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It was Career Day at a school in Arkansas sometime in the mid-1950s. When it was Al Green’s turn to tell his classmates what he hoped to be when he grew up, he said, “I want to be a singer.” He might as well have said he wanted to be a comedian. His classmates, all of whom planned to follow more conventional career paths by becoming firemen, nurses, and teachers, laughed themselves silly. The teacher didn’t laugh, but explained to the boy that his chances were a million to one, and he needed to be realistic. “I don’t want to be realistic,” he said. “I want to be a singer.” In his autobiography, he wrote, “As far as I was concerned, the case was closed.”

 

And so it was. When Rolling Stone named Green one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, Justin Timberlake wrote, “People are born to do certain things and Al was born to make us smile.” Reflecting on his own success, Green said, “You’ve got to take your time, go for what you want and never give up.”

 

He was born on April 13, 1946 in Forrest City, Arkansas, the sixth-born in a  family that grew to ten children. Singing came naturally to the Greene family (Al would later drop the final “e”), everyone of whom, he remembered, “seemed to have the ability to make a joyful noise.”

 

His father was a sharecropper who worked hard to feed and clothe his family, but “I wonder if all that hard work didn’t rob him of the simple satisfaction of being a father. . . but that’s just another of poverty’s curses: A man will lay down his life, only to die a stranger to his own flesh and blood.”

 

Like most sharecroppers, his father worked to survive only to survive to work another day.  One night in 1955, he ordered the family to start packing. “Where we goin’?” they asked. “Outta here.” Piling into their truck, Al remembers having no clue where they were heading until they arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

An outsider at school, he shunned sports (“I thought chasing balls around was a complete waste of time”) and was “something of a loner, the skinny kid in the back of the class who keeps to himself and doesn’t speak unless spoken to.” But, he recalled, “there’s something about a loner that attracts the wrong kind of attention,” and one day a gang of bullies roughed him up in the schoolyard, knocking him down and kicking him repeatedly. The next day, he smashed a Coke bottle over the head of the “biggest and meanest one” until the bully fell to his knees, his face covered in blood. Suddenly, Al Green was a bad dude, equally feared and admired by his peers. “I might have fooled everyone with my mean and menacing demeanor - everyone, that is, but myself.” Sensitive and vulnerable, he found that he could express his true self only in music.

 

“I sought out every opportunity I could to sing, and if anyone thought it strange that the toughest kid on the school yard also had the sweetest voice in the school choir, well, I guess they didn’t dare say a thing about it.” He had found something more fulfilling than being a tough guy. “I’d found something I truly loved to do. . . and was truly good at.” Music transported him “away from those dirty streets and dangerous playgrounds and crowded tenements.”

 

When rock ‘n’ roll exploded in 1956, Green was just the right age to be affected, and he became a fan of Elvis (“that smooth as silk delivery”), Fats Domino, Little Richard, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke. “But the one who opened my ears to what real singing - not to mention style and showmanship - was all about was ‘Mr. Excitement, Mr. Delightment, himself, Jackie Wilson.” Wilson’s voice was “the closest thing I could imagine to an acrobat on a flying trapeze. . .”  However, his musical influences go back even earlier to “the rain on the window, the wind in the corn crops, or the water lapping on the banks of the river. That is music to my ears - the music of creation.”

 

Like many another parent, his father disapproved of his son’s interest in what many preachers condemned as the devil’s music. It also threatened to derail his own plan for the family to strike it rich as gospel singers. The Greene Family toured the South and Midwest, enjoying some modest success, but Al continued to listen to rock ‘n’ roll. In 1960 at the age of 14, he finally had a showdown with his father. “I had an Elvis Presley album,” he told NPR, “and Dad said ‘That’s a bunch of junk, man, you need to consider what you’re doin’. You’re singing gospel music.’” When his father caught him listening to Jackie Wilson, that was the final straw. Al was given the boot.

