Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Archive: Al Green

Willie Mitchell’s death last week prompted me to pull out this interview with the great Al Green from the Irish Times’ archives. This interview is from 2005 when Green was plugging his “Everything’s OK” album which Mitchell had produced. Indeed, …

Mon, Jan 11, 2010, 16:16


Willie Mitchell’s death last week prompted me to pull out this interview with the great Al Green from the Irish Times’ archives. This interview is from 2005 when Green was plugging his “Everything’s OK” album which Mitchell had produced. Indeed, Green’s career might have been a whole lot different had he not bumped into Mitchell all those years ago. Interview with one of the greatest soul voices of them all after the jump.

He can still remember it like it was yesterday. Even now, even after all these years. It was just another dog day afternoon in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The local high school, the woodwork class, the machines going full pelt, lots of dust in the air.

Over by the lathes they used to shape the wood, Al Greene put on his goggles and his ear-muffs before turning on the machine. It was loud so he started to sing. Something he’d heard on the radio, something by Sam Cooke.

That young Greene kid was always singing. Singing gospel with his brothers when they finished their chores in their home town of Forest City, Arkansas. Singing as they toured the gospel circuit in the southern states as the Greene Brothers. Singing as the family loaded a pickup truck and moved to Michigan in search of a new life. Always singing.

This time, though, the reaction was a little different. See, no-one in this room realised young Al could sing quite like that.

“When I turned the lathe off, I looked around and saw all these people standing there listening and looking at me. Man, you can sing, they were saying, you really can sing. It scared me because I didn’t know what they were talking about.” Reverend Al Green roars with laughter at the memory of what happened in that classroom that day. “I was scared, can you believe that?”

When Al Green sings these days, we still stop to look and listen. But these days we recognise that voice as one of the greatest soul voices of all. It’s a voice we know intimately from the classics, from songs such as Take Me to the River and Love and Happiness and Let’s Stay Together and Tired of Being Alone and You Ought To Be With Me. Soft, funky, sensitive, seductive and as smooth as an acre of velvet, Al Green’s voice is one of pop’s sweetest things.

When the Reverend isn’t tending his flock at the Full Tabernacle Church at 787 Hale Road in Memphis, Tennessee or counting his cows on his farm in nearby Shelby Forest, you’ll find him still singing new songs. There’s a whole album of them out at the moment. Featuring many moments as distinctive as anything recorded in his 1970s heyday, Everything’s OK is the soulful real thing, the proof that Al Green in 2005 matters as much now as ever.

He certainly has not lost his ability to put on a show. A few years ago, the Al Green roadshow pulled into Dublin and people still talk about that sweet, hot summer’s night. The good news is that he’s coming back this summer. There are many more nights like that left in him yet.

“My doctor said that live shows are good for me and that I should even extend the show by 10 or 15 minutes,” he says. “He wants me dancing all the way through the show too. That keeps the heart pumping and the blood circulating and the engine turning over and it’s really good for your abs. If I’m a little winded or out of breath at the end of the concert, my doctor says that’s a good thing.”

When Al Green first started out, singing with various bands who’d have him, there were no doctors around to dispense advice. Back then, remembers Green, it was about having fun rather than keeping healthy. “We weren’t making any money, but the idea that this was something you could be doing for the rest of your life was kind of attractive. I remember I was working with Junior Walker and the All-Stars. I was the singer, they were the band. I didn’t have a contract, Junior didn’t have a contract, we weren’t stars. It wasn’t anything unusual until Junior got his contract with Berry Gordy and had all these hit songs. I thought I’d like to meet Mr Gordy but I didn’t get the chance.”

Something else happened and it happened one afternoon in 1969 in Midland, Texas. Bandleader, producer and arranger Willie Mitchell turned up at a hall to rehearse his band. They had a new singer for that night’s show, this young buck called Green. Mitchell went up to the bar, ordered a vodka and stopped in his tracks when the voice hit him. That boy could sing. He approached Green after the show. You come to Memphis with me, he said, and you can be a star.

“All I was interested in right then,” says Green, “was the 300 dollars I was owed for the show.” But Green did go to Memphis and he struck up a partnership with Mitchell. The first task was to help Green find his own voice. Sure, he could sing, but what Willie Mitchell wanted to hear was something he knew Green had buried deep within him, something else entirely.

