Al Green, better known today as the Rev. Al Green, was the first great soul singer of the 1970s, and arguably the last great Southern soul singer.
With his seductive singles for Hi Records in the early ’70s, Green bridged the gap between deep soul and smooth Philadelphia soul. He incorporated elements of gospel, interjecting his performances with wild moans and wails, but his records were stylish, boasting immaculate productions that rolled along with a tight beat, sexy back vocals and lush strings.
“But in the beginning, I didn’t even know I could sing,” says Green, set to take the stage in the Arena at Trump Taj Mahal on Saturday August 25. “I first found out I could sing when I was in the seventh or eighth grade.”
Green was living in Michigan at the time and working on a lathe building furniture. “The lathe made a loud noise and I started singing to myself, figuring nobody could hear me,” he remembered. “But I was wrong. People started gathering around behind me, and when I saw them, I shut the lathe off, and they started applauding. I think it was at that moment I knew what I could do.”
Eventually, going on the strength of that small but appreciative audience, Green formed a group called Al Greene (he later dropped the final “e”) and The Creations in high school. Later, Green came into contact with bandleader Willie Mitchell of Memphis’ Hi Records and signed on.
Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Green was encouraged to sing in his own, unique voice rather than trying to sing like some of his favorites like Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Sam Cooke.
It worked, and Green subsequently produced gold singles and many successful albums. But a horrific incident in 1974 by Green’s then girlfriend Mary Woodson White, which left Green with burns on his back, stomach and arms, is often credited with giving the singer a wake-up call.
“But that’s nonsense,” Green says. “That was no wake-up call for me. Some people try to make that incident a turning point in my life, but I was singing and making hit records way before that.”
According to Green, what happened before that in 1973 was that he had a religious experience that was truly a turning point in his life. “But it was all confusing and I didn’t know what to do with it. I wondered why the Lord had given me all these wonderful songs and then gone on to give me religion.”
But he went with what he felt, eventually becoming an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis in 1976. He continues to serve in that capacity, delivering services down the street from Graceland.
Concentrating his energies today on pasturing his church and gospel singing, he sometimes goes on to do other things that please him as well. For example, in 1982, Green appeared with Patti LaBelle in the Broadway musical “Your Arms Too Short t Box with God.” In 2001, he went on to appear in the movie and soundtrack of “On the Line.”
He’s also amassed many gold records and dozens of awards along the way. “And remember,” he says, “I don’t do anything I don’t have to do. I sing now because of the effect it has on people, because it brings meaning to their lives. All my songs mean as much to them as they do to me.”
A decade ago, he published “Take Me to the River,” a book discussing his career. Today, he says he’d like people to know the following about him: “Tell your readers that Al Green is unpredictable and sometimes unreliable. Tell them he’s a natural, soulful human being. And tell them that I love them and hope they can identify with the kind of love and happiness I sing about in all my songs.”
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