The songs of my life
When I was thrown out of home
Lonely Teardrops, Jackie Wilson (1958)
We moved to Michigan when I was nine, but when we still lived in Arkansas, all I heard was gospel. My brothers and I had a gospel quartet and that was the only music people listened to. But I was already gravitating towards songs by Sam Cooke, and then one day I put on a Jackie Wilson record and, baby, I was thrown right out of the house. When I was allowed back in my mum said: ‘You really like that stuff?’ And I just went ‘er… er…’ ‘Well, if you really like it,’ she said, ‘go ahead and do it.’ I took her advice, and I guess I did the right thing.
When I first began to sing
Cupid, Sam Cooke (1961)
I must have been about 14 when I was working on a lathe in a woodwork class at school. The machines were all going, and I was singing to myself, but I knew nobody could hear me. Then I turned the lathe off and continued to sing without thinking about it. The whole class was looking at me. Somebody said, ‘That kid can sing!’ I hadn’t even considered the idea of singing at that point. All we heard in the house was Mahalia Jackson, and besides, I had a squeaky little voice, like a rat or a mouse. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
When I found my voice
Live At The Apollo, James Brown (1963)
I would copy all these great singers, like James Brown and Sam Cooke. Willie Mitchell [producer and songwriter at Memphis’s Hi Records] told me: ‘You’ve got to be your own man, Al.’ And I replied: ‘But how am I supposed to sound?’ He told me to just figure it out. Next thing I know I’m in the studio, and the sight of that red light popping on scared me to death. And before I knew it I was singing ‘I’m so tired of being alone’, and that’s Al right there. From then my attitude was: let Otis be Otis and James be James. I’m not going to emulate them any more.
When we went into battle with Stax Records
Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac Hayes (1969)
Ann Peebles lived down the hall from me in Memphis and if people said she sounded like me on ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’, I took it as a compliment. We were on Hi Records and we had one enemy: Stax. We got real competitive. When I heard Isaac Hayes sing ‘One Woman’, I wished he would take those damn chains he wore and hang himself with them. Otis [Redding] would sing ‘I’ve been loving you too long’ and before you know it I would sing ‘I’m still in love with you’. Everyone was pitching against each other: it brought out the best in all of us.
When I returned to secular music
You’ve Got The Love I Need, Al Green (2008)
When I was ordained as a pastor I walked away from secular music for seven, eight years. It took me that time to learn that God is love. He is? Yeah! If you’re singing about love, you’re singing about compassion. ‘You’ve Got the Love I Need’ is about the family unit. The message is, ‘I don’t need anyone else, baby, I just need you. Let’s do the best for the kids. It’s going to be all right.’ These are good songs; sanctified songs. God told me, ‘I gave you the music, Al. Sing the music I gave you – all the music.’ So I did.
Strange and possibly true
1 In 1975 Jackie Wilson had a heart attack on the Dick Clark TV show, leaving him in a vegetative state until his death in 1984. One of the only artists to visit him regularly during those eight years was Green.
2 Interpreting the death of an old friend as a message from God, Green was ordained as a pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis in 1976. He preaches there to this day.
3 After falling from a stage in Cincinatti in 1979 and taking it as another sign from God, Green gave up secular music for eight years.
4 He played a minister in Beverly Hills Cop III
5 Green’s music is a favourite of hip, violent films and TV shows, featuring on Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos (twice) and The Wire
Don’t let the reverend business scare you. I’m a nice Reverend Al Green. I’m pretty down to earth.
The best thing about being a reverend is the chance to get down to the nitty gritty on what love is. Love is care, compassion, concern – I’m infatuated with being concerned about you. If you let that grow it will get to be everlasting love. From there you get to God is love.
When I was a boy I wondered why they sang so mournful in church. The teacher told me: “Mr Green, if we were singing to try to get your attention, we’d sing it the way you want it sung. But we’re not trying to reach you. We’re trying to reach a little higher.”
My daddy drank liquor. He would always leave me in the truck when he went to the liquor joint. He’d come out sloppy drunk and say: “Don’t tell your mama.” I’d be sitting in the back laughing. I didn’t have to tell her. All he had to do was try to get out the truck.
I was born again in 1973, when I was just getting started in music. I looked up at the sky saying: “What are you doing? I just had a song on the radio and now you gonna give me religion?” They were saying from upstairs: “Al, we want to save your life.” I thought: “Oh yeah, maybe I should at least help.”
I was hooked up on jet planes, good times, fast women. Everything of mine was fast.
You can’t compare a congregation to a crowd at a concert. A concert crowd does what they want. A congregation’s got rules and regulations.
I’m not trying to fool anybody. I’m a Christian, but I’ve lived a life that’s full. I’ve been married a couple of times, been up and been down, been right and been wrong. These are the things you go through in this life.
Life is more than snapping your fingers and having on a fine suit. Life is about devotion. It’s about family, it’s about the kids, it’s about school. It’s about going on a picnic with the boys.
As featured in The Guardian