For The Quietus
The sleeve notes to Al Green's 1969 album, the seminal Green Is Blues, introduced him as "a young man who is a red hot rhythm and blues singer with a difference that is gonna be greatly dug by all who tune an ear to the variegated tones and shades of this album".
And so it came to pass: by the time Al Green became the Reverend Al Green in 1976, half a decade of prolific album-releasing and hit-making had established him as the father of a new breed of soul music. Combining Memphis label Stax-Volt's brassy arrangements with the caramel vocal of Motown, Green, abetted by producer and friend Willie Mitchell, seduced soul fans and the pop charts, peppering the top 40 with his effortlessly sexy falsetto throughout the early seventies.
Now 63, Green is as effusive as your archetypal evangelical, barely getting through his sentences without breaking into song and then dissolving into laughter. These days he's back into soul, touring compulsively and preaching that same old kind of stay-together love from way back when, while the record labels and agents tot up the royalty fees on his behalf.
As can be the case with interviews with artists of Al Green's stature, it can take a while to actually get a hold of the man. By the time we speak, there's already been two cancellations and, this time, we make sure we listen to the preconditions. We're advised that Green is unaware Demon Digital are repackaging Green Is Blues for a reissue to celebrate its 40 years this June, let alone that there's an accompanying Most Sampled CD collating, um, his most sampled tracks – a fact that will be all too apparent when we finally get to speak to him.
We think we've been stood up for a third time then, just as interview notes are going the way of the paper bin, the phone rings. Michael Jackson's 'The Way You Make Me Feel' is playing. It could be morbidly appropriate hold music – except for there's a preacher man singing along in the background – and then suddenly Reverend Al comes on the line.
Does it feel like 40 years since Green Is Blues was released?
Oh god, no, it seems like it was just yesterday, remember?
Well, I don’t, no…
That was when Michael [Jackson] was playing the Wizard Of Oz.
Do you feel like a different person now to the person who released that album?
I guess so… I guess I’ve grown up in the meantime and I’m a lot stronger now, but I’m still Al, it’s just that I know more and therefore I don’t know anything, if you can make any sense of that.
I wondered about your return to secular music, which you’d kind of departed from by the eighties, and then this decade you came back to making ‘sexy’ songs again – why did you come back to it now?
Oh… oh, I don’t know, that was just what came to pass, I’m just following what was laid out, I’m not the author of anything. The big man upstairs is the author of everything, and you know what else, I got a whole record label named Demon! That’s right! When I go to heaven they’re going to be like ‘huh?’ [laughs] But they’ve really been a great company for me in the European and I guess international areas, so I can’t complain, they’ve been really good.
Okay, so you don’t think there’s any contradiction between making sexy music and being a reverend?
Jeez… you wanna ask the tough questions, huh?! Well, no, I don’t think so, I think there’s a tonne of difference between, say, secular, natural secular, or spiritual, now that’s the dividing line, that’s the difference. Like the ‘Belle’ album, “It’s you that I want but it’s him that I need,” so we can’t go further than that unless you have that element to go further, which is dealing in spiritual things right, right, right, right, RIGHT, RIGHT, RIGHT! [laughs] Now what about this album they’re putting out, what do you think about that?
Well I love it, but it’s been about for a long time now.
Did you guys remix it?
[Demon man comes on the line]: No, we didn’t remix it, we’ve released it in its original form with some bonus tracks on it.
Well, now, that’s just… you gotta send me a complimentary copy. [laughs]
Now, Hazel you’re a witness to that right?
Oh I’ve got it all here, don’t worry. Speaking of the Green Is Blues album, you covered the Beatles on that right?
Yeah, the Beatles, that’s right, and I was just 22 or something, going into the studio with Willie Mitchell, um, it was the beginning beginning. So I feel like really it’s the beginning beginning of the ‘One Woman’ song that opens up the album that you know, going into the ‘Give Me A Ticket For An Aeroplane’, the Boxtops, and the Beatles, and ‘Get Back’… I don’t know! We were just cutting a lot of stuff! You know, we were cutting a lot of stuff! We were just flowing! [sings] “Ain’t no love like my baby’s love…” Whatever! [laughs] We didn’t have a direction back then, we didn’t know what Al was, what is Al? You know, Willie kept telling me, “Sing Al Green,” and I was like, “What’s that supposed to sound like?” I didn’t know.
Do you think you know now?
Oh yeah, oh yeah! We know now! We just played the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana to 60,000 people… I think we just about know now.
So is it better now that you know who Al Green is and you don’t have to keep striving for that?
Well, I’m never satisfied with him, I always want to push him further and further and further and further, it’s like a line or a track – because I know the hill’s over here, you don’t try to… uh, try to interpret it before it comes, you just finish the journey. Don’t worry about the hills or the valleys, just finish the journey, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
Okay, so you never really feel like you’ve achieved what you set out to do?
Well, you say Creations, Al Green and the Creations, when you start saying Creations you start saying Green Is Blues because that was what he created in himself.
And you’re still striving to create something new every time?
