken back to a moment, or many moments if you’re lucky, when you had Al Green playing, the lights down low, maybe a candle or two burning, and bigtime love was in the air. That’s what Al Green feels like to people, palpable love and happiness. But he’ll be the first to tell you: if it’s not him, it’s the music that has always set the mood.
“If they ain’t swoonin’ for me, they’re swoonin’ for what I made ‘em do. What those songs made ‘em do. Like ‘Call Me, Come Back Home.’ Well…(sighs) ahhhhhhh. You know what happens man, when you get back home.”
Al Green, or even better Reverend Al Green, is one of a handful of beloved American soul music pioneers who is still vital, still out there, still making ‘em swoon. His voice and the songs he has blessed us with have been adored worldwide for nearly 50 years, songs like ‘I’m Still in Love With You”, “Love and Happiness”, his classic “Take Me To The River”, and one of pop music’s most revered love songs, “Let’s Stay Together.” They’re a smattering of the reason why in crafting his 1995 induction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame called him “one of the most gifted purveyors of soul music.” And over 20 million records sold tells you, well, people think he’s da bomb.
Al Green’s life is a storybook tale of humble beginnings followed by stratospheric superstardom briefly interrupted and then rejuvenated from on high. Born in Arkansas as the sixth of ten sharecropper’s kids, Green began singing at ten and never really looked back. Legend has it his father kicked him out of the house in his teens after he caught him singing songs by R & B legend Jackie Wilson (“That’s how I got the opportunity to sing pop music, getting kicked out of the house.”). That gave Green the impetus to strike out on his own, and strike out he did, recording his first record in 1967 at age 21 under the name Al Greene and the Soul Mates (he would later drop the “e” when he went solo). He began his rise over the next few years and in 1970, he cut his first of seven consecutive gold singles, “Tired of Being Alone” and in 1972, gave the world the nearly perfect “Let’s Stay Together.” Yep, Green’s career blasted off and has stayed aloft ever since.
“Yeah, it went firing off like a rocket with the things that came,” the engaging Green told me when we talked this month. “I didn’t have time to look around and say, ‘Now which one of the cells of the rocket boosters did the most good, or didn’t do the most good’, I don’t know, I can’t answer that. But it was nice, man, it was, it is great.”
In 1974, things took an unexpected turn when, after the suicide of a lover in his home, Green took that as a wake-up call to change up something in his life, or there could be trouble. And change he did, becoming a fully ordained pastor in 1976 at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, just down the street from Graceland, where he delivers services to this day. And against the odds, through the years of recording, touring and building up his legend, Green has been able to delicately balance the calling of his church with the potentially wicked pull of being a hugely popular musician. How? Because he realizes the calling he has as both a musician and a pastor is equally important, even related.
“It’s all lavenderrrr,” Green growls amidst a characteristically hearty laugh.“With singing, you gotta bring the love to people’s hearts that God said we should have. And then again when you’re preachin’, you’re talking about not just that physical love that you have with your wife, your kids and all that, but you should also have an eternal love too, that makes life worth livin’.”
As Green’s popularity has grown as one of America’s soul music legends, so has his presence as a positive force in his Memphis church. It is crystal clear that his flock cares deeply for him — even as he battled a recent illness that was evident during a sermon, they are supportive and caring, and it gives the Reverend’s already warm heart even more of a glow.
“Everybody’s calling me and sayin’ ‘Pastor, what’s the matter?’ They say, ‘Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing, you just get well, we can handle this thing down here’. The organ player Brandon call me the other day and say, ‘Pastor, you alright?’ I said, ‘Ohh yeahh!’ Makes you real humble. I just appreciate that type of gratitude.”
In 1999, I had the great pleasure to be hugged very tightly by Al Green, and on the White House grounds no less. I was working for VH1 at their huge White House Concert of the Century, an event replete with musical royalty like Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Sheryl Crow, Garth Brooks, B.B. King and Gloria Estefan to name just a few; heck, I even met President Clinton and partied with N’Sync (don’t laugh). But everybody on hand, even the President and First Lady, sat mesmerized, staring in awe, when Al Green blew everyone away with an unforgettable version (I heard it, it WAS) of Sam Cooke’s immortal signature song, “Change Is Gonna Come.” When he finished, he hustled back amidst backslaps to an adjoining tent where I happen to be standing, and for some reason, opened his arms and looked at me and I fell right in for the big Reverend Al Green bear hug, my arms surrounding his gold lame suit as we both laughed and I congratulated him on his triumph. When I reminded Green of that song, that special evening, and the awe he created among some of his musical idols, he sounded typically humbled and thankful.
“That was Sam Cooke’s last song. Man. And even at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [Green performed the song at his induction], it was like it well, mesmerized the crowd or something, until they said, ‘Oh, oh, yeah, OK, I know this one! (laughs). And yes, man, that’s a great honor, very humbling, to even be mentioned in the same name as those people, especially my old friend B.B. “
Al Green recognizes he clearly has two different callings in life. And by all accounts, at 66, he is magnificently flourishing at both. He can preach lightning and wail from the pulpit like no other pastor alive, and then turn around and sing simmeringly sensual love songs also like no one else. It’s a testimony to recognizing that a religious calling can have the same big picture message as a musical one, without creating unmanageable inner conflict.
“It’s the same thing with singing (as with preachin’). It’s about happiness. It’s what kinda makes people look at each other and grin, and start holding hands together.“