By Gilbert Garcia
In the late 1970s, Al Green abandoned secular music and established his own church in Memphis, Tennessee. That church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, is much like Green himself: a puzzling combination of down-home humility and megawatt star power.
A modest hexagonal edifice located just down the road from Graceland, it's a humble house of worship by the standards of Memphis' church-proud culture. The Full Gospel Tabernacle, however, is the lone Bluff City church that on a given Sunday will draw a busload of students from New Orleans, a gathering of starstruck European tourists, or celebrities such as Cyndi Lauper and Natalie Merchant.
While the presence of visitors more interested in catching a glimpse of a soul legend than hearing the good word might distract other preachers, Green wholeheartedly embraces the gawkers. "It doesn't bother me at all," he says during a phone interview from his church office. "This past Sunday we had people there from Germany, Tokyo, Finland. Man, people just come. We talked, we took pictures and everything."
Green, 58, likes to project himself as a simple man. He describes himself as an approachable guy who shops at Kroger, and heads out in his station wagon for Florida vacations with his wife, three kids, and the family dog. As far back as 1977's "Belle," when he made his definitive public break with worldly temptations ("it's you I want, but it's Him that I need"), Green referred to himself in song as a "little country boy."
A little country boy he may be, but he's also one of the greatest, most original vocalists in the history of recorded music, an icon fully aware of his own undiminished charisma, and an enigma whose effusive warmth only makes him seem more elusive.
Between 1970 and 1977, Green released a string of classic albums, and enjoyed estimable commercial success - particularly with a string of six consecutive Top 10 hits from 1971 to 1973. In a sense, though, his legend has only grown since he abandoned secular music, as he's become recognized as the last great soul man, the culmination of a tradition carried on by the likes of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Otis Redding.
That's why I Can't Stop, Green's 2003 reunion album with his '70s producer/collaborater Willie Mitchell met with such rapturous praise. It wasn't Green's first flirtation with the secular world since he became the Reverend Al (the 1995 MCA collection Your Heart's in Good Hands is only the most prominent of such periodic moves); and it wasn't the first time he had worked with Mitchell since they parted ways in 1976 (they teamed up for the 1986 spiritual set, He Is the Light). But it does mark the first time he has self-consciously reclaimed his legacy by meeting the notoriously gospel-phobic Mitchell on neutral ground.
Since they began recording together in 1969 at Mitchell's Royal Studios, their artistic union has been built on compromise. Green wanted to sound gritty like Wilson Pickett, but Mitchell slowly convinced him to accept the notion that their records should be "silky on top, rough on the bottom." Mitchell wanted Green to record pop covers, but Green slowly convinced him that his own songs were up to par.
In utter exasperation, Green says he sang "Let's Stay Together" as "dull and bland" as he could, and that's when Mitchell decided they had found Green's sound.
"Now we're more of one accord," Green says. "At first, I used to say the song ought to go like this and Willie said the song ought to go like that. We were kind of going tooth and nail for a minute. But that's what makes a good relationship. If you don't have nobody to fight with, you're kind of wondering, 'Why am I getting up in the morning?'
"So you really kinda need a good fight in your life every now and then. It makes life interesting. And it creates an atmosphere that you feel you must prevail."
Although Green is justifiably proud of his catalog of hits - and he can barely contain his enthusiasm at the mention of his forthcoming induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame - his years behind the pulpit have brought recurring doubts about the place of secular love songs in his repertoire.
"All the church folks were saying, 'In church you can't sing "Love and Happiness," you can't be singing "Let's Stay Together," "Tired of Being Alone," all that stuff.' But I'm a little-bitty minnow out here in this big pond. I said, 'That is my ministry. My ministry is "Love and Happiness" and "Let's Stay Together." If I can't do that, I can't do my ministry. They didn't understand that."
Green and Mitchell have already written their next album together, and plan to start cutting tracks soon. But Green's old doubts about his own earthly impulses never leave him. He says even after completing I Can't Stop, he worried about releasing it until members of his congregation assured him that the album didn't contradict his values. More recently, he looked to his wife for advice on a new, unrecorded song.
"The songs says 'Will you be my lady?' and I know it's kind of fresh, but I asked her about it. I explained that I'm singing to the people and I've just met this brand-new girl and we're at this place where we get naturally organic fruits and I'm asking her if she'll be my lady. And my wife says, 'Is that for real, or is that part of the story?'"
Green lets out a hearty, conspiratorial laugh. The answer will have to wait for the next album. •