Al Green Biography
Sang from an Early Age, Hit Number One, Left Secular Music, Selected works
Singer, Songwriter, Minister
Considered by music writers as the last true successor of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Al Green has enjoyed a long and rewarding career as a pop and gospel singer. His pop and religious works have earned consistent praise from musicians and critics alike. Unlike the great R&B shouters and early soul singers, Green has a voice that, although capable of rich blues-drenched tone and soaring falsetto cries, delivers plaintive emotion without harsh delivery or guttural technique. His sexy, silken voice landed him a string of million-selling hits in the 1970s. Following his departure from popular music in 1980, he became a member of the ministry and a singer of gospel music. His recent return to pop music, and the appearance of his music in documentaries and film soundtracks, has once again brought him widespread notice. Able to straddle the fence between secular and religious music, he has devoted himself to the universal message of music.
Sang from an Early Age
Albert Green was born on April 13, 1946, in Forrest City, Arkansas. As a teenager Green and his brothers, Walter, William, and Robert, formed a gospel quartet, The Green Brothers. Though he sang in the gospel group, Green had developed an affinity for both religious and popular music. He stated, as quoted in Black Popular Music by Arnold Shaw, "Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson—I didn't make distinctions between spiritual and secular music to any great extent back then. If they sang with feeling, from their hearts, I loved the music."
At age 12 Green moved with his family to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city about 180 miles west of Detroit. Four years later, he and several school friends formed a pop group, the Creations. In 1967 the group, renamed Al Green and the Soulmates, recorded the pop hit "Back Up Train" for the Hotline label; the song rose to number five on the R&B charts and number 41 on the Billboard charts. Despite the song's success the group did not score a follow-up hit and disbanded soon after.
In 1968 Green performed at a club in Midland, Texas, backed by Memphis bandleader and trumpeter Willie Mitchell (who had scored a hit with a remake of King Curtis's instrumental "Soul Serenade"). Impressed with Green's talent, Mitchell, a part-time talent scout and producer for Hi Records in Memphis, invited the young singer to record on the label with the promise that he could make Green a star in little over a year. About six months later, Green arrived in Memphis. As Arnold Shaw explained in Black Popular Music, "Together, Green and Mitchell sought to forge a style that combined the pop-soul of Detroit's Motown with the down home soul of Memphis' Stax [label], aiming for a black-white synthesis that blended black soul with white pop." In the studio Mitchell assembled a stellar line-up of back-up musicians to perform behind Green—musicians that included the family team of guitarist Teenie Hodges, organist Charles Hodges, and bassist Leroy Hodges, as well as veteran membersof Booker T. and The MG's and Stax studio drummer Al Jackson Jr. (who had also played with Otis Redding). The music formula put forth by Mitchell and Green proved an outstanding combination. As music writer Peter Guralnick wrote in Sweet Soul Music, "Willie Mitchell and Al Green came up with an old idea phrased in a new way, the last eccentric refinement of Sam Cooke's lyrical gospel-edged style as filtered through the fractured vocal approach of Otis Redding and the peculiarly fragmented vision of Al Green himself."
In 1968 the Green-Mitchell collaboration released a cover of the Beatles' "I Want Hold Your Hand" and a commercially unsuccessful rendition of the Hayes-Porter ballad "One Woman." Not until he recorded a remake of the Temptations' hit "I Can't Get Next to You" did Green establish himself as pop singing star. For Green's next single "Tired of Being Alone," Mitchell sought a more subtle sound in Green's voice. "We started working, trying to get him to sing softer," explained Mitchell, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, "We started coming up with jazz chords—retty music on top and heavy on the bottom. And it just clicked." Accompanied by Teenie Hodges' relaxed and tasteful guitar work, "Tired of Being Alone" emerged as Green's first smash hit. These singles appeared on Green's 1971 LP Al Green Gets Next to You, which also included Green's gritty number "I'm a Ram" and a cover of blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes' "Driving Wheel" (Green's rendition was inspired by a later remake of the song by blues singer Little Junior Parker). Green's original "You Say It" owes a debt to Green's early Memphis singing mentors Sam and Dave.
