Chris Richards (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The moms are digging in their purses for marshmallows.
Because the kids are getting restless. Because they’ve been stuck in the pews for nearly three hours. Because the adults don’t want to go home. Because the man at the pulpit is singing in a celestial falsetto that seems to know the contours of heaven. Because he’s Al Green.
Toward the back of the church: tourists from France, Brazil, Israel, Denmark, South Africa. They’ve come to hear the man sing.
Toward the front: ladies in fabulous hats, men in boxy suits, marshmallow moms and their antsy children. They’ve come to hear the Reverend preach.
If the story of American R&B unfolds in the tension between Saturday night and Sunday morning, Green may be its truest protagonist. In the early ’70s, he sang about devotion and desire with a gospel-grade elegance that made him a star, a sage and a sex symbol. And then, at the height of his fame, he started answering to a voice more sublime than his own.
Green says that God first steered his car to this church back in 1976. To get there today, head south toward the outskirts of Memphis, down Elvis Presley Boulevard, past Graceland, past the fast food, past the nail salons, hang a right on the road with the November foliage worthy of a jigsaw puzzle, and look for the small white church with the big white Mercedes-Benz parked outside.
Inside the Full Gospel Tabernacle, the paint is chipping and the pews are creaky. But the music is glorious. Ordained as a Baptist minister, Green has been leading this modestly sized, nondenominational church for nearly 40 years, and this Sunday’s service is a free-form mix of Scripture, sermon and song, with Green’s voice soaring high above his choir’s.
He smiles — happy to be surrounded by the sound, surrounded by the Spirit and, perhaps most importantly, surrounded by the people.
Because even though Green’s greatest hits exalt the bliss of human communion, he lives alone in rural seclusion. That bliss has slipped in and out of his hands since childhood. More than four decades after writing “Tired of Being Alone,” Al Green is still very much exactly that.
This is what he howls when he’s excited, and on Monday morning the office behind his church is filled with yeee-haws. It’s also filled with media folk who have traveled to Memphis to ask the 68-year-old how he feels about receiving one of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors.
During our 45-minute window, Green is energetic, quick to laugh, even quicker to break into song. But his left foot won’t stop tapping anxious 16th notes into the carpet.
One-on-one conversation seems difficult for him. He answers most questions with forthright brevity, then darts off on scattered digressions.
Ask about his relationship with his church, he laments the rise of the drug trade in Memphis. Ask if stardom made him a better preacher, he volunteers the fact that his first love was a prostitute who introduced him to a dangerous social circle. Ask about his mentor, producer Willie Mitchell, Green reminisces about an unrelated bar fight that required him to neutralize an opponent carrying a switchblade. “Always hold the hand with the knife!” he shouts, offering hard-knock-life tips with a belly laugh.
Perhaps these broken strands of communication are Green’s way of explaining that he’s seen life on the other side — and that instead of examining his current struggles, he’d rather purge up memories of traumas conquered long ago.
He certainly had plenty to overcome. Albert Greene was born in Forrest City, Arkansas, in 1946 to a religiously devout sharecropper who dreamed that his sons — the Greene Brothers — would find success on the gospel-music circuit. (As an adult, Greene would later drop the “e” from his name.)
As a child, he was an outcast, prone to isolation. As a teenager, he was trouble, prone to using his fists. He also had insatiable ears, and he fell hard for the angelic voice of Sam Cooke at a tender age. But “the devil’s music” wasn’t allowed beneath his father’s roof, and as a teenager, Green was banished from the house for secretly listening to a Jackie Wilson record.
It didn’t stop him from wanting to sing in the skyscraping falsetto of his idols, and in 1968, the success of his first single, “Back Up Train,” helped Al Greene and the Soul Mates get all the way to Harlem’s Apollo Theater — but not much further.
Aimlessly touring the country as a solo act in 1969, Green shared a bill with Mitchell at a Texas nightclub and eventually followed the bandleader and producer back to Memphis. That’s when everyone’s luck changed.
Together, the two began crafting some of the most exquisite songs to ever grace the American consciousness — “Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love With You” — a series of hits recorded for what Green once described as one long, never-ending album, blurred by the time-smearing effects of instant fame.
But stardom did nothing to soothe Green’s crippling loneliness or tame the chaos he perpetually seemed to attract. He made strange headlines in 1974 when his girlfriend, Mary Woodson White, assaulted him with a pot of boiling grits and then committed suicide in his home. Two decades later, Green was back in the news, facing allegations of domestic abuse from his ex-wife, Shirley Green. (He says their relationship today is no longer “distant and hateful.” In fact, she was visiting Memphis the day prior, attended Green’s church, and even came to the front at one point to lead the congregation in song.)
