Music Notes: The Reverend Al Green

Still bringin’ ‘Love and Happiness’ to fans. (With video)

The reverend doing what he does best (Photo courtesy concerttour.org)

Simply mention his name and man, you can just feel the love.

When you hear the familiar strains of his velvety voice, blanketed in that sweet timeless soul music, it’s easy to hark back to a moment (or many moments if you’re lucky) when you had playing, the lights down low, maybe a candle or two burning, and bigtime love was in the air. That’s what Al Green feels like to many people: palpable love and happiness. But he will be the first to tell you that if it’s not him, it’s the music that has always set the mood.

“If they ain’t swoonin’ for me, they’re swoonin’ for what I made ‘em do. What those songs made ‘em do. Like ‘Call Me, Come Back Home.’ Well… [he sighs] ahhhhhhh. You know what happens, heh, when you get back home,” he says.

Green, or even better Reverend Al Green, is one of a handful of beloved American soul music pioneers who is still vital, still out there, still making ‘em swoon. For nearly 50 years, audiences worldwide have adored his voice and songs like ‘I’m Still in Love With You,” “Love and Happiness,” his classic “Take Me To The River,” and one of pop music’s most revered love songs, “Let’s Stay Together.” They’re part of the reason the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame called him “one of the most gifted purveyors of soul music ever” during his 1995 induction. And over 20 million records sold tells you that a lot of people just really dig him, too. This Friday, August 24, Washington area audiences will get to do a little more swooning when he graces the Wolf Trap stage with special guest Taj Mahal.

Green’s life is a storybook tale of humble beginnings followed by stratospheric superstardom briefly interrupted, and then rejuvenated from on high. Born in Arkansas as the sixth of 10 sharecropper’s kids, Green began singing at age 10 and never really looked back. Legend has it that his father kicked him out of the house as a teenager after his dad caught him singing songs by R & B legend Jackie Wilson (“That’s how I got the opportunity to sing pop music, getting kicked out of the house,” says Green). That gave him the impetus to strike out on his own. And strike out he did, recording his first record in 1967 at age 21 under the name Al Greene and the Soul Mates (he would later drop the “e” when he went solo). His career rose over the next few years and in 1970, he cut the first of seven consecutive gold singles, “Tired of Being Alone.” In 1972, he gave the world the nearly perfect “Let’s Stay Together.”

“Yeah, it went firing off like a rocket with the things that came,” the engaging Green told me earlier this month. “I didn’t have time to look around and say, ‘Now which one of the cells of the rocket boosters did the most good, or didn’t do the most good.’ I don’t know, I can’t answer that. But it was nice, man, it was, it is, great.”

In 1974, things took an unexpected turn when his lover committed suicide in his home. Green took that as a wake-up call to change something in his life. And that he did, becoming a fully ordained pastor in 1976 at the Full Tabernacle in Memphis, just down the street from Graceland, where he delivers services to this day. Through the years, Green has been able to delicately balance the calling of his church with the potentially wicked pull of being a hugely popular musician. How? Because he realizes the calling he has as both a musician and a pastor is equally important, even related.

“It’s all lavenderrrr,” Green says amidst a characteristically hearty laugh. “With singing, you gotta bring the love to people’s hearts that God said we should have. And then again when you’re preachin’, you’re talking about not just that physical love that you have with your wife, your kids and all that, but you should also have an eternal love, too, that makes life worth livin’.”

As Green’s popularity as one of America’s soul music legends grew, so did his presence as a positive force in his Memphis church where he’s developed a close connection with his flock. During a recent sermon, when it became clear that the reverend was battling an illness, his congregation was supportive.

“Everybody’s calling me and sayin’ ‘Pastor, what’s the matter?’ They say, ‘Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing. You just get well and don’t worry about this down here. We can handle this thing down here,’” Green recalls. “The organ player Brandon called me the other day and say, ‘Pastor, you alright?’ I said, ‘Ohh yeahh!’ Makes you real humble. I just appreciate that type of gratitude.”

In 1999, I had the great pleasure to be locked in a tight embrace with Al Green, and on the White House grounds no less. I was working for VH1 at their huge White House Concert of the Century, an event replete with musical royalty like Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Sheryl Crow, Garth Brooks, B.B. King and Gloria Estefan, to name just a few; heck, I even met President Clinton. But every one of those luminaries — even the president and first lady — sat mesmerized as Al Green performed an unforgettable version (I heard it, it was) of Sam Cooke’s immortal signature song “Change Is Gonna Come.” When he finished, he hustled back to an adjoining tent where I happened to be standing. For some reason, he opened his arms and looked at me, and I fell right in for the big Al Green bear hug. I wrapped my arms around his gold lamé suit as we both laughed and shook and I congratulated him on his triumph. I reminded Green of that special evening and he responded in his typically humble way.

“That was Sam Cooke’s last song, and even at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [Green performed the song at his induction], it was like it mesmerized the crowd or something, until they said ‘Oh, oh, yeah, OK, I know this one!’” he recounts with a laugh. “And yes, man, that’s a great honor, very humbling, to even be mentioned in the same name as those people, and especially my old friend B.B.”

The veteran recording artist may have two different callings in life, but by all accounts the 66-year-old is magnificently flourishing at both. He can preach lightning like the seasoned pastor he is, and then turn around and sing a simmering sensual love song like no one else. It’s a testimony to recognizing that a religious calling can have the same big picture message as a musical one, without creating unmanageable inner conflict.

“It’s the same thing with singing (as with preachin’),” he says. “It’s about happiness. It’s what kinda makes people look at each other, and grin, and start holding hands together.”

Al Green performs with Taj Mahal at Wolftrap’s Filene Center this Friday, August 24. For more information visit Wolftrap, and click here to purchase tickets.

Steve Houk lives and breathes music. He is not only a marketing and media professional but an accomplished music writer as well as a blogger on midliferocker.com. He is also the lead singer of Northern Virginia cover band Second Wind.

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