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Artist: Al Green

Al Green

Bio

Reverend Albert Green (born April 13 1946 in Forrest City, Arkansas) is an American Grammy award winning soul and gospel singer who enjoyed great popularity in the 70s with hit singles such as "Let's Stay Together", Tired of Being Alone", and "You Oughta Be With Me". Green has boasted a voice capable of both fluid high streams of sugar and deep south growls and rasps. He has sold over 20 million records worldwide, and he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, being referred to as "one of the most gifted purveyors of soul music." Green was born in Forrest City, Arkansas. He started performing at age ten in a Forrest City quartet called the Greene Brothers; he dropped the final "E" from his last name years later as a solo artist. They toured extensively in the mid-1950s in the South until the Greenes moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when they began to tour around Michigan. His father kicked him out of the group because he caught Green listening to Jackie Wilson. In 1967 at the age of 16, Al formed an R&B group, Al Green & the Creations, with several of his high-school friends. Two Creation members, Curtis Rogers and Palmer James, founded their own independent record company, Hot Line Music Journal, and had the group record for the label. By that time, the Creations had been re-named the Soul Mates. The group's first single, "Back Up Train," became a surprise hit, climbing to number five on the R&B charts early in 1968. The Soul Mates attempted to record another hit, but all of their subsequent singles failed to find an audience. In 1969, Al Green met bandleader and Hi Records vice president Willie Mitchell while on tour in Midland, Texas. Impressed with Green's voice, he signed the singer to Hi Records, and began collaborating with Al on his debut album He was perhaps the ideal complement to the orchestral, syrupy, strong soul production work of Hi Records wizard Willie Mitchell, who also helmed 70s classics for Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles, and himself. On October 18, 1974, Mary Woodson, a woman who was his longtime girlfriend, threw a large pot of sticky boiling grits on him as he was preparing to shower, because he didn't want to get married. She committed suicide in minutes, which deeply affected Green to turn to God and religion. This assault from behind ca
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Take Me to the River: Al Green with Davin Seay Rock's Backpages, Nov 2000

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"Gen’lmen, we just havin’ church here." Six words which - directed at me and a fellow soul buff at the Full Gospel Tabernacle church by its chuckling, irrepressible pastor - still cause this writer to blanch after 15 years.

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In truth, the sight of two pale Englishmen seated stiffly at the back of his church was probably no great novelty for the Reverend Al Green. A visit to the white A-frame structure in the Whitehaven district, mere shouting distance from Elvis Presley Boulevard, was an obligatory stop on the honky soulboy’s tour of Memphis. For these particular tourists, morever, there was the supplementary pilgrimage to the Royal Recording Studio, the "windowless cave" where Willie Mitchell cut the tracks that made Green a black pop superstar.

I went to worship in Memphis because I too had succumbed to the spell of those records, lost myself in both the breathlessly sexy curlicues of Green’s singing and the earthy, boxed-in crunch of the Mitchell sound. For me, "I Didn’t Know" on 1975’s Al Green is Love was the most ecstatic eight minutes of deep soul on vinyl. And it wasn’t even deep soul per se. It was - like all the records the two men made together with those virtuosi of understatement the Hodges brothers - a supernal blend of downhome and uptown, lo-fi southern grit and whipped-cream Philly topping. It was a key sound of the early ’70s, as intrinsic to my adolescence as T. Rex.

Green, like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, "crossed over". Almost everyone I know has at the very least a copy of Al Green’s Greatest Hits, many more than own an Otis Redding collection. Why? Because Otis was fundamentally one-dimensional, where Al was a changeling, a vocal shape-shifter who within a single performance could flip from comedy to tragedy, from godliness to lubricity, and from male to female and back again.

Al Green was a one-off, which is why one has looked forward to his "story" for so long. Like Cooke’s and Gaye’s, it’s a narrative of inner conflict, of sin and salvation and guns and God - "strong as death, sweet as love," as Green sang it on a little-known masterwork from 1974. In this instance it wasn’t the singer on the end of the gun barrel but a deluded New Jersey housewife who shot herself dead after hurling a pan of boiling grits over Green’s back.

"The Rev. Green, in the bathroom, with the grits..." It turns out that that shocking night in October 1974 wasn’t quite the watershed moment in Green’s c.v. we've been led to believe. 'Take Me to the River' takes pains to stress that Green was already on his way back to his creator when the unhappy Mary Woodson crossed his path. Yet it nevertheless encapsulates the way Green has spent much of his life torn between his love of God and his adoration of women.

