Al Green

at House of Blues, May 11

By Bill Dahl

In the mid-50s, when Ray Charles almost single-handedly gave birth to soul with his groundbreaking hybrids of gospel and R & B, “I’ve Got a Woman,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” and “Ain’t That Love,” he was assailed by no less a renowned expert than Big Bill Broonzy. The indignant old bluesman declared it morally wrong to combine blues and spirituals; fortunately, the Genius paid no heed.

In 1957, Sam Cooke–then the lead singer for the Soul Stirrers and the nearest thing to a matinee idol the gospel field could lay claim to–took a headfirst plunge into the pop realm. Reports of enraged followers booing him at his final church gigs have since been deemed apocryphal, but Specialty Records was leery enough of possible repercussions to issue the singer’s first secular single, “Lovable” b/w “Forever,” under the paper-thin alias “Dale Cook” before handing him his pink slip.

In the same year, in the wake of Sputnik’s launch (which he interpreted as an omen), Little Richard abandoned a lucrative Australian tour to undertake evangelical work, but by 1962, the piano pounder was back. In the mid-60s he waxed some credible soul (notably “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got but It’s Got Me” for Chicago’s Vee-Jay label, where he was backed by an unknown Jimi Hendrix), and he’s vacillated between rocking and preaching ever since. At the conclusion of his hit-heavy shows today, his disciples hand out religious tracts to exiting concertgoers.

Other conflicted soul singers, their days in the spotlight past, have taken permanently to the pulpit. Neither Joe Simon, whose “The Chokin’ Kind” went gold in 1969, nor Garnet Mimms, whose “Cry Baby” made him a star in ’63, chose to perform his hit when presented with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in February in Los Angeles. Simon, now a minister based in south-suburban Flossmoor, instead regaled the audience with an enlightening minisermon on the pitfalls of the music business.

But despite–or perhaps because of–the heartache it can induce, the tug-of-war between the sacred and the secular is what gives soul music its emotional pull. And of all the singers who’ve tried to reconcile the two, Al Green is perhaps the most successful. Forbidden to listen to popular music by his sternly devout father, Green grew up singing gospel with his brothers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But he snuck an earful of Jackie Wilson or James Brown whenever he could, and by 1967, barely out of his teens, he had his own top-five R & B hit, the slinky “Back Up Train.”

Bandleader Willie Mitchell ran across Green in 1968, when the young singer opened for his combo in Midland, Texas. Mitchell convinced Green to come to Memphis so he could produce his records, a strategy that succeeded beyond either’s wildest dreams. During his amazing run at Hi Records, under Mitchell’s astute supervision (the producer convinced Green to abandon his aggressive Otis Redding-influenced vocal style in favor of a lighter, almost whispered delivery), Green achieved superstardom in the 70s, racking up eight million-selling singles, five gold albums, and 14 top-ten R & B hits.

Green purred “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love With You,” and “You Ought to Be With Me” in an airy, seductive tone over surging rhythms cooked up by Mitchell and the vaunted Hi rhythm section–brothers Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar, Leroy Hodges on bass, and Charles Hodges on organ, plus drummers Al Jackson Jr. and Howard Grimes. But the eternal conflict surfaced in the middle of Green’s hot streak. In 1973, he inserted “Jesus Is Waiting” into the lineup of his otherwise all-R & B Call Me album, then put “My God Is Real” on his next one, Livin’ for You. Scripture began flowing from his lips during concerts. “Take Me to the River,” a standout from the 1974 album Al Green Explores Your Mind that became a hit for his labelmate Syl Johnson, further signaled Green’s religious reawakening with overt baptismal references.

On October 18, 1974, Green’s girlfriend Mary Woodson pushed him closer to the edge: she tossed a pot of boiling grits onto his lap as he relaxed in the bathtub, then put a bullet in her brain. She had predicted that someday he would head his own church, and in 1976 he fulfilled her prophecy, purchasing the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis, where he preaches to this day.

In 1977, Green broke away from Mitchell to produce two more ambiguously spiritual albums, The Belle Album and Truth n’ Time. In 1979 he fell 12 feet off a stage in Cincinnati, read it as God’s final warning, and decided to wholeheartedly embrace the gospel tradition. He’d never won a Grammy for any of his R & B releases, but in 1981, with his very first gospel LP, The Lord Will Make a Way, he picked up his first trophy.

Slowly but steadily, however, the hits that had made him a soul icon slipped back into his repertoire. In 1988, his duet with the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox on “Put a Little Love In Your Heart” cracked the pop top ten, and in 1994 he picked up his fourth Grammy for a duet with Lyle Lovett on the Willie Nelson country chestnut “Funny How Time Slips Away.” At the 1993 Chicago Gospel Festival, he crooned a spine-tingling rendition of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” dropping dramatically to his knees in midsong, but his showbiz moves, which doubtless once electrified denizens of the Apollo, didn’t do much to win over purists who were already doubting his sincerity that evening–Green’s set list contained far more R & B than gospel. But anyone with the slightest appreciation of his old work had to love the way he effortlessly blended slick Saturday-night soul and sweet Sunday-morning redemption in a single show.

At House of Blues, Green likewise brought a revival-meeting fervor to his biggest hits. Resplendent in a blinding white suit and shades that he didn’t take off for the first four songs and doling out roses by the handful, he sailed through a short gospel program before indulging in anything the decidedly secular crowd was waiting to hear. Strutting from one side of the proscenium to the other with a deft one-foot drag that would have made Jackie Wilson proud, Green led an earnest sing-along of “Amazing Grace” (“You may be drunk as a skunk, but you’re gonna sing this song,” he commanded) and assured his beer-swilling flock that “Jesus Will Fix It” as a smoke machine belched clouds.

But for the rest of the show, Green and his tight 12-piece band (encompassing three horns and three backup vocalists and well rehearsed in the choreographed steps) churned out nonstop hits: “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me (Come Back Home),” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (dropping, jacketless, to his knees again and exhibiting a sexual comfort level that made his Gospel Fest performance look demure), “You Ought to Be With Me,” and a “Love and Happiness” that throbbed through the rafters.

Green was a perpetual-motion machine, hopping up and down on the backbeat on up-tempo material and then commanding his band to reduce the decibels on intimate passages with a wave of his hand. Exclaiming “I’m singing what’s in my heart,” he apparently surprised even the musicians by breaking into an impromptu rendition of Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” He segued into the Temptations’ “My Girl” and Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now).” He dove into Marvin Gaye’s steamy “Let’s Get It On” with a celestial fervor, and his first gold record, 1971’s “Tired of Being Alone,” was his last number. No encores were necessary; the good reverend had made his point. The gospel according to Al Green decrees that it’s all intended to soothe and inspire, to lift your spirits, to take you higher. Amen and hallelujah.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.