Born April 13, 1946, in Forrest City, AR; father played bass for traveling gospel group; married; children. Addresses: Record company-- Epic Records, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101-4450; 1801 Century Park West, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
Al Green emerged from relative obscurity--he recorded one moderately successful single in the 1960s--to become one of the premiere soul vocalists of the early 1970s and an unrivaled hitmaker. His impassioned, sensual delivery and silky charisma made him a sex symbol as well, and he seemed prepared to dominate the world of rhythm and blues throughout the decade with hits like "Love and Happiness" and "Let's Stay Together." Something unexpected happened, however, that exerted a profound effect on the course of Green's career: he converted to Christianity, made his way back to the gospel music he had sung in childhood, and eventually became the minister of his own church in Memphis, Tennessee. Although this decision cost Green the chance to be the king of soul music, he has recorded a string of albums since then, some of them quite successful, and has introduced many secular listeners to the power of gospel. In his prime as a mainstream soul singer, though, according to Geoffrey Himes of Musician. "Green created a body of work that stands with the best black pop of the 70s."
Green was born in 1946 in Forrest City, Arkansas. His father played bass in a traveling gospel group, the Green Brothers, and by the age of nine, Al was singing alongside his brothers in the band. The family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Al was about sixteen, and there he discovered the joy of secular music: the nongospel work of Sam Cooke and, most especially, the sounds of rhythm and blues legend Jackie Wilson. "I had told my father and my brothers that I had this idea about me becoming a real popular singer and they didn't like it," Green told Melody Maker in a 1975 interview. "They didn't believe I could do it and they thought I was kidding them.... They thought I was nuts." They also thought pop music was sinful. Green further confessed in the interview that he would "sneak out" to a friend's house to listen to pop records.
Having decided on a career in pop music, Green assembled a group known as Al Green and the Creations; when that group broke up he formed Al Green and the Soul Mates. In 1967 Green and the group recorded his first single, "Back Up Train." Released by Bell Records, the song was a Top Five hit, though Green never made a penny from it. He began singing his one hit on the "chitlin circuit," as the black music nightspots of the time were known. "I can remember doing the Apollo in New York as the opening act when I had just eight minutes to sing my record on stage," he recalled to Melody Maker. "Four of those minutes it takes to get from the tenth floor dressing room all the way down to the bottom and by the time you're into the song, they're calling you from the side, ready for the next act." Green added, "After one song they wouldn't let me do any more. I tried to do some Sam and Dave tunes, but they'd only let me sing 'Back Up Train.'" Green reportedly told a skeptical floor manager that he'd be back one day, "with a dressing room on the first floor instead of the tenth."
After a couple of directionless years, Green hooked up with trumpeter-producer Willie Mitchell in Midland, Texas. The two had been ripped off by the same club owner and vowed to escape the torpor of the circuit. Mitchell had a label in Memphis called Hi and was prepared to make killer soul records. Mitchell, together with brothers Tennie, Leroy and Charles Hodges (on guitar, bass, and keyboards) and drummers Howard Grimes and Al Jackson, Jr.--the latter formerly of the stellar Memphis band Booker T. and the MGs--needed only a singer whose voice would define the sound. "Green's was that voice," wrote Himes in Musician. "It seemed to defy gravity as it grew in intensity, as it rose in pitch. It had a soft-slurring sensuality that blended the urban sophistication of Northern soul with the holy roller roots of Southern soul." With its tough, funky rhythm section and buoyant, often string-laden melodic arrangements, the Hi house band could match Green's vocal flights. "It was a good package," said Green with characteristic understatement in a Down Beat interview; he told Rolling Stone in 1987 that "Willie would write the music, I wrote the words, and then Al Jackson would come in and say, 'Let me hear that.' It was just a combination that clicked."
After grappling with some inappropriate material--notably attempts to cover songs by the Beatles and soul hitmaker Isaac Hayes--they hit with a Green original, "Tired of Being Alone," in 1971. Green explained to Melody Maker, "Nobody was writing the kind of material that I heard in my head and wanted to sing. My only choice was to write my own." The single was a million seller; that same year saw the release of the album Al Green Gets Next to You, which also contained "I Can't Get Next to You" and "Are You Lonely for Me."