Hit Number One
Green's title cut of the 1972 LP Let's Stay Together brought him his first number one hit. "This third record," observed Robert Gordon, in the liner notes to the album, "solidified Green's direction. After modeling himself on Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, he established his own style. Writing and co-writing seven of the album's nine tunes, his tendency toward funk is subsumed by his gentle side." In Sweet Soul Music Peter Guralnick also noted the impact of the Green-Mitchell collaboration on the black music scene: "Willie Mitchell and Al Green would soon take soul music—real, unabashed, wholehearted soul music—to quiet, luxuriantly appointed places it had never been before."
The year 1972 also saw the release of Green's biggest selling album, I'm Still in Love with You, which, with the exception of a token cover of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman," is a fine showcase of Green's talent. Green draws upon material from the Doors' "Light My Fire" to Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times." On the popular and driving number "Love and Happiness," Green conjures up the dual role of preacher and soul singer to bring forth a pop music classic.
In 1974 Green released the LP Al Green Explores Your Mind on the Hi label. That same year, the momentum of his career suffered a severe setback. While he was climbing out of the bathtub at his home, Green's girlfriend poured a pot of boiling grits on him, causing second-degree burns to his back and arms. The young woman then committed suicide. After recovering from the physical and emotional affects of the much-publicized incident with his former girlfriend, Green recorded the 1976 LP Full Of Fire for the Hi label. Once again joined by the stellar line-up of Wayne Jackson and the Hodges brothers, Green and producer Willie Mitchell, wrote Bill Adler in a Down Beat review, "manage to shuffle around the familiar elements of their formula for success." Though the LP shows signs of disco influence, Green and the Hi studio band maintain a tasteful balance. In 1977 Green, expressing increasing interest in recording gospel music, parted company with Mitchell and without the line-up of the Hi rhythm section recorded the critically acclaimed LP The Belle Album. Though it did bring commercial success, the Belle Album was noted for Green's playing of acoustic and electric guitar and inventive sound techniques. In 1978 Green cut Truth N' Time, an LP that included the gospel songs "Blow Me Down" and "King of All" and a religious treatment of Burt Bacharach's "Say a Little Prayer for Me."
Left Secular Music
In the late 1970s Green purchased his own church, The Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, and became the institution's pastor. In 1980 Green left secular popular music to devote himself to religion. Though he had included at least one religious number on his previous LPs, Green's conversion surprised his former producer Mitchell who stated, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, "I had no idea he was going to become a preacher, but he was always religious." In Black Gospel , Green expressed the work involved in his dual role as singer and pastor: "I have to divide my time between my singing and my church in Memphis and well, I do my best to rightly divide it. And I have to devote a sufficient amount of time to do a good job, which is kinda difficult sometimes. I preach every other Sunday in church, and we have so many members."
A new religious direction led Green to a modern gospel recording career. Green's voice is in fine form on the albums Higher Plane (1981) and Precious Lord (1982). Though recorded for the Hi label, Precious Lord is a polished effort which lacked Mitchell's rich production sound. Taking note of Green's gospel career, Tony Heilbut commented in The Gospel Sound that Green's voice exhibited "a limber falsetto, a breathless crooner, a growling preacher—in three-way encounter." In 1982 Green also starred in the stage production Your Arms Too Short to Box with God with Patti LaBelle. He signed with A&M Records in 1985 and recorded three albums for the label, including the 1987 release Soul Survivor. In live performance Green continued to awe audiences. In the New York Times Jon Pareles captured Green's on-stage energy in a review of the singers' performance at New York's Radio City in August of 1987: "He would bring a song down to a whisper; he'd break into his clear, agile falsetto, or show off by walking away from the microphone as he sang, projecting his unassisted voice well past the first 20 rows.… Green shifted continually between control and abandon; he skipped and strutted, made faces, stood with seemingly limp arms and then broke into preacherly gesticulations. By the final song he was jumping into the air at musical peaks." The year 1987 also saw the release of his documentary, The Gospel According to Green. The 94-minute documentary, co-written and co-produced by Green and Mitchell, featured concert footage and interviews with the two artists. Most noteworthy is Mitchell's recollections of his experience in the studio with this soul singing icon.