 

“I had nowhere to go, really,” he said, but a friend from high school took him in. It so happens that the friend was a tenor singer in a group called the Creations and Al was invited to join. “We used to rehearse in the house, everyday. We would just get up, stand in a line and form, and try to come up with little dances like we saw the Temptations do on TV.” 

 

In 1969, he met Willie Mitchell, a producer who enlisted him to sing backup on a record he was making in Memphis. The ambitious Greene asked Mitchell how long it would take for him to become a star. Mitchell said “Well, about two years, probably, if you really work at it.” It wasn’t what Greene wanted to hear. As he told NPR, “I said, ‘Excuse me, I don’t have the time. I don’t have two years to waste on practicing to be a star. In fact, I need some money now.’” Impressed with his brash attitude, Mitchell took Green to Hi Records where he borrowed $1500 to produce a record. “This kid’s gonna be phenomenal,” he told them. 

 

Their first collaboration, a cover of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” wasn’t quite his style, and neither were several follow-ups. “We was tryin’ to find Al Green,” the singer recalled. “Who is this guy with the high falsetto and the rough voice?” Mitchell advised him to sing “mellow,” and Green decided to “sing whatever comes out.”  Somewhere along the line, they found Al Green. In 1971, the public found him too, and turned his self-penned “Tired of Bein’ Alone” into a hit on both the pop and R&B charts.

 

In 1971, he hit number one with what would become his signature song, “Let’s Stay Together,” kicking off a streak of thirteen top ten hits that would include “I’m Still in Love With You,” “Sha La La (Make Me Happy),” and “Call Me.”

 

The music that Green was making with Mitchell represented a new standard in soul music. To critic Scott Spencer, the hits that Green recorded from 1971 to 1977 are “unsurpassed in their subtlety, grace, intimacy and invention.” They also influenced a future generation of singers. “Hearing Al as a kid made me want to become a singer and showed me that it was OK to have a softer, more falsetto voice,” Justin Timberlake said. “When you watch him perform, you see something honest and soulful and amazing.”  

 

In recalling that golden period more than three decades later, producer Mitchell told The New Yorker that “When I first got Al to come into the studio, I knew he was special and I knew I had to be perfect to capture it. So I tried to use all kinds of mikes for his voice.” The mike he considered the best at capturing Green’s voice and making his whispers sound as emotional as his shouts was an RCA 77DX ribbon microphone that Mitchell labeled number 9. “Nobody else is ever gonna use that mike,” Mitchell declared. When Green and Mitchell parted ways several years later, the microphone went in the box, and stayed there until the singer and producer reunited for the 2003 album, I Can’t Stop.

 

Al Green was a star now, and he lived like one. “There’s no way in the world a man can stay humble and contrite beneath the blinding light of fame.” He built himself a mansion and did not resist the temptations of the wine and women that seemed to go so naturally with song.

 

“I have had carnal relations with more women than I can remember or confess,” he said. “I was a no good, woman-huntin,’ champagne-drinking, good time having, Saturday night, blues singing man.”

 

In 1974, tragedy struck when a former girlfriend poured boiling cream of wheat on him while he was taking a bath and then turned a gun on herself. The incident inspired nasty headlines and became a part of his myth. The media continues to resurrect the sordid event when attempting to explain the singer’s decision to embrace God.

 

“People in journalism like to say that that was the reason, but I was born again in ‘73,” Green told NPR’s Terri Gross years later. “This incident happened in 1974. So they really don’t correlate.” As he explained to Scott Spencer of Rolling Stone in 2000, the year his autobiography, Take Me to the River, was published, “God told me I could have more clothes than I could ever possibly wear, and more food than I could ever eat, and more cars than I could ever drive, and all that money. And then he said to me, ‘I kept my side of the bargain - what about you?’”

 

While Green recovered from his burns, Al Green’s Greatest Hits was released in early 1975, becoming one of his fastest selling albums. Later that year, Rolling Stone called 1975's Al Green Is Love “undoubtedly Green’s best album in several years, thanks to a rare unity of feeling and mood, and a refinement of style.”  It was with 1977's Belle that the Saturday night blues singing man began to sing from the light of Sunday morning. The title cut found Green’s spirit struggling with the lusts of the flesh: “Belle, it’s you that I want, but it’s Him that I need.” The album earned positive reviews, but its poor sales indicated that the mass audience was moving on. Green was about to move on himself.