Well, yeah, there’s this guy in the band, and he says to me after the show, “Why do you sing so hard? You already cut this song, this song’s already perfect,” and I go, “Well, I keep trying to make it better. In my head, I keep trying to make it better.” That’s right.
Do you think that’s why you’ve lasted so long when so many of your contemporaries have fallen by the wayside?
I guess so. I think you’ve got to find maybe one thing or two things you can do, and do those real well. And that’s kind of the philosophy of our National Anthem, ‘Let’s Stay Together’, you know. That’s what we do, and everybody comes in on the [sings] “I’m,” – it kills me! – “so in love with you!” Yes yes, okay, great, sit down! [laughs]
Did you ever hear what the Beatles thought of your cover of ‘Get Back’?
It’s like the Roy Orbison song, ‘Pretty Woman’, it’s like the same thing… those guys are so fantastic, so far advanced it what they wrote, it’s just incredible. And people were asking me “how do you sing it?” But I didn’t know – Willie wouldn’t let me hear the song! He said, “Sing what’s inside!” But I’d only heard it on the radio! So he said, “Just sing that!” But he wouldn’t let me hear it! So I had to kinda just improvise… but I think it turned out alright.
What about all the artists, hip hop artists especially, that sample you – Kanye West, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G – do you mind?
Their stuff is incredible.
Do you listen to it?
Yeah, I have to because I’m in the music business. And whether it’s rap, or whatever, I have to listen to it because I have to share in the vocation I’m in.
Okay, sure. So you don’t feel protective over your music when someone is cutting it up and reusing it?
No, I think they do good – Talking Heads ‘Take Me To The River’, that’s just fantastic; Tina Turner ‘Let’s Stay Together’, I said “Hey, man, that’s another interpretation – why didn’t I think of that?!” [laughs]
Have you ever heard your music used in a way that you really didn’t like?
I don’t really know because they send me from Los Angeles only what they want me to hear! [laughs] So I don’t know, I guess it’s a screening process or something! I probably should cut through that, but I don’t know, I guess they’re like “The man is a Reverend, he’s been in the church for 30 years, and now he’s been doing this here for 40 years and we kinda wanna protect the whole career…” the ‘Tired Of Being Alone’, the whole career, you know, ‘God Blessed Our Love’, fine fine fine. The whole thing is illustrated here on the wall with these gold records – but I can’t take these boys with me! Can’t take the money, can’t take the car.
Your music’s got a reputation for being really sexy…
Yeah, really seductive, but why is that?
You’re making an old man nervous! [laughs] Sexy, sexy… well when a man is 22 he’s got hips and a nice BO, he’s got that stance… I mean, Otis Reading didn’t try to be sexy, but he turned out to be sexy anyway – you know, 6’6’’ tall, young, handsome… come on man, I couldn’t help it!
It’s still hard to explain why some music can be so seductive…
I guess it’s kind of seductive if you’re playing it in the car on the way to work or something, and you’re thinking, “I should turn right here…”
What about your music, do you listen to stuff that’s in the charts or when you go home do you have your favourite records that you’re still listening to?
Well, I mean, with the tragedy of Michael they sent me all of Michael’s records, and I’ve played 1, 2, 3, 4 of Michael’s records so far, just incredible to listen to the talent of the man. I met Michael, and I hugged him, I gave him one of those boy hugs, type of thing, because we were over at Tito’s house, and they was having like a pool party with little crackers and champagne or something, and we were all out around the pool when Michael came in, with Germaine and, oh I don’t know man, it was a long time ago. And he says “Oh, I like your music,” and I said “Thanks, I like yours!” He’d been singing longer than me. It’s kind of hard to realise the fact that’s taken place for me. It’s just that everything ain’t right. A wonderful talent – a super-talent!
Yeah I know, but we kind of watched his decline over the last few years, that’s why I was talking about you still having the drive to get out there and do it – that takes a special kind of person.
Yeah, I mean, we’re doing like 100 dates, more than 100 shows a year, so you’ve got to be committed to it, you’ve got to love it to stay in it that long, to do that. Because if you don’t love it you get out of it real fast.
And who knows whether Jackson wanted to do it in the end or whether he just wanted out, you know.
Yeah, it’s kind of a question of whether he wanted to do it, and if he did want to do it, the people were saying he only weighed 112pounds! That he had anorexia! 112pounds! For 50 shows! I don’t know if he could’ve done the 50 shows. But he was a great talent, anyway.
For you personally, was there ever any one moment when you really thought ‘I’ve done it’?
Well, I keep pushing Al, I hug him and tell him how good he is, like at the Superdome, I keep telling him, ‘fantastic, fantastic, now come on, move of further, come on,’ But I don’t know how to tell him he’s done a good job, I just tell him to move on further to the next ladder.
Do you think hip hop and r’n’b has taken over from where soul music left off?
How can Monday be Tuesday? You gotta have your Mondays and you gotta have your Tuesdays. So why don’t Monday stay over in Monday’s slot and Tuesday stay over in Tuesdays slot, Wednesday will be in his slot, Thursday stay where he belongs, and everything will be fine!