For many music fans, Al Green was the dominant voice in soul music during the 1970s, thanks to his silky vocals and simmering production on such classics as "Call Me," "Let's Get Married," "Let's Stay Together," "Take Me to the River" and "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)." Green began singing gospel as a youth, and like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke before him, brought the intensity of church music to his paeans to late-night love. After a slow start in the late 1960s, he hit his stride with 1972's Let's Stay Together, which generated a chart-topping single with the title track. From 1973 to 1976, Green dominated the R&B charts while also enjoying considerable success in the pop field. But an injurious assault by a girlfriend who then committed suicide left Green feeling unmoored for the remainder of the decade. To soothe his soul, he became an ordained preacher in 1979 while abandoning soul for gospel through much of the 1980s. He made a tentative return to secular recordings in 1989 before committing himself fully to soul in 1994. Green struggled to land a hit until 2008, when Lay It Down became his first record to break into the Top 10 on the albums chart in over 35 years. Though he experienced numerous highs and lows throughout his career, Al Green's sweet, soulful and undeniably sexy voice remained his greatest strength.
Born Albert Greene on April 13, 1946 in Forrest City, AR, Al Green was the sixth of 10 children born to sharecropper Robert Greene and his wife, Cora. He began performing professionally at the age of 10 with his siblings in a gospel group called The Greene Brothers. The act toured throughout the South during the 1950s before Greene's family relocated to Grand Rapids, MI; there. It was in this ultra-conservative city that his tenure with the group ended when his father expelled him for listening to the hot-blooded secular music of soul pioneer Jackie Wilson. At 16, Green dropped the third "e" in his surname before forming his own R&B vocal group, Al Green & the Creations, with several high school friends. Two of the group's members, Curtis Rogers and Palmer James, formed their own independent record label, Hot Line Music Journal, which released "Back Up Train," a No. 5 R&B single in 1968.
By this point, the group had renamed itself The Soul Mates, but attempts to repeat their success fell on deaf ears. The following year, Green met bandleader Willie Mitchell, who hired him to sing at a Texas concert. Mitchell was impressed by Green's raw talent, so soon signed him to his label, Hi Records. With Mitchell's help, Green began to develop the signature sound that would make him one of the most popular soul singers of the early 1970s. Prior to their meeting, Green had emulated such legendary showstoppers as James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke, but Mitchell encouraged him to focus on a more slow-boiling groove that would reach its apex not with a scream, but with Green's flawless falsetto. Backed by Mitchell's subtle production, which hinged on a bed of strings and brass punctuation, the result was a more laid-back, decidedly sexier alternative to the soul shouter persona that dominated the charts at the end of the 1960s. Their first collaboration, 1969's Green is Blues, offered an early take on the Green/Mitchell sound, as well a clear showcase of the singer's skill in covering other performers' material, like the Beatles' "Get Back" and the Box Tops' "The Letter." A modest success, it paved the way for his first significant chart hit the following year.
The year 1970 saw the release of Al Green Gets Next To You, which featured his first gold single, "Tired of Being Alone." The track offered a blueprint of Green's classic sound, with his yearning vocals slowly climbing Mitchell's jazzy arrangement until fairly exploding at the climax, which inevitably brought down the house in live performance. "Tired" peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard singles chart, establishing Green as an artist on the rise. It also preceded a streak of four consecutive gold singles, including the title track to 1972's Let's Stay Together, which became his first and only chart-topping pop hit, while the record itself rose to No. 8 on the pop albums chart. I'm Still In Love With You (1972), released just a few months after its predecessor, surpassed it by peaking at No. 4 on the albums chart, while its singles, "I'm Still in Love With You," "Look What You Done to Me," "Love and Happiness" and the title track all reached the Top 5 on the pop singles chart.
Green released his masterpiece, Call Me, in 1973; a thoughtful, mature meditation on love, desire and loss in a myriad of forms - from the earthly (the Top 10 singles "You Oughta Be With Me," "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)") to the divine ("Jesus is Waiting"). Critics praised his interpolation of two classic country songs, Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away," into the broader palette of the album, while listeners sent the record to the top of the soul charts. It would ultimately prove to be Green's last great LP, as a series of unfortunate events would turn his focus away from popular music and redirect his life towards the church.
In 1974, Green was assaulted in his home by a girlfriend, Mary Woodson White, over his refusal to marry her. Though White was already married to another man at the time of the incident, she had grown resentful of Green's reluctance to make their relationship more permanent, especially after the song "Let's Get Married," from Livin' for You, the hit follow-up to Call Me, reached No. 32 on the pop charts. On the evening of Oct. 18, 1974, White threw a pan of boiling grits onto Green while he showered, which caused severe burns on his torso. She then committed suicide by shooting herself with Green's own gun. The singer was deeply shaken by the incident, which he viewed as a sign from God to change the direction of his life.
In 1976, Green became an ordained minister of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, TN. He continued to record R&B during this period, but critics and listeners alike noted that some of the fire had gone out of Green's music, and his sales began to plummet. He parted ways with Mitchell the following year in order to open his own studio, American Music, but his self-produced efforts failed to match the impact of his earlier work. In 1979, Green sustained serious injuries after a fall from the stage at a concert in Ohio. The incident solidified his belief that he should devote his time to religious matters, which became the focus of his career for the better part of the following decade.
Between 1981 and 1988, Green scored eight Grammy awards for Best Soul Gospel Performance while continuing to preach at his church in Memphis. Between records, he appeared on Broadway opposite Patti Labelle in the musical "Your Arms too Short to Box with God." After recording a string of albums for Myrrh Records, he moved to A&M for He is the Light (1985), which reunited him with Mitchell as co-producer with veteran guitarist Angelo Earl. But his return to secular music would not come for another three years, when he teamed with Annie Lennox on a cover of Jackie DeShannon's "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," from the 1988 "Scrooged" soundtrack. His first full-fledged soul album in over a decade came with the U.K.-only release Don't Look Back. The following year, he earned his ninth Grammy for a duet with Lyle Lovett on "Funny How Time Slips Away."
In 1995, Green released Your Heart's in Good Hands, his first album of non-secular music in the U.S. since 1978's Truth and Time. Though well received by critics, it failed to generate a hit, although the year was redeemed by Green's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He worked steadily over the next decade, signing with the venerable jazz label Blue Note for a series of critically acclaimed records while penning an autobiography, Take Me to the River, in 2000. Two years later, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2003, he reunited with Mitchell for I Can't Stop, his first record for Blue Note. He would score his biggest hit in decades for the label with 2008's Lay It Down, produced by the Roots' Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and James Poyser. Featuring duets with modern soul singers like John Legend, Corrine Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton - each of whom owed a debt to Green's classic recordings - Lay It Down debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard albums chart.
By Paul Gaita