Al Green is one of the most enduring soul singers of the rock era, and is considered by many the most important male singer since Sam Cooke. His early 70s work on Hi Records sounds as good today as it did then, and his legend has continued to grow over the past quarter century even as he generally turned his back on popular music.
Born in Arkansas and raised there and in Grand Rapids, Michigan , Green was singing gospel music regionally in various groups at a very early age. His religious family was vehemently against him singing secular music, and it wasn't until late in high school that he was able to move beyond a pure Gospel repertoire. At that time he and some friends formed a Soul group called Al Greene and the Soul Mates and recorded a single hit, 1967's "Back Up Train."
After the Soul Mates failed to repeat their initial success, Green (he dropped the "e") began to seek a solo career and soon met up in Texas with Hi Records executive Willie Mitchell, who signed Green to the small Memphis label. With Mitchell producing, arranging and co-writing, Green recorded his debut, Green Is Blues, an uneven effort that is nonetheless an important preview of the sound that would soon propel Green to superstardom: a punchy rhythm section accentuated by horns and organ, mixing the sound of Southern church with gritty post-Motown arrangements. And in front was Green's expressive, distinctive wail, seamlessly moving from earthy baritone to sweet falsetto - half preacher, half seducer.
The sound found its audience on his next album, 1970's Al Green Gets Next To You, and its smash hit, "Tired of Being Alone." Over the next three years, Green and Mitchell created a rapid-fire series of classic albums and even better singles, including "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still In Love With You," "Look What You've Done For Me," "Call Me" and "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)." Green's output of this period is still considered some of the finest Southern Soul ever and is revered by critics and fans alike three decades later.
As the 70s progressed, the Green/Mitchell combination began to show its age, and successive albums slipped on the pop and soul charts. By 1977, Green decided to go it alone without Mitchell, and he recorded The Belle Album, a fine but underappreciated album that showed Green could make great music outside of the context of the legendary collaboration.
Around this time two events occurred that would have a significant impact on Green. First, a former girlfriend intentionally poured hot grits on him, burning him extensively, before committing suicide. Later, a recovered Green fell offstage in a performance, injuring himself. Despite the physical setbacks, Green found himself with the second chance at life that Sam Cooke hadn't had, and he used the incidents to reassess his career and priorities, ultimately deciding to retire from popular music and to devote himself to Christian ministry and Gospel music. He became an ordained minister and became the founding pastor of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis.
What began as a decision of conscience for Green became a second career for him, as he quickly rose to top of the Gospel world as the Rev. Al Green. Nearly all of his records over the next decade hit the Gospel top 10, with his Soul Survivor album in 1997 topping the Gospel charts and hitting the top 100 on the pop charts on the strength of the Gospel/Soul crossover hit "Everything's Gonna Be Alright." During this period he occasionally crossed back into Soul or Pop music, as he did in his 1988 chart-topping duet with Annie Lennox, a cover of "Put a Little Love In Your Heart," and on his 1995 album, Your Heart's In Good Hands.
After nearly a decade away from popular music and nearly two decades after his peak, Green and Willie Mitchell reunited in 2004 for I Can't Stop for Blue Note Records, an excellent reunion that recaptured and updated that classic Green/Mitchell sound of the early 70s, especially on the great title cut. To make it as authentic a reunion as possible, the two spent weeks writing together, assembled many of their original musicians and recorded in the same Memphis studio as the original Green Hi recordings. The result was sparkling, and it became Green's biggest album since the 70s.
Green followed up I Can't Stop with the slightly less satisfying Everything's OK, but in 2008 returned triumphantly Lay It Down, teaming with James Poyser (Erykah Badu, Common) and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson (the Roots) for an album that was one of the year's best, and for Green's millions of fans, a welcome return of a Soul survivor.
Al Green continues to perform regularly and his songs are cherished more than ever.
by Chris Rizik
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