 

In 1976, he bought the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on Elvis Presley Boulevard, right down the road from Graceland,  in Memphis, Tennessee. He began studying the Word of God, and became an ordained minister, preaching a sermon every Sunday morning and teaching Bible study on Wednesday nights. “Now, it’s one thing to come home,” he observed. “And quite another to stay there.” 

 

He continued to perform secular music, but one night after falling off a stage in Cincinnati, “saved from death by a whisker’s breath,” he made the decision to sing gospel exclusively. “For too long, I’d had one foot in the Kingdom of God and the other in the world.” God, he believed, is a “consuming fire, and whatever cannot stand in that fire will be burned away.” God was not satisfied that Green alternated his music career with service to the Lord. What did God want? “He wanted everything.”

 

Green’s first gospel album, The Lord Will Make a Way, was released in 1981. As a pop singer, Green had never won a Grammy, but in the next decade he would win eight of them for his inspirational recordings.  In 1982, he also made his Broadway debut, co-starring with Patti Labelle in Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.

 

Green’s commitment to Jesus did not please all of his fans. During an appearance at a New Jersey casino where the crowds came expecting to hear his hits, Green gave them a reading from the New Testament instead. When the reading turned out to be the whole show, some fans were disappointed and others were angry. Green was neither surprised nor concerned. “I know that any man who sees through the veil of this world, beyond to the eternal one, becomes a stranger in the land and a prophet without honor.”

 

In later years, Green saw less of a need to segregate the sexy soul that put his name on the charts from the gospel music that expressed the salvation that put his name in the Book of Life. He prayed before accepting any opportunity to step back into the world, but step back he did, performing a duet with Annie Lennox on “Put a Little Love in Your Heart for the soundtrack of 1988's Scrooged. The song sent him back into the top 10 for the first time in a decade. In 1994, he won another Grammy for a version of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” that he recorded with country singer Lyle Lovett.

 

“God was giving back, renewed and transformed, what I had given up to Him.”

 

He even took on a recurring role in the TV sitcom Ally McBeal, and gradually began to mix his hits, including the perennially popular “Let’s Stay Together,” with the likes of “Amazing Grace,” having concluded that “God created the whole world, and also created love and happiness . . . He created Sunday, but He also created Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.” He was still careful to recognize the difference between the secular and the spiritual.

 

“Well, the things that are holy are holy, and the things that are sacred are sacred, and the things that are natural are natural, and there is a great difference between the one to the other. So I can’t mislead you and tell you that it all goes together - I would be lying.”

 

In 1995, the year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he returned to his roots with Your Hearts In Good Hands. In 2002, he received a Grammy for lifetime achievement, and, two years later, he was elected to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

 

The late country singer Loretta Lynn was indirectly responsible for Green’s acclaimed 2008 album, Lay It Down. Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson had heard Lynn’s collaboration with Jack White and wondered why a similar meeting of musicians from different eras hadn’t happened “on the black side of music.” Knowing that Green had expressed an interest in working with hip hop musicians, a Blue Note executive put him in touch with Thompson and the two began laying down tracks immediately at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. “We ended up with eight songs in that one night,” Green recalled. “I hadn’t had an experience like that, ever!” The album, which included appearances by John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Anthony Hamilton, proved to be Green’s commercial comeback, reaching number nine on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart. Its theme was love. “Baby, there’s love in it, out it, on the side of it, on top of it, on the bottom of it. There’s love everywhere.”

 

In his autobiography, he wrote, “God is not done with Al Green, the good, the bad, and the one in between.” Perhaps when he sings “Let’s Stay Together” now, he’s addressing the Lord more than he is a woman or the audience.

 

“Let's, let's stay together

Loving you whether, whether

Times are good or bad, happy or sad”

by Brian W. Fairbanks



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