Al Green has pipes that both soothe and thrill, were made to purr — a voice that softly demanded to be heard. He found his groove, and an audience was waiting. Over his career, he’s sold well over 20 million albums, and he continues selling today, both his older classic material as well as his newer recordings.
It wasn’t always that way. Al thought he was a hard-singing soulster in the James Brown mode—until he met Memphis producer Willie Mitchell, and until he began recording with the band Willie had assembled, the Hi Rhythm Section.
Al Green - born Albert Greene in Forrest City, Arkansas - came up singing gospel, touring with his father and brothers. The family sought a better life in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but their band fell apart when Al’s father caught him listening to pop star Jackie Wilson and kicked Al out of the band. Al liked the secular sound and in Grand Rapids he began recording, releasing a 1967 single, “Back Up Train,” that found its way onto the R&B charts. The song was a soft ballad, intimating where Al’s future lay, though the rest of his recordings were much more hard-driving.
In 1969, Al Green was a vocalist stranded on the road with no band, and he found himself in the same club where Willie Mitchell was booked. Willie, who played trumpet, had been achieving chart success with his soul instrumentals since the early 1960s, and he was popular in clubs. Al sat in with Willie’s band and sang his one hit; the next day, they gave Al a ride to Memphis. Talk turned to recording, and Al asked Willie how long it would take to make him a star; Willie told him 18 months, and that was 17 months and 29 days too long for Al. In Memphis, Willie loaned Al money enough to get home, and that was that.
Some months later, Willie answered a knock on his door and, expecting a carpenter, he pointed the guy to the cabinets that needed repair. “It’s me,” the guy said, “Al Green.” Willie took Al to the studio and, contrary to the trend of Stax and Motown, slowed him down. He helped Al discover the silk in his tone, coached him to loll in his own voice, and about a year and a half later, Al Green had his first hit. With the second album came the first gold record, and over three years, seven successive singles went gold.
Al Green fit into the Hi Records sound like a lost cousin found. The Hi Rhythm Section featured three brothers—guitarist Teenie Hodges, who co-wrote many of Al’s hits, bassist Leroy “Flick” Hodges, and organist Charles Hodges. Drummer Howard Grimes joined them as teenager. Willie’s brother James played saxophone and also, along with Willie, wrote horn and string arrangements.
Al Green’s music is imbued with his personality. Light and ethereal, the music is also drenched in sex and rhythm. His voice is an instrument all its own, high and reedy but also thick and strong; it can soar like a saxophone, maintaining body and beautiful tone. You want to float on it like a magic carpet, or roll about in it with someone you love, the shades pulled tight.
His first hit was a slowed and spare reinterpretation of the Temptations song “I Can’t Get Next To You,” but it was “Tired of Being Alone,” his first single from 1971, where he found his sound. The music is tinged with a bit of sadness and longing, though the horns give it a bright accent; the band leaves plenty of room for Al’s voice to be front and center, and that voice draws us in, wowing us like a contortionist’s tricks.
The run of gold hits included “Let’s Stay Together,” “Look What You Done For Me,” “I’m Still In Love With You,” “You Ought To Be With Me,” “Call Me,” and “Here I Am, Come and Take Me.” The next year, “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)” became his eighth gold single. “Love and Happiness” and “Take Me to the River” are two examples of the great songs that were not originally singles, but filled out his albums. Often, when the band was in the studio listening to the takes right before the one that would become the master take, Al would say to the band, “You guys are playing too much music, you’re playing too much music.” They’d all learned that less could be so much more.
In late 1974, when his pop career was soaring, tragedy struck. Al and his girlfriend had a fight about their future together. She threw a pot of boiling hot cereal on his back, and then killed herself. Al began a period of self-reflection, and less than two years later he purchased the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church near Graceland in Memphis and began preaching.
His conflicted feelings were expressed in his 1977 song “Belle,” evident in the line, “It’s you that I want / But it’s Him that I need.” After a fall from the stage in 1979, he concentrated the next fifteen years on his church and on gospel music, winning eight Grammys in the “soul gospel” category. By the mid-1990s, he’d begun dabbling in secular music again, reconciling the universal themes of love in his songs, love between people, love towards God. He released three pop albums in the 2000s, including I Can’t Stop, his first collaboration with Willie Mitchell since a mid-1980s gospel album. He enjoyed renewed chart success, as he did with each album since. Among his numerous honors is a 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys.
Al Green makes occasional tours and concert appearances, but most Sundays he’s leading services at his Memphis church, thrilling and soothing the listening souls as he has for the last forty years.