"There’s no use trying to deny the obvious," Green notes in his book. "There’s something about me that women find very attractive." Predictably, much of 'Take Me to the River' is written in this bland, pseudo-conversational style, one beloved of As Told To ghosts. It’s strange how everyone - sanctified soulsters and metal mutants alike - winds up with the same "voice" on these printed pages. So many of these tomes read like treatments for Lifetime biopics, with their pat anecdotes and cosily reductive homilies.

I’d so much rather have heard the slightly nutty voice - part Little Richard and part Prince - of the real Rev. Al. Then we might have had a book to stand alongside Chuck Berry’s My Autobiography or even Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog. Too often one can feel Davin Seay filling in missing details in Green’s "voice". All too rare are the genuine moments of revelation, or even just plain insight. Even the accounts of how the famous Hi sound came about are undermined by self-contradiction: one moment Green is claiming that "softening" his vocal style was his idea, the next he’s giving Willie Mitchell the credit.

As Craig Werner notes in his recent A Change is Gonna Come, the Last Soul Man’s return to the ministry "brought the deep soul tradition full circle," taking the music out of the pop marketplace. (The next stop, lest we forget, was disco.) Today we make do with the ersatz emoting of Macy Gray and Shelby Lynne, music that references Green but seldom wrestles with the agonies of choosing between the church and the roadhouse.

We will never see his like again.

Al Green: Love, Happiness And Convictions Blues & Soul, Apr 1975

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2008 introduction: Known as the "Prince Of Soul," Al Green had built up a strong audience thanks to a string of hit singles and best-selling albums. In 1973, he was involved in a much-publicized incident when a woman he knew poured hot grits on his back while he was bathing. David stayed away from the subject in his first memorable interview with Al when he mentioned that if he hadn't gone into music, he'd have been a preacher... In person interview at The Essex House in New York City April 1975

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THE NAME Al Green conjures up different images for different people. For some, he is the ultimate as a vocalist who expounds a soul searing and yet at the same time, soft and gentle style. To many, he is the acknowledged "Prince of Soul" – a combination of sexuality and strength, potency and power. To others, he is "Love and Happiness" personified – a gentle, sensuous young man whose emotional boundaries as expressed though his music.

For a good proportion of his career since joining up with Willie Mitchell and Hi Records, Al Green has meant gold all the way, Gold records, one after another, thunderous acclaim at venues throughout the States and Europe, an instantly recognizable stylist whose pleading vocals on such tunes as 'Let's Stay Together', 'I'm Still In Love With You', 'Here I Am' and the monster that started it all, 'Tired of Being Along', have brought him close to the hearts of millions as the symbol of a new generation. However, in more recent times, the gentleman has been the subject of turgid troubles which have, needless to say, brought a veritable mountain of publicity – a good proportion of which has been adverse. You almost felt like the vultures were waiting to pounce the way musical papers and journals swooped in when news came of some of the problems that Mr. Green was experiencing last year. It seemed as if no one had too much interest in his music but all were more concerned with prying into the personal aspects of the young man's life. Well, we won't waste valuable space by repeating all that went down in Memphis last year – anyone who has followed Al Green's career will be well aware of all that occurred.

Instead, given the opportunity to speak with Al on a recent lightning trip to New York to play at The Felt Forum, we decided to probe a little bit at the man behind the man. Without doubt, Al's performance on stage these days will clearly indicate that there has been a very strong and important change in the emphasis of his music and his whole life towards a more spiritual approach. "Yes, that would be a very true observation," he smiles whilst relaxing in his hotel suite high above New York's Central Park. "The time has to come for men to do something constructive – to grow up. I got tired of being just a pop singer selling records, entertaining millions and saying nothing of importance. I have now established a direction for my music and I know that I have message to get across."

Even if that "new" attitude doesn't get over to you on record, if you catch the man onstage, you will be left in no doubt. He has almost gone back to his former stage presence and a bit more of the 'preacher' is in him now. How did audiences react to this change?

"Well, I was very edgy about it when I first started out changing. I remember I tried it at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City and I didn't know what to expect. Afterwards, a guy came backstage and said 'I don't understand you! One minute you're telling me to stay with my lady and for us to love each other. Then, you're saying that love is greater than both of us.' I explained to him that the most important love of all is a universal one, the love we have for our Creator. It's like if you were a loaf of bread. You'd be thankful to the baker for even making you and that's how we should be with our Maker."

Al is obviously a man of great religious conviction ("you're right, I would probably have been a Minister if I hadn't gone into music") so how does he equate his very "sexy" image with his beliefs? "People today are more hip, more sophisticated and they accept that as part of what I'm doing and the secret is to capture them with that image and then get the message that I have across. After all, if you got the big diamonds on your hand, they wanna see them. They want you to dress as sharp as you can – with tight pants, the whole bit. Then, like I say, I can get next to everyone with the things I have to put over." Al feels very much that people do take in what he's saying because he works hard to get it across and hardly anyone would deny that his effect onstage is totally mesmerizing.