But the defining pivot of Al Green’s life took place before all that, in 1973, in a hotel room in Anaheim, California, after he’d performed a late-night concert at Disneyland. Green went to sleep exhausted. When he woke up, he was born again.
Describing today that moment when he first heard the voice of God, he goes calm and quiet.
“He said, ‘Come, come, come to me,’ ” Green says, softly fluttering his fingers. “And when I got in those arms, I could just let my whole spirit down. I could relax. I felt so much better. … I surrendered. And you have to surrender. Then you get to build up again.”
Before Al Green found God, Willie Mitchell found Al Green.
It was Mitchell, a Mississippi-born musician fluent in jazz, rock and soul, who nurtured Green’s sound, finessing it into something delicate and indelible. Mitchell believed that a song’s momentum should always push upward, ascending like the slope of a mountain into the unknown. To get there, he needed Green to scrub the growl out of his voice and stop imitating the guys who were recording for Stax Records, just a few blocks away.
In his autobiography, Green remembers Mitchell coaching him: “Let them be gritty. You be smooth. Remember, Al. It’s silky on the top. Rough on the bottom.”
If ascension and tenderness were two of the secret ingredients floating around Mitchell’s Royal Recording Studio, the third was intimacy.
Charles Hodges — the keyboardist who performed on much of Green’s early work alongside his brothers, bassist Leroy Hodges and guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, and drummers Howard Grimes and Al Jackson Jr. — says the “spiritual chemistry” that filled the air at Royal in the early ’70s was one of a kind.
“We all became so close that we could just feel each other’s heartbeat,” Hodges says today. “Everything we touched turned to gold.”
The effortless feel of their most golden music had everything to do with efficiency. The vocals to “Let’s Stay Together” — that ecstatic pledge of commitment that would define Green’s career — were written 15 minutes after Mitchell presented his pupil with the music. This is Green’s gift as a songwriter: the ability to go so deep so quickly.
“It’s spontaneous,” Green says of the creative moment. “You’ve got to let yourself drop so you get to the point where you feel. Then you work to bring it on up, bring it on up, bring it on up. You start with something, and in it builds. It builds. And builds. And builds.”
And then Green starts singing beautiful curlicues of nonverbal nonsense, as if what he’s trying to say is beyond words or beyond his patience to find them.
In the 1984 documentary “Gospel According to Al Green,” filmmaker Robert Mugge asks his subject where he sees his ministry headed in the decades to come.
Green replies with unflinching zest: “I shall be one of the greatest evangelists in the world. In the world! And not only will we fill auditoriums, and coliseums, and stadiums, but we will multiply blessings to people around the world.”
It hasn’t turned out that way. But Green says he’s at peace with his faith and his ambition. “I am completely satisfied with what God has done,” he says. “I’m grateful to be where I am now, in the mind-set I’m in now.”
He never really stopped recording. In 2003, Green released “I Can’t Stop,” his first secular album since parting ways with Mitchell to pursue gospel in the late ’70s. Green says he wanted to reconnect with his old mentor, who was suffering from the complications of diabetes and was drinking heavily at the time.
“I told him, ‘You’re not going to get better with all this Grey Goose in the back of your car,'” Green says. “Willie needed to get better. And he did get better.”
Their rekindled success allowed the duo to record another album — 2005’s “Everything’s OK” — before Mitchell’s death in 2010. Green’s most recent songbook, 2008’s “Lay It Down,” was co-produced by Questlove of the Roots. It features two duets with Anthony Hamilton, one of the countless contemporary singers who learned about empathy and honesty by listening to Green.
“(He taught me) that whatever it is you’re feeling, it’s OK to be as pure as you want to be in that moment. You don’t have to apologize for it at all,” Hamilton says. “And for the fans, for people who are afraid to express themselves, he allowed people to open up and be in that moment, too.”
In addition to reviving his pop career, Green’s return to secular music also refreshed his image as a conflicted soul man torn between pleasure and piety. It’s a narrative that Green dismisses outright. “It’s all in your heart,” he says. “If you’re not divided in here” — touching his hand to his chest — “you’re not divided out there. … I’m not torn at all. I know what I’m doing. I’ve been at this church for 37 years.”
But Green doesn’t hesitate to say he’s still haunted by his inability to keep people close. “I’m still a loner,” he says.
Which means visits with family are brief. Visits with friends are rare. When his housekeeper shows up at his home 25 minutes from downtown Memphis, Green might quietly sing along to the hum of the vacuum cleaner, the way the Greene Brothers used to try to harmonize with the purring car tires on their Sunday road trips. Music is still his companion — and creatively, loneliness is still his resource.
“You have to have a well to draw from,” Green says slowly, as if running out of words.
Ask him if he’s still lonely today and he can only find two.