Al Green - Biography
At the peak of his popularity in the mid-1970s as soul music’s reigning sex symbol, singer-songwriter Al Green found himself at a crossroad, trapped between the physical passion of his hit songs and the spiritual yearning of his born-again religious conviction. The object of his desire became increasingly ambiguous in the lyrics of such hits as 1974’s “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy”) and 1975’s “L-O-V-E (Love)” By the next year, he was proselytizing during his pop performances, much to the consternation of his adorning female fans. The battle between flesh and spirit was resolved in 1978 when he recorded “Belle,” telling the song’s distaff subject that, while it was her he wanted, it was God that he really needed. The single was the vocalist’s last Top 10 R&B hit, bringing to an end a seven-year run of best-sellers, after which he went on to become a successful gospel artist.
Gospel music, of course, was at the core of Green’s unique vocal style. Influenced by the melismatic crooning of Sam Cooke and the piercing falsetto of the Swan Silvertones’ Claude Jeter, Green redefined the art of soul singing. He soared into the stratosphere one second, groaned low the next, and tossed in squeals, stammers, whispers, laughs, and other unintelligible asides. It was as if he was carrying on a conversation with himself, an effect heightened by his and producer Willie Mitchell’s inspired use of overdubbing.
Albert Greene was born on April 13, 1946, 40 miles from Memphis in Forrest City, Arkansas. One of 10 children, he sang gospel music as a child with his brothers William, Walter, and Robert. They toured the Southern gospel circuit with this father, bassist Robert Greene Sr., and began appearing throughout the Midwest after the family relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1959. Al’s tenure with the Greene Brothers ended abruptly when his dad caught him listening to Jackie Wilson’s Baby Workout album. Booted out of the quartet, Al formed a secular singing group called The Creations. Billed as “Al Greene and The Soul Mates,” the group cut its first record, Back Up Train (1967), for the Hot Line Music Journal label in Grand Rapids. The single was picked up for national distribution by Bell Records in New York and reached #5 on Billboard’s R&B chart and #41 on the trade publication’s pop chart.
Subsequent Hot Line singles and an album, which pictured a then-pudgy Greene leaning out of a locomotive window, failed to generate much interest, and the group disbanded soon thereafter. Greene began touring on his own and, at one 1968 engagement in Midland, Texas, was spotted by Willie Mitchell. The veteran bandleader and producer invited the struggling singer to come to Memphis to record for Hi Records. Early Hi singles by Green—who’d by this time dropped the “e” from his name—included a cover of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and revealed an artist and producer in search of a sound. The first song to attract widespread attention was 1970s’s “I Can’t Get Next to You,” a bluesy revamp of The Temptations’ hit of the previous year that gave Green a #11 R&B, #60 pop charter. After a second foray into blues territory with the Roosevelt Sykes-penned “Driving Wheel”—a #5 R&B hit in 1961 for Green’s cousin, Little Junior Parker—didn’t do the same trick, the singer turned to his softer side for 1971’s “Tired of Being Alone” from Get Next To You (1971 Hi), which rose to #7 R&B and #11 pop.
Having found a winning formula, Green and Mitchell refined it with “Let’s Stay Together,” a #1 R&B and pop smash in early 1972. The minor-key song was composed by Green, Mitchell, and drummer Al Jackson Jr., who was moonlighting from rival Stax Records. Supported by the low rumble of the Hodges brothers—organist Charles (“Do Funny”), guitarist Mabon (“Teenie”), and bassist Leroy (“Flick”)—and the tightly interlocking drums of Howard “Bulldog” Grimes and Jackson, a light cushion of strings, subtly punching riffs by The Memphis Horns, and the cooing vocal harmonies of Rhodes, Chalmers, and Rhodes (Donna, Charles, and Sandra), Green’s elastic tenor sailed with effortless abandon. The album I’m Still In Love With You (1972 Hi) solidified the singer’s crossover success, spawning the #1 R&B#3 pop title track, the #2 R&B/#4 pop “Look What You Done for Me,” as well as “Love and Happiness,” a song that was not issued as a single at the time but became Green’s signature classic. The album itself went platinum, reaching the top of the R&B chart and peaking at #4 on the pop charts.
The hits on Hi kept on coming for Green, included the #1 R&B#3 pop “You Ought to Be with Me” from the follow-up Call Me (1973 Hi), an album that is critically regarded as his magnum opus. The album also boasted “Call Me (Come Back Home)” and “Here I Am (Come Take Me),” both of which climbed to #2 on the R&B charts. In late 1973, Livin’ For You (1973 Hi) came out, and it was highlighted by the title track—“Livin’ For You”—which shot to the to top of the R&B charts, and the silky smooth “Let’s Get Married.”