Green reached the number one position on the pop and rhythm and blues charts with his next big hit, "Let's Stay Together." The album that bore the single's title, released in 1972, went platinum, as did its successor of the same year, I'm Still in Love With You. Dean and Nancy Tudor wrote in their 1979 book Black Music that "Green's voice is very flexible: he can growl, scream, shout, croon, scat, and so forth with no apparent effort, including a rising falsetto." They maintain that Let's Stay Together and I'm Still in Love With You "contain his best work to date." Rolling Stone 's special 1988 list of "The Top 100 Singles of the Last 25 Years" put "Let's Stay Together" at number 45. It was, wrote the editors, the song that "established Green as one of the great soul singers." The Rolling Stone piece also cites a story Mitchell told in a 1984 documentary: "We were over here in the ghetto area, and there was a bunch of winos drinking with themselves out there. We said, 'Let's get four or five gallons of wine--bring these people into the studio!' So we brought about fifty people in here, all the winos drinking wine and lying on the floor while we were cutting the record. If you notice, on the Let's Stay Together album, there's a lot of noise in the background. Well, it's the winos."
In 1973 Green was riding high. He released three albums that year, two of which, Livin' for You and Call Me, went gold. "I think my best singing was done on Call Me, " Green told Rolling Stone in 1987. The magazine referred to the record as "perhaps the epitome of [the Green-Mitchell] collaboration," featuring Green's versions of a couple of country songs, including the Hank Williams classic "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away." The gospel song "Jesus Is Waiting" also appeared on Call Me, reflecting the fact that in the midst of his pop success and recognition, the singer had found religion. "I was born again in 1973," Green told Musician, insisting that he underwent a lengthy "transformation" rather than being turned around by a single incident. Instead of switching to straight gospel music performances as a result of his experience, Green attempted a synthesis between popular soul and the intense religious ferment he felt.
The year 1974 saw the release of Al Green Explores Your Mind, which featured the single "Take Me to the River." That song--covered by many artists in the ensuing decades--is at once a riveting ode to sexual desire and a cry for spiritual redemption. The tension of secular and sacred in the song gives it a compelling edge. The straightforwardly upbeat 1974 single "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)" was a huge hit as well. But the year may be more notable for an incident that pushed Green further toward his eventual ministerial destination. A woman he knew and had rejected scalded the singer while he bathed by pouring a pot of steaming grits down his back. She then locked herself in his bedroom and committed suicide. This traumatic experience moved Green--who was hospitalized for his burns--to reflect on his life and eventually to seek solace and illumination in the scriptures.
Hi released a Greatest Hits package in 1975, signalling, consciously or not, the end of Green's reign as a soul music hitmaker; it went gold. It was, however, the beginning of a new era. In 1976 he became a minister, though he had to open his own church--the Full Gospel Tabernacle--in Memphis to escape the scorn of the religious establishment. The next year, Green went into his own studio for Hi--but without Mitchell--to produce The Belle Album. Although Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone called it "idiosyncratic," he asserted that "we may someday look back on The Belle Album as Al Green's best." Of the song "All 'n All" Marcus remarked that "it carries a sense of liberation and purpose deep enough to make the sinner envy the saved." Musician 's Himes called Belle "the crowning artistic achievement of Green's career." The record was not, however, a commercial success, at least measured against Green's previous efforts.
Rolling Stone 's Dave Marsh wrote of Green's 1979 follow-up Truth n' Time that it "lacks the monumental peaks" of Belle but "it has much more focus." Green was still struggling for balance, mixing gospel songs like "King of All" with such pop covers as "To Sir With Love" and a nod in the direction of disco. He lost his balance quite literally that year, falling from the stage during an appearance in Cincinnati, Ohio, and he was subsequently hospitalized for two weeks. "I was moving towards God, but I wasn't moving fast enough," Green was quoted as saying in a Musician profile. "It was God's way of saying hurry up." Green hurried up and recorded his first album of exclusively gospel songs, 1980's The Lord Will Make a Way, for the Texas religious music label Myrrh Records. Although he was no longer a contender for massive pop sales, Green was honored with a Grammy that year for best gospel performance. He continued in this vein with Higher Plane in 1981 and Precious Lord in 1982. Tom Carson wrote in Rolling Stone that Higher Plane "may be the most intimately seductive gospel album ever recorded." Melody Maker called Precious Lord "a lovely collection of songs." Also in 1982, Green appeared in the Broadway gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. And he continued performing live, though his sexually dynamic stage presence alienated some gospel fans.