"I feel very much that we're in a circle of time. People need to have something to believe in. Why even Johnny Cash is getting deep into religion and doing gospel numbers on his show – really freaking the country and western fans! That's what it's gonna take – important people in the media to bring to everyone's attention the need to believe and have faith." How does Al get the opportunity to do that same thing himself? "I go to Church whenever it's possible but when I can't, I'll spend time meditating. In fact, frequently, I'll clear my dressing room of people before a performance to give me time to meditate on what I'm doing." You get the distinct impression that Al's evident conviction has been a part of him for a long time but he counters that: "Maybe right at the beginning, I had some of those motives for being a performer. But they changed. For a long time, all I wanted was to have loads of girls around me, to drink, smoke and generally party. I didn't care as long as I had all those things and they were essentially all I needed. And then I realized that there is far more to life than all that. It would be sensible now for me to find the right girl and get married – but it wouldn't make sense and it wouldn't be practical because I still have so much to do."

With the kind of lifestyle to which Al is accustomed it could conceivably become very easy for him to lose touch with reality – with people's everyday problems. Meeting him you become aware that he will do everything to ensure that that doesn't happen. "When I'm at home in Memphis, I do all the things that everyday people would do. I'll get up, make myself some coffee, drive myself to the office – I don't need no one to do it for me, I'm quite capable of doing it myself – then I'll take care of my business in the office before going on to the studios to spend four or five hours in there putting things down. Then I'll drive myself back home. Sometimes, yes, it is tough being Al Green entertainer. And when that happens, I just take time and drive off – don't tell nobody where I'm going or when I'll be back!" Al laughed genially.

He says that his next album which he's in the process of recording now "will be very different, it will be weird – like nothing else we've ever done. It's gonna be called Al Green Is Love and it's aimed at the 'third level', an elevation of the mind I can't say too much more than that – you will see what I mean when we've finished it. We have a song in there called 'Love Sermon' – that gives you a clue."

Tough as it may seem to believe, Al feels that he has nowhere near accomplished all the things he wants to do. "It's very important to know where you rank in your profession. If we were making the comparison with getting grades at school, I would say that at this stage in my career, I'm about C or B minus." Feeling that that was something of an incredulous answer (at least to this writer, bearing in mind that Mr. Green is the recipient of countless awards and gold records!) we needed further assurance. "No, I don't feel I'm doing all I'm capable of yet. Sure, I want to get up there and get an A but it's gonna take time. You see, to me, the most important thing is your way of living. Then comes your career, which is a vehicle for you to achieve what you want. It's through your labour that you earn money to be able to do the three essential things in life – eat, drink and sleep. Anything outside of that is surplus!"

An equally amazing aspect of the amazing Mr. Green is the obvious and very striking difference between the dynamo that appears on stage and the quiet spoken, ever smiling young man who sits looking superfine on the hotel room sofa. "Yes, it is almost like different parts to one person. On stage, I work at a high energy level. People say I'm like a strike of lightning when I hit the stage but it comes from sapping up the energy. The audience gives it out and you give it back. How do I manage to get that 'feeling' across? Well, I'm sorry, I can't give you no formula for that!" he laughs.

You get the feeling that Al has little time to himself and he agrees, telling you that the phones are always ringing etc., and it's usually a lady trying to get next to him! When I suggest that maybe he has himself to blame for dressing so provocatively and obviously nurturing that sexual image, he has to agree. "Yes, I suppose so but if that's what they want, well alright! But believe me, it can be crazy – some of these girls would all but rape you!" he grins. "These day's, that's not my thing. Like I said before, that was all I wanted before but now I have different feelings and aims for what I want to achieve in my life. And getting my belief in love, happiness and our Creator is what I want to get over."

Al Green was one gentleman that this writer had always been particularly eager to meet. Unlike some of those others in whom you can conjure up so much faith and be disappointed, Al Green walks away hands down for his charm, sensitivity, warmth and depth. Long may he reign as "The Prince Of Soul" and the purveyor of love, happiness and faith.

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Al Green

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Greatest Hits cover art

Greatest Hits

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Let's Stay Together cover art

Let's Stay Together

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Best Of

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I'm Still in Love With You cover art

I'm Still in Love With You

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Let's Stay Together cover art

Let's Stay Together

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Tired of Being Alone cover art

Tired of Being Alone

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Love and Happiness cover art

Love and Happiness

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I'm Still in Love With You cover art

I'm Still in Love With You

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Take Me To The River

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