Al Green: Still Wants To Get Next To You

by Jake Sprecher • Originally Published Sept. 2007

What can you say about Al Green? Well, I can think of a few things, the first being this: Al Green is a living legend. He was a giant in the heyday of soul, rhythm and blues. His name hangs with the big boys, like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Sly Stone. The albums Green released during the early 1970s under the guidance of Hi Records guru Willie Mitchell are quite simply among the greatest R&B records ever recorded. The majority of people are merely familiar with Al’s super hits, such as “Let’s Stay Together” and “I’m Still In Love With You,” but it is important to remember that songs like these were gems within masterpiece works. His voice was, and still is, like heaven on earth. A Baptist Reverend since 1979, he is a man of passion, love and soul to the bone. Synthesis had the privilege of catching up with Al in anticipation of his appearance at Gold Country Casino this Tuesday, September 11th.  We found out Al still sings what he means and talks what he sings.

Man oh man, you’re back out on the road and you’ve been putting out records since 1967 with Back Up Train. That’s 40 years. How’s it feel to still be in the game?

Ah, what they was celebratin’ in London and Madrid and Paris is 60 years of rhythm and blues. They was talkin’ about Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and Willie Nelson and Sarah Vaughan and different other ones; it was kinda like a mix of people they had… And you know you can’t leave out Ella, I mean she’s a-skittin’ and scattin’ but she still sang the songs. And Liza Minnelli’s mom, Judy Garland. On stage… just between you and me, Jake, she kick yo’ ass [big laughs]. You like, “Oh shoot!”

Where does all of your soul and energy come from? You’re 58 years old and still going like you’re 28.

See, we have a job to do. We have to carry this ministry that we have of love and happiness. The Ministry of Love and Happiness. Because we were told that there’s a lot of lonely people in the world. Sometimes the people you see that’s with somebody, they feel like they’re by themselves. And I want you to go and tell the lonely people that there’s love in the world. And that’s our job right there. Now, we sang “Love and Happiness,” we sang “Let’s Stay Together,” and we gonna sing “I’m Still In Love With You” after 40 years, because, she say, well [mimicking a female voice], “I gained three pounds,” and I say, “Well darlin’ I didn’t fall in love with your weight, I fell in love with you.”

I was hoping you could talk about your musical roots. How was it that you fell in love with singing and performing?

I started… I don’t know… I was a little kid in the shop room with a lathe going cuttin’ wood. ‘Cause I was raised up in Michigan, and in Michigan they gonna want you to cut lumber, and know how to fit joints together to make furniture, and they had us doin’ all that stuff and I was singin’ and the lathe was goin’ and I was sanding down my wood and I shut the dag-gum thing off and look around the whole darn class behind and [they] say, “That guy can sing.” That’s the first time I’d ever heard that. I said, “Aww, come on.” And they was goin’ like, “Naww, that guy can sing.” And I had to think about that a while and finish high school before I got serious about, “Maybe I can sing.”

And the rest is history.

I suppose so. I met Willie Mitchell in ‘bout ’69, right.

Talk about some of the strides you made as an artist with Willie Mitchell. He took you to the next level so to speak, didn’t he?

To me, he did. I mean, he kinda discovered the real talent of Al. And refined it. I didn’t know who to sing like; I didn’t know what to sing. So Willie kept telling me, “Sing like Al Green.” I kept feeling like, “I don’t know how Al Green sounds.” He said, “Well, you are Al Green. Can’t you sing like yourself?” I told him, I says, “You see [the] persona of a person outside of the person. But I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!” I’d be out there trying to sing like Wilson Pickett. And he’d be up there goin’, “No, no, sing like Al Green!” And I’m going like, “How does Al Green sound?” And I couldn’t figure that out so I went outside, got in my Corvette, did donuts in front of the studio, smoked up the wheels [cackles], got mad, went home, called him at 2:30 in the morning and said, “Okay. You wanna try this?” And he started laughin.’ He said, “I’ll meet you down in the studio in 30 minutes.”

Between 1972-73 you put out probably your three greatest albums. Let’s Stay Together, Gets Next To You, and Call Me. Do you look back on those years with particular fondness even today?

Yeah, that was… it’s all mixed up together. I mean, Jake, it’s like, all the fun, all the girls—gotta put the girls in there—whooooo man, I’d a-be a whole suite full of women, man. My God they would just be sittin’ round on the floor, all the way around and my daddy said, “Al! Why don’t you pick just one [big laughs] instead of 20!” I’m going like, “One? But dad, they wanted to come in here.” I mean, I didn’t—maaaaaan! I had to learn what that was. Try to keep my head on straight and not lose myself in all this Hi [Records] stuff, and bein’ high, and you can’t do it without gettin’ high, and I’m goin’ like, “Well, I gotta do it the way that I normally am.” So, you know at that time you’re trying different things, and people giving you stuff, and all kind a-old junk like that and you gotta learn how to do better. You gotta learn how to say “No” to that, and get into your rhythm of what the Big Man Upstairs has for you to do. And you can’t follow some of your friends. ‘Cause some of them is stooooned to the gib… And in the midst of all that, Jake, I was born again.

Since the late ‘70s you’ve been leading your Baptist congregation, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis; do you take the same feelings of enjoyment from singing gospel music as you do pop music?

They get better; closer to my roots. And that’s who’s producing the next album, The Roots. They’re fantastic, with Amir on drums and all that… But Jake, I mean, you know, they’re doing a great job and the songs that they’re doing are kinda like, it’s hip-hop music, but I want Al to sing like Al. I won’t change Al, but I wanna change the music for today’s feel… and they got me in that bag, right. He says, “Hey man, you like the tracks?” I said, “Man, the tracks are bomb.” He says, “The machine’s on so go out there and sing it.”

Does it make you feel good to know that the music you put out 30 some-odd years ago is still very relevant to a younger generation?

I had little kids in London and I says, “You all are too young, you don’t know nothin’ about this music, the music was made before you was born!” And I asked a little kid, “Where did you get this music from?” She says, “I heard it from my mama! She plays it in the SUV [eruption of laughter].” And I got another generation coming on with the love and happiness. I got a whole ‘nother little culture coming on.

What does the future hold for Al Green?

Ever-thang. Ever-thang… Sing your love and happiness. People need love, Al. People are lonely, man. People are broke up, families are disjointed, children over here and the parents over there. Sing your love and happiness