March 21, 2005

LIFE SONGS:

Al Green: Take me to the preacher: Paul Sexton goes in search of Al Green, the legendary soul man turned pastor, for his radio series on the singer's life and times (Paul Sexton, 11 March 2005, Independent)

It was a 20-minute cab ride, but it was like a pilgrimage. Out of Memphis city centre, past Graceland, out into the Tennessee suburbs and on to an unremarkable building called the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Pastor: the Reverend Al Green.

As a fan and then as a journalist, he'd been on my soul soundtrack from the moment that incredible voice wrapped itself around the Hi Records rhythm section on "Tired of Being Alone" in 1971. So he only had one more truly global hit with "Let's Stay Together" - so what. For another five years, he was the original king of bedroom R&B, from "Look What You Done for Me" to "You Ought to Be with Me", "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)" and many others.

Now here I was in the adopted home of the poor boy from Arkansas to interview him for a four-part series for BBC Radio 2, and to explore the lifelong push-and-pull between the church and the charts that goes on inside the head of perhaps America's last great soul man.

Green may have been a committed man of the cloth since he bought his own church in a quiet suburb of Memphis 28 years ago. He may have temporarily turned his back on the sexually charged, romantic soul that made him a wealthy superstar in the early 1970s. But the minute you meet him, it's as if he's on stage, performing - and when you witness his sermon, you feel as though you should have paid to get in. [...]

In his autobiography Take Me to the River, Green says he has had carnal relations with more women than he could possibly calculate, and that before he was born again, he thought nothing of singing "Light My Fire" one minute and "God Is Standing By" the next.

"We used to have a lot of women hanging around here, man," he says, looking around the room at Royal where he honed his reputation as a lothario on wax. "Upstairs, downstairs, around the corner, in the control room, girls everywhere.

"A lot of this music has sexual overtones naturally incorporated in it, because that's the way I felt, that's the way the time felt. But that's what life's about. If it's not about that, you're missing a big chunk of life. It's about love, kids, falling in love, making up, and that's what we sung about."

His new secular songs have a decidedly "safer" romantic timbre, being written for his wife of 18 years, but he still has to explain to his congregation the implied compromise of his part-time return to showbusiness.

"I still sing those [old] songs, and I sing them now as life songs, because it's a part of life. God made you the way you are, and if you say you don't have this type of feelings, something is wrong with you.

"God didn't make you for sin so much," muses Green. "But if you find your mate, in the midst of all of this 'I love you' to different ones you're saying it to, just to get over... then that's what life is." He finishes the point with a sanctified "yeah," just as he probably will next Sunday morning.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 21, 2005 6:20 PM
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