Green headed to Europe, playing the chitlin circuit in London, Manchester and Paris. “I was playing pubs and holes-in-the-wall and after-school hops which the kids would come to in their bobby-socks and little black-and-white shoes.” One night in Manchester, he started to sing a song he had cut back in Memphis and suddenly, he realised what his wily old fox of a producer was talking about.

“It was You Ought to Be With Me. I was onstage and tears were rolling down my face. Everybody on the floor stopped dancing and stared. This was serious. ‘You ought to be with me until I die.’ The place was in a trance. That was a turning point for me in seeing the kind of effect this music could have on the performer and the audience.”

Back in Memphis, the pair knew they were onto something. Over the next couple of years, the Green-Mitchell partnership produced a string of soul hits. You name one of those tunes which is always associated with Al Green and you can bet it was on the Hi label and Willie Mitchell had something to do with it. Seven years, eight albums, 20 million sales.

Things had changed by 1976 and success did not seem as attractive as it once appeared. Two years earlier, an ex-girlfriend broke into Green’s Memphis home, attacked him in the bath and then shot herself with a gun. Green decided this was a sign that he was on the wrong path. He bought a church, became a fully-ordained pastor and began to preach.

“That born-again experience was traumatic,” he says. “I was young and had no idea what, say, someone like Sam Cooke had gone through when he moved from gospel to R ‘n’ B. I was doing it the other way around and I was doing it blind. I didn’t know what you had to give up to be what you wanted to become. There’s a lot of give and take and a lot of hard times to cope with when you change like that.”

By the early 1980s, he had announced his complete retirement from secular music, a fall from the stage during a Cincinnati concert seen by him as a sign from God to stop. Gospel albums appeared, but what most people wanted to hear was the old Green. Not that this bothered the new Green. He missed his old life, but you miss it simply because you’re not doing it.

“When you have been called to do something else, that supersedes everything. When you’re tending a flock, it teaches you that you have to care about other people. You have to get up in the middle of the night and deal with other people’s problems. It’s not about Al all the time. There are other people in the world and they love and care and hurt too, see. It teaches you a lot of things and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. You’re more grown up because you realise you can’t get something without giving something.”

But people kept talking about the old Al, the Love and Happiness Al. He’d preach every Sunday and he’d notice all these people from Europe and Japan and all over the US of A in the pews. He teased people by singing with Annie Lennox on the soundtrack to Scrooged. He put out the Don’t Look Back soul album in the UK only. He even did a modern soul album called Your Heart’s in Good Hands in 1995. It wasn’t a hit.

One day, Al decided to get in touch with Willie Mitchell and he went by Willie’s house. Willie’s had some hard times – his wife and brother both died from cancer and he’s had his own battles – and Al was thinking about what he could do to make his old friend feel better. Hey Willie, he hollered, lets cut some rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues! Willie thought he was kidding and sent him away. That damn fool hasn’t cut a rock ‘n’ roll record in 18 years! The next time Al came round, Willie knew he wasn’t kidding. Hot damn, said Willie, you’re really going to do it.

They’ve made two albums since they got back together again, 2003′s lovely I Can’t Stop and now Everything’s OK. Al Green could not sound happier.

“Willie Mitchell put his stamp of approval on it and produced it like a Willie Mitchell record ought to be produced. He said I had to sing on it like it ought to be sung. He’s up and at it again. He’s walking around that studio, his thinking is clear and his production capabilities are back.”

Most of all, though, Al Green is back. Back singing songs about love and happiness, back singing the kind of soul music which never goes out of fashion, back showing the new kids on the block that they have a long way to go yet.

“I listen to modern R ‘n’ B and there are some good people out there. With time, they might be fantastic because they have such a well of music to draw from. People like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson. Back to Nat King Cole and Satchmo. If the modern R ‘n’ B groups are able to do it in 50 or 60 years time, they’ll be doing good.”

Some of the greats, they’re still very much alive. “You have, uhm, uhm, what’s his name?” Al Green pauses for a moment and then starts singing Blueberry Hill to jog his memory. “Fats Domino! He played two hours on TV a few weeks ago and I was spellbound. He never played a song that I didn’t know, but every time he played it, I would go ‘Owow’. He doesn’t go out and make a big ol’ noise, but he still has it, he sure still has it. He’s one of a kind.”

After all, it takes one to know one.

© 2005 The Irish Times