The gospel according to Al Green

After reeling off a string of hits unprecedented in Southern soul music history with producer Willie Mitchell between 1971 and 1976, soul singer extraordinaire Al Green took a Little Richard turn. Construing the maniacal assault on him by his former girlfriend and her subsequent suicide as signs from God, he bought the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis and became an ordained minister.

Green had been brought up in the church and the first music he sang was gospel. Like so many soul singers, he left gospel for popular music. His return to the church appears to have been prompted by a conversion experience of some kind. In his memoir Take Me To the River, Green ascribes the moment to the night he fell off the stage while performing. Peter Doggett notes Green’s account of the night in 1979 when he was playing a concert in Cincinnati:

The footlights were blinding, especially against the darkness out front, and the audience was cheering so loud I could barely hear myself. I took another step toward them, squinting in the glare, and then, without warning, the world turned upside down. I had fallen off the stage, out of the spotlight, and into the hands of the living God…My life as a soul man was over. My life as a spirit man had just begun.

In addition to preaching, Green turned to recording and performing gospel music, abandoning pop music entirely for several years. In 1995 Green was was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and returned to recording in his old style. “I Can’t Stop” reunited Green with Mitchell in 2003 and sounded very much like a return to form.

Tomorrow Al Green celebrates his birthday; he will turns 63. I first saw Al Green perform live at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1985. He had long since more or less abandoned soul music for the church. He was touring behind a newly released album of gospel music that had also reunited him with Mitchell at the controls.

The performance was a revelation to me. Hearing the raw power of Green’s voice in person made it possible to understand how much a producer’s artifact of imposed restraint — Mitchell called it “softness” — was the voice heard on Green’s hits. In person, Green had a voice of great power and dynamic range, with full control from a whisper to a shout — just like the Sam Cooke of the Soul Stirrers’ 1950’s gospel recordings. In his outstanding history Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick describes it as follows:

Willie Mitchell and Al Green came up with an old idea phrased in a new way, the last eccentric refinement of Sam Cooke’s lyrical, gospel-edged style as filtered through the fractured vocal approach of Otis Redding and the peculiarly fragmented vision of Al Green himself. This was a vision it would be virtually impossible to characterize…and it proved in the end to be incompatible with worldly ambition, but it was always marked by an unerring musicality.

Everyone in the audience that night in 1985 had of course come to hear those hits. Green’s performance refused to accede even a little to the desires of his audience. Rather, he toyed with and frustrated the audience’s desire to hear the songs that had brought him fame and wealth. It was a weirdly hostile performance.

We saw Green again some twenty years later when he returned to the Guthrie. On that occasion he gave one of the most fully satisfying performances I have ever seen. Playing with a band of ten musicians (drums and percussion, keyboards, horns and guitars), three backup singers and two dancers, Green put on an old-fashioned James Brown-style soul revue, but with gospel numbers and preaching included. The show ranged over his then 35-year career, moving seamlessly from worldly love to otherworldly devotion.

The show maintained an intense pitch from the opening number, though one emotional high point came in the middle of his 80-minute set. He launched into a moving medley of “Amazing Grace” (the hymn Sam Cooke had worked into his version of “Must Jesus Carry the Cross Alone” with the Soul Stirrers) and Cooke’s “Nearer My God to Thee.” Green climaxed the show with a simmering version of “Love and Happiness” and declined to take the stage for an encore. The man remains something of an enigma.

The video above derives from “The Gospel According to Al Green,” the 1984 documentary about Green that portrays him performing before a military audience in a hotel ballroom. Green fervently sings the “Amazing Grace/Nearer My God” medley in a performance that provides an illuminating view of a compelling artist testifying to his faith.

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