Al Green Changes His Tune

Al Green singer 2003 CBS/96Rock

For Al Green, singing has always come naturally.

CBS News' Russ Mitchell interviews the silky smooth soul singer, the Reverend Al Green.

MITCHELL: When did you realize you could sing? Did somebody tell you, 'Man, Al, you can sing'?

Rev. GREEN: Well, yeah, they used to talk about it in shop class, say, 'That kid right there can sing,' and I was going like, 'I wonder who they're talking about?' But you see, when the machines were going, I had the ear muffs on, I would sing, and I wouldn't know that they were listening.

MITCHELL: What kind of songs were you singing there in shop class?

Rev. GREEN: (Singing) 'As we danced across the floor so close to the one that I adore, so close in your arms, but yet so far from your heart.'

MITCHELL: And you had no idea that your buddies in shop class were listening to you.

Rev. GREEN: Oh, everybody was listening; standing at the door and listening, say, 'That kid can sing.' And I'm going like, 'What are you looking at?'

Al Green was 12 then, and today, at 59, he's still at it, still packing them in, still flashing that 1,000-watt smile. After years dedicated to preaching and gospel music, this pop singer turned minister has returned to the kind of music that made him famous. His inaugural outing an album, naturally called "I Can't Stop."

MITCHELL: So almost 20 years since you recorded a secular album.

Rev. GREEN: Almost.

MITCHELL: Almost.

Rev. GREEN: Like 18, 17, 18 years.

MITCHELL: Sure. So why did you decide to do it now?

Rev. GREEN: It's feeling, it's emotion. It ain't nothing you can talk about. It's just I know when it comes. I just, I know, you know, I know when it, that's right, when it's time.

MITCHELL: Ah.

Rev. GREEN: And I think this is time, yeah.

Green returned to Royal Studios in Memphis, scene of his greatest success and a home away from home.

Rev. GREEN: Yeah. There you go. Nobody, no jivin' around. Yeah, baby! You know what? See there?

Also still here is his mentor, famed producer Willie Mitchell. Once again, Mitchell composed the music, and Green wrote what he calls the stories.

MITCHELL: You've worked with some of the best singers.

Rev. WILLIE MITCHELL (Producer): I have.

MITCHELL: ...throughout your career.

Rev. MITCHELL: Yeah.

MITCHELL: Tom Jones.

Rev. MITCHELL: Yeah.

MITCHELL: Tina Turner.

Rev. MITCHELL: Yeah.

MITCHELL: Where does Al Green stand in that list?

Rev. MITCHELL: He's the boss of all of them.

MITCHELL: Is that right? He's the boss.

Rev. MITCHELL: He's the boss of all of them, yeah.

Born into a deeply religious family, Al Green began singing at an early age, gospel, in Jacknash, Arkansas.

MITCHELL: How poor was your family?

Rev. GREEN: We was pretty poor. I mean, my dad was a sharecropper, come on.

MITCHELL: Did you ever think that that was your destiny, to be a sharecropper as well?

Rev. GREEN: Nope.

MITCHELL: Never?

Rev. GREEN: No. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I wasn't going to do that.

MITCHELL: Really?

Rev. GREEN: Yeah.

By the early 1960s, when the family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, young Albert was developing an ear for the soul sounds of Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson.

MITCHELL: What did your father think about you listening to this secular music?

Rev. GREEN: Well, he didn't like it. He would say, 'Shut that off.' I'd have to shut it off, and when he'd leave again, I'd turn it back on.

MITCHELL: Is it true that he caught you listening to Jackie Wilson once?

Rev. GREEN: Yeah.

MITCHELL: And he broke your records?

Rev. GREEN: Well, it's true I got thrown out of the house. That's even worse than breaking my records.

Moving into a friend's attic, Green worked odd jobs and finished high school.

Rev. GREEN: Because my dad didn't believe that I was going to make it through school, and that was the only thing I was determined to do, because he said that I wasn't going to do it.

MITCHELL: Ah.

Rev. GREEN: So that's why I made that my little quest, to get through school no matter what. So I worked at the Laundromat, I worked all kinds jobs, you know. It was not to be glorious, glamorous "Let's Stay Together" Al Green that they show you on the TV. That's one Al Green, but I know an Al Green when he didn't have any place to stay.

Green formed a vocal group, and later, at a show in Midland, Texas, in 1968, Green's voice caught the attention of Willie Mitchell, back then, a successful bandleader, who offered to record Green in his Memphis studio with the promise to make him a star.

Rev. MITCHELL: We came in here on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. It was nine days I make him sing it all. He sang...

MITCHELL: "Let's Stay Together."

Rev. MITCHELL: He sang from six in the evening till four in the morning.

Green remembers Mitchell was trying his patience.

Rev. GREEN: Because Willie was trying to find out where Al is, so I kept singing like James Brown and Wilson Pickett and singing like Mavis Staples and anybody I could find.

Rev. MITCHELL: I said, 'I want Al Green. I don't want no Sam and Dave and Jackie Wilson.'

Rev. GREEN: I don't know how Al Green is supposed to sing, so I got mad. I left the studio. I squeaked my tires in front of Willie's studio (imitates tires squealing). I rode around for 20 minutes, I came back and I says, 'Forget this, man. I'm just going to sing this and I'm not going to put any feeling in it. I'm not going to put no emphasis in it. I ain't going to put, I'm just leaving it dry, just sing it.' I said, 'You ready?' He says, 'Yeah, I'm ready.' So then I said, (singing) 'I'm so in love with you, whatever you want to do is all right with me.'

Rev. MITCHELL: I said, 'Well, hello there.' Yeah.

MITCHELL: You just knew.

Rev. MITCHELL: Sure I knew.

Rev. GREEN: And that's how we discovered Al, I guess.

"Let's Stay Together" remains one of the most recognized recordings in music history. It's one of many hits. Yet Green was beginning to feel uneasy with his success. He says something was missing.

Rev. GREEN: Well, then, I didn't know the Lord. There was champagne, there was finer clothes, finer houses. Then you started getting into sports cars and, you know, and a little more this, and a little more of this (imitates snorting cocaine) and a little bit more of smoking and alcohol and girls, and that's what it was.

MITCHELL: Yeah.

Rev. GREEN: Yeah.

After a performance in 1973, Green says he received spiritual rebirth in a Disneyland hotel room.

Rev. GREEN: I went to the hotel. I went to bed. I woke up born again. Now how and what, I just felt brand new. I think it might have been my mind. It was so sweet.

MITCHELL: Did everybody think you were crazy?

Rev. GREEN: Well, yeah. Yeah, I was knocking on people's doors. I knocked on a white couple's door and I told them, I says, 'Excuse me, but I've been born again.' The guy said, 'Hon, call security. There's a little black guy here talking about how he been born again. Call the police.'

But a born-again Al Green says he struggled to balance his spiritual calling with the life of a rock star.

Rev. GREEN: I'm in this club, the Latin Casino, and Al opens up the Bible to Deuteronomy and starts reading. I never seen a club clear out so fast in all my life. I mean, man, people said, 'What's this guy doing?'

MITCHELL: Well, it sounds like you were living in two worlds at that time as well.

Rev. GREEN: At that time, I was living in two worlds.

Those worlds collided in 1974, when a spurned lover threw a pot of boiling grits on him and then killed herself, an incident that today, Green says he views as a message.

Rev. GREEN: God did tell me a lot through Mary. I mean, that was things that I'd never heard of. I said, 'I'm a rock star. I can't preach in nobody's church. Are you crazy?' Let alone buy one. Oh, I wound up buying one. Would've bought two if it would have eased my mind a little.

A few years later, Green says he decided to put his life in God's hands. He abandoned pop music and devoted himself to the ministry and gospel music. These days, Al Green is mostly silent about his personal life, although glimpses can be found in his office, where his nine Grammy Awards, eight for gospel music, share space with photos of his children.

Today, Reverend Green is in his 27th year as pastor of the Full Gospel Baptist Church. He leads a congregation of 150. Hundreds more come by to be inspired.

MITCHELL: The ladies like your songs, and that's OK by you?

Rev. GREEN: That's fine with me. There are people who come to this tabernacle because of the love songs. Of course I know that.

MITCHELL: You know that? You realize that?

Rev. GREEN: Absolutely. The people be coming in for the love songs. 'I hope he sing "Love and Happiness."' You know, they're sitting right here, excuse me up there. Yeah. I mean, there are people coming here, you know, they want you to sing "For the Good Times," and I'm going like 'This is a sanctuary.'

Green believes his ministry is far more important than his pop music career.

Rev. GREEN: People are always saying in these articles that 'He come up with some way to combine rhythm and blues with gospel and he makes it all go together.' Well, that's the most untrue thing I've heard, because sacred things are sacred things, and they belong up here. And carnal things; 'I love you, baby,' is down to here. So you got two different levels, so that means I'm down here and up here.

It's taken years, but today Al Green has found that graceful balance of up there and down here.

MITCHELL: Life is good?

Rev. GREEN: Life is really, really good, because the music itself is a ministry. The whole music has become the ministry now, not just this little church that holds 500 people, though the whole world now is the table on which the ministry is preached.

And Al Green, the pastor and the soul singer, is still enjoying every minute of it.
  • Sean Alfano

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