At this time Green’s albums were being called necessities by his growing fanbase—with singles like 1974’s “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy),” “L-O-V-E (Love),” which was an R&B chart-topper, and “Oh Me, Oh My (Dreams in My Arms)” from record Al Green Is Love (1975 Hi). “Full of Fire” (1975) made it to the top of the R&B charts, and 1976’s “Keep Me Cryin’,” which appeared on the final Willie Mitchell album, Have A Good Time (1976 Hi).
In addition to I’m Still in Love with You (1972)—his biggest selling album—Green’s hit records on Hi included Let’s Stay Together (1972), Call Me (1973), the Livin’ for You (1973), Al Green Explores Your Mind (1974), and Al Green Is Love (1974)—all of which occupied the top of the R&B charts.
The singer experienced a religious reawakening in 1973 and included a gospel song on each of his two albums that year: “Jesus Is Waiting” on Call Me and “My God Is Real” on Livin’ for You. His faith became more intense following a harrowing incident on October 18, 1974, at his 21-room Graceland-like Memphis mansion. While the singer was preparing to take a shower, a girlfriend, 29-year-old Mary Woodson, badly scalded him with a pan of boiling grits—or Cream of Wheat, as some sources claim—then shot herself to death with his gun. Green would refer to the experience as a “wake up call.”
Green became an ordained minister in 1976 and opened his own church, Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis. Breaking with Mitchell but remaining on Hi, he purchased his own recording studio in Memphis and began work on what would become The Belle Album (1977 Hi). He produced Belle himself, wrote all eight ambiguously religious songs in collaboration with pianist Fred Jordan and bassist Reuben Fairfax Jr., and—for the first time ever on disc—played his own acoustic and electric guitar parts in giving his music a different texture. The title single stalled at #9 R&B/#83 pop, and the album quickly ended up in cut-out bins. A follow-up album—the self-produced, largely religious Truth N’ Time (1978 Hi)—containing a Memphis-styled remake of the 1967 pop hit “To Sir With Love” by Lulu, was even less successful.
The singer’s gospel career picked up in 1980, when, while still under contract with Hi, his albums began appearing on Myrrh, a division of the Word Label Group, a powerful Christian record and book company based in Waco, Texas. Between the years of 1983 through 1989, some of Green’s releases appeared on the A&M label. His gospel albums, which were mostly mixtures of traditional hymns and gospel songs, self-penned religious odes, and inspirational pop tunes, were warmly embraced by some segments of the gospel community—although others were skeptical of the former soul superstar. Green had never won a Grammy during his secular career, yet garnered one after another in various Soul Gospel categories: for the albums The Lord Will Make a Way (1981 Myrrh) and I’ll Rise Again (1983 Myrrh) and for the songs “Higher Plane” (1982), “Precious Lord” (1982), “Going Away” (1986), “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” (1987), and “As Long As We’re Together” (1989). The album He Is The Light (1985 A&M) marked his reunion with producer Willie Mitchell, the Hi Rhythm Section, and The Memphis Horns. Also notable among Green’s numerous gospel recordings is “Sailin’ on the Sea of Your Love,” a duet with Shirley Caesar from her album Sailin’ (1984 Myrrh).
Secular music slowly began reentering Green’s repertoire in the late ’80s. He had a #9 pop hit with a remake of Jackie DeShannon’s 1969 song, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” (1988 A&M), performed as a duet with Annie Lennox. Green himself placed in the Top 20 of the R&B singles chart for the first time in a dozen years with the #15 “As Long As We’re Together” (1989 A&M), on which teen heartthrob Al B. Sure! supplied the harmony vocal. It proved to be Green’s last significant hit song.
While continuing to preach most Sundays mornings at Full Gospel Tabernacle and teaching a Bible study classes on Wednesday evenings, Green has remained an in-demand concert attraction. He recorded albums sporadically between 1993 and 2001, for Word, RCA, MCA, and Capitol. His duet with Lyle Lovett on the Willie Nelson tune “Funny How Times Slips Away,” from the various-artist CD Rhythm, Country & Blues (1994 MCA Nashville), won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals. In 2003, Green signed with Blue Note, for whom he recorded three albums that many consider to be his finest work since his glory days at Hi in the ’70s. The Blue Note CDs put him back on the album charts: at #9 R&B/#53 pop with the Willie Mitchell-produced I Can’t Stop (2003), at #19 R&B/#50 pop with Everything’s OK (2005) and at #3 R&B/#9 pop with 2008’s Lay It Down. The latter disc was produced by Green, in collaboration with Philadelphians James Poyser and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, and featured guest appearances by Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend.
Green was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
Thirty-four songs from the singer’s Hi Records heyday comprise the two-disc The Absolute Best (2004 The Right Stuff). Seventy-three from the same period—plus two of his earlier Hot Line sides—make up the four-disc The Immortal Soul of Al Green (2003 The Right Stuff). No retrospective of his gospel work has yet appeared.