In 1988 Green appeared at the Nelson Mandela Birthday Concert in London; two years later he performed at the John Lennon Memorial Concert at Peir Head, Liverpool. Green's 1989 A&M album I Get Joy contained the lead track "You're Everything to Me"—a number, as Bill Dahl described in the Chicago Tribune, that "could just as easily be construed as an ode to a lover as to the Lord." Green's 1991 release, One In a Million, for the Word/Epic label was followed by the LP Love is Reality, a religious-based blend of uptempo numbers immersed in synth-pop and funk rhythms. Love is Reality contained a set of numbers that, as Bill Dahl wrote in the Chicago Tribune, "are nearly indistinguishable from the standard urban contemporary fare, with slick arrangements and occasionally ambiguous lyrics."
By 1993 Green began to once again record secular material, and in the following year appeared in the music film Rhythm, Country, and Blues, a tribute to the musical cultures of Memphis and Nashville. The film's soundtrack, produced by Don Was, featured a number of musical performances by R&B and country stars, including a duet by Green and Lyle Lovett of "(Ain't it Funny) How Time Slips Away." For his 1995 release for MCA Records, Your Heart's in Good Hands, Green was backed by the legendary Memphis Horns.
By the late 1990s, Green had overcome diminishing record sales and was enjoying a surge of fan interest. His song "Take to Me the River" had become, as a result of a 1980s cover by the Talking Heads, his most famous composition; his 1970s hit "Let's Stay Together" attracted renewed interest when it was featured in the film soundtrack to the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. His career received another boost in 1999 when he made a quest appearance on the popular television series Ally McBeal, singing his 1972 song "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." In 2003, Green worked with his old companion, Willie Mitchell, at his old studio, Hi Records, on the release of I Can't Stop. On this well-reviewed album, Green successfully returned to the sound that made him famous in the 1970s on such tracks as "I Can't Stop" and "Not Tonight." At the same time, he was receiving recognition for the broad range of his work, being inducted into both the Gospel Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.
Through stardom, religious sojourns, and self-resurrection as a pop music performer, Green has remained a dynamic artist whose ability easily crosses the borders of secular and religious music. Unlike his mentor Sam Cooke who left the church in the late 1950s to embark on a career in pop music, Green left a successful pop recording career to devote himself to God and church. To many, his periodic crossing over between pop and gospel reveals a sign of inward restlessness. In discussing Green's career, Arnold Shaw in Black Popular Music related that "there is little indication that his immense success as a popular entertainer has brought the serenity he seeks in his colloquies with God." Dividing his time between church and concert stage, Green, whether singing the praises of God or celebrating the temporal joys of life, remains one of the last of the great soul singers.
Green Is Blues, Hi Records, 1970.
Al Green Gets Next to You, Hi Records, 1971.
Let's Stay Together, Hi Records, 1972.
I'm Still in Love with You, Hi Records, 1972.
Al Green Explores Your Mind, Hi Records, 1974.
Greatest Hits, Hi Records, 1975.
Full of Fire, Hi Records, 1976.
The Belle Album, Hi Records, 1977.
Greatest Hits, Volume 2, Motown, 1977.
Truth N' Time, Hi Records, 1978.
Higher Plane, A&M, 1981.
Precious Lord, 1982.
Soul Survivor, A&M, 1987.
I Get Joy, A&M, 1989.
Trust in God, A&M, 1986.
One in a Million, Word/Epic, 1991.
Love Is Reality, Word/Epic, 1992.
Your Heart's in Good Hands, MCA Records, 1995.
Feel's Like Christmas, Capitol, 2001.
I Can't Stop, Blue Note, 2003.
The Immortal Soul of Al Green, Hi/The Right Stuff, 2004.
(With Davin Seay) Take Me to the River (biography), HarperEntertainment, 2000.
Black Gospel: An Illustrated History of the Gospel Sound, Blanford Press, 1985.
Guralnick, Peter, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Harper & Row, 1986.
Heilbut, Tony, The Gospel Sound: Good New and Bad Times, Limelight edition, 1985.
Shaw, Arnold, Black Popular Music in America, Schirmer, 1986.
Chicago Tribune, June 6, 1993.
Down Beat, July 15, 1976.
Ebony, December 2003, p. 32.
Entertainment Weekly, December 5, 2003, p. 44.
Jet, March 1, 2004, p. 14.
New York Times, August 17, 1987; September 9, 1987.
Gordon, Robert, Lets Stay Together (liner notes), Hi Records, 1972.
—John Cohassey and
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