Al Green Explores His Mind, Sings His Soul

Al Green is speaking rapidly. He must not have been lying when he deemed himself a lover of life’s little things, because right now the mere sound of a man cutting hedges outside has got him worked up.

“I thrive on that! When people are busy, and you hear the sound of the motors and engines or people working on the roof – oh man, that gets me going! It’s like work. It’s like, you know, it’s like getting yourâÂ?¦” He pauses mid-sentence. “Well, I’m a bishop of the church now, so I can’t say that anymore.”

But he changes his mind and just says it anyway.

“Well, it’s like getting busy.”

Green may be a bishop now – he just got the official word of his ordination earlier this month – but there’s no mistaking that he’s still the same Al Green whose string of smooth singles in the ’70s sent plenty of couples between the sheets.

Ironically, as Green’s profile rises in the Christian church, he’s experiencing his greatest musical success in years with a pair of secular records – 2003’s I Can’t Stop and this year’s Everything’s OK. Both albums reunited Green with his non-biblical muse, producer Willie Mitchell.

“He’s my brother, he’s my dad, he’s my companion. He’s my mentor. He’s all these things,” Green said of Mitchell. “I thank God for him, because without him I’d be basically paddling around out here and I wouldn’t know what I’m doing.”

When the two first encountered each other at a Texas roadhouse in late 1968, Green was a struggling singer with a shouting-soulman style similar to Otis Redding. Mitchell was a seasoned bandleader and trumpeter who saw promise in the young vocalist and reluctantly accepted him as his prot�©g�©.

“Al was still in another world of singing back then,” Mitchell explained. “I knew he could do more poppish things, but I wanted him to sing softer. He needed to do things softer and let the rhythm take over and be the dynamite.”

Mitchell coached Green into delivering more nuanced vocal performances. Like an Eskimo equipped with dozens of different words to describe snow, Green developed a different distinct wail to summarize every possible human emotion: heartbreak, love, uncertainty, glee, etc. Together, the pair created the sound of Memphis soul – a symphony of lush strings, moody organ swoops and punchy horns, grounded by a steady, simple drumbeat.

It took this more seductive alternative to ’60s soul a while to catch on, but once it did the hits came quickly. The pair spent the early ’70s churning out classic single after classic single – “Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Still in Love with You,” “Love and Happiness,” “Here I Am,” – ultimately releasing 10 full-length albums in a six-year period.

Mitchell and Green had one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of pop music, but after the better part of a decade together, Green heard the Lord call him away from his secular lifestyle. He began to veer into gospel territory, and his longtime producer had no intentions of following.

Green became the pastor of his Memphis congregation and spent the ’80s recording gospel, earning Grammy after Grammy in the process, before concluding that pop music and faith aren’t totally incompatible. By 2003 he was back home, so to speak, at Willie Mitchell’s legendary studio, greeted by many of the same backing musicians who recorded his early albums.

“Working with Willie and the boys down there, it’s just like a family reunion,” Green said. Critics agreed, welcoming the ensuing record, I Can’t Stop, as a long-overdue comeback album.

“I really didn’t know what would happen then, but I wanted it (those sessions) to lead to more collaborations,” said Mitchell, now in his late ’70s. “Then Al started writing and singing. We were both really enjoying it, and I knew there would be more albums. We were having fun again.”

Their follow-up, Everything’s OK, is an even stronger album, featuring some of Green’s best vocal performances since the ’70s. At age 59, his falsetto sounds untouched by time, and as he promised in the linear notes of Everything’s OK, there’s more music to come.

“We’ve already done another album,” Green said. “It’s gonna be better than Everything’s OK, just like Everything’s OK is better than I Can’t Stop.”

You could say that the pair once again has real momentum, but Green would correct you.

“Baby, we’ve got more than momentum,” he laughed. “We’ve got power. God has given us power to do what we’re doing, we don’t need momentum.”

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