Al Green performs with Lizz Wright at UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall Thursday, Sept. 13, at 8 p.m. The show is sold out, but—whether or not you have tickets—Green's 40-year career could keep you busy alongside a turntable for weeks or, here, a lifetime.
Al Green's "Call Me" reached No. 10 on the pop charts in 1973. To say the least, it was a little unsettling for an Upstate New York 12-year-old who would faithfully record the American Top 40 in a spiral notebook as Casey Kasem counted 'em down every Sunday night. The song rode on pure emotion, something not really allowed in my family. When I tracked down earlier singles by Green—"Tired of Being Alone," "I'm Still in Love with You," "Let's Stay Together"—I encountered the same moans and gurgles and other Green touches again and again. It felt like four or five singers were living in one body. And then there were the flights of falsetto that—if music stained air—would have left silvery, shimmering streaks everywhere.
Green wrote or co-wrote all of the above songs, but he's plenty comfortable tackling the songs of others. Barry Gibb didn't write "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" for Green the way he'd penned "To Love Somebody" for Otis Redding, but Green took command of the song and transformed it into more than six minutes of Grade A drama. Green's covered his share of country songs, putting his lights-down-low stamp on Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" and Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away." But my favorite of his covers is his first Hi single, a downright giddy take on "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
The dramatic centerpiece of Come and Take Me: The Al Green Story—well, should it ever be made—occurred on Oct. 8, 1974. An obviously troubled Mary Woodson—a 29-year-old woman typically identified as Green's girlfriend in the story—burst in on Green and tossed a pot of scalding grits on his back. Woodson then shot and killed herself, and Green spent time in a hospital recovering. In 1976, Green became a Baptist minister and bought the church building that became the Full Gospel Tabernacle, but he didn't quit touring and didn't immediately turn to an all-gospel platform. It seems more likely that the real tap on the shoulder from Upstairs was when Green was injured falling off the stage at a 1979 concert in Cincinnati.
The Full Gospel Tabernacle is a block off Elvis Presley Boulevard in the Whitehaven section of Memphis. Inside, according to my former Memphite friend Elizabeth, "it looked like a crowded studio, tons of equipment and anywhere from maybe eight to 12 musicians at any given time." The collection plate gets passed a dozen times because you can't really have a cover charge for a church. When Elizabeth went, catch is, the Rev. Green wasn't in attendance, so I've always had to imagine: Did the sermon feature the same moans and cries and flights as the hits of '70s Al Green? And a horn section?
When Green released I Can't Stop in 2003, it was his first secular soul/R&B record in almost 10 years, as well as a reunion with producer/arranger Willie Mitchell. It was as much an event as an album. But it was an event that you could dance to, both slow ("Rainin' in My Heart") and fast (move the furniture when cranking "You"). Plus, there's that voice. Green, who turned 57 months before the album was released, could still sing a lawnmower's owner's manual and make it sound like an epic of yearning.
Maybe it all comes down to this, the last line in a poem titled "Understanding Al Green" by Adrian Matejka: "The point is Al Green hums better than most people dream."