Green's 1986 record He Is the Light reunited him with Mitchell and saw him return to a major label, A&M. According to Rolling Stone, "Green and Mitchell have successfully recreated the sound of the classic soul albums they cut for Hi Records." 1988 saw Green re-emerge momentarily on the pop scene with "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," a duet with rock diva Annie Lennox on the Scrooged movie soundtrack. In 1989 he released I Get Joy, which Cosmopolitan called "smoldering." Hi/MCA released a collection of pre-gospel Green material called Love Ritual in 1990. Then Green moved to Word/Epic for the 1991 compilation One in a Million, which gathered songs from his eighties gospel albums, and 1992's Love Is Reality. On Love he was produced by former Motown recording artist Tim Miner, who surrounded Green with up-to-date production touches and arrangements, including new jack swing. Green also made some videos to promote Love Is Reality. "It's kind of like a boxer fighting his fight," Green stated in the Epic press release. "He just goes in and hits it at the level he's at. We cut the album very fast. I wrote it in the studio. I wrote it at home. I wrote it in the hotel. I wrote one tune in the elevator, on the back of a legal pad."
By the time of Love Is Reality, Green had been recording gospel records for over twelve years. Yet critics and many fans continued to treat his gospel career, for the most part, as a footnote to his brief blaze of glory as a soul singer. Green, however, managed to bring the various camps together in part because he never recognized the formal boundaries. "There are different degrees of love and different kinds of celebration," he told Cosmopolitan. "I sang gospel music as a child, then wrote and sang pop songs for ten years, before I was born again in nineteen seventy-three. I've never known what the dividing lines were and still don't."
by Simon Glickman
Al Green's Career
Recording and performing artist, 1967--. Formed groups Al Green and the Creations and Al Green and the Soul Mates, mid-1960s; recorded debut single, "Back Up Train," 1967; released first LP, Al Green Gets Next to You, 1971. Ordained minister, 1976, and established Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, Memphis, TN. President of Green Enterprises, Inc., and Al Green Music, Inc.
Al Green's Awards
Platinum records for Let's Stay Together and I'm Still in Love With You, 1972, and Al Green Is Love and Greatest Hits, 1975; gold records for Livin' for You and Call Me, 1973, and Al Green Explores Your Mind, 1974; Grammy Award, 1980, for The Lord Will Make a Way; Dove Award, Gospel Music Association, 1984.
- Selective Works
- "Back Up Train" (single), Bell Records, 1967.
- On Hi Records Al Green Gets Next to You (includes "Tired of Being Alone," "I Can't Get Next to You," and "Are You Lonely for Me"), 1971.
- Let's Stay Together (includes "Let's Stay Together"), 1972.
- I'm Still in Love With You 1972.
- Al Green 1972.
- Green Is Blues 1973.
- Call Me (includes "Call Me," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and "Funny How Time Slips Away"), 1973.
- Livin' for You 1973.
- Al Green Explores Your Mind (includes "Take Me to the River" and "Sha-La-La [Make Me Happy]"), 1974.
- Greatest Hits 1975.
- Al Green Is Love 1975.
- The Belle Album (includes "All 'n All"), 1977.
- Greatest Hits, Volume II 1977.
- Truth n' Time (includes "King of All" and "To Sir With Love"), 1979.
- Love Ritual 1990.
- On Myrrh Records The Lord Will Make a Way 1980.
- Higher Plane 1981.
- Precious Lord 1982.
- On A&M Records He Is the Light 1986.
- (Contributor; with Annie Lennox) Scrooged (soundtrack; "Put a Little Love in Your Heart"), 1988.
- I Get Joy 1989.
- On Word/Epic Records One in a Million 1991.
- Love Is Reality 1992.
- White Christmas.
November 18, 2003: Green's album, I Can't Stop, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/rock.jsp, November 20, 2003.
January 27, 2004: Green's album, Absolute Best, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_7/index.jsp, January 29, 2004.
April 2004: Green was named to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/digest.htm, April 8, 2004.
- The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House, 1976.
- Tudor, Dean, and Nancy Tudor, Black Music, Libraries Unlimited, 1979.
- Audio, January 1990.
- Cosmopolitan, October 1989.
- Down Beat, April 5, 1979.
- Ebony, June 1991.
- Melody Maker, August 18, 1973; December 27, 1973; January 12, 1974; March 29, 1975; April 19, 1975; January 14, 1978; August 25, 1979; December 18, 1982; July 15, 1989.
- Musician, April 1983; March 1986.
- Rolling Stone, February 23, 1978; March 9, 1978; March 22, 1979; March 18, 1982; September 13, 1984; January 30, 1986; March 27, 1986; August 27, 1987; September 8, 1988.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from an Epic Records press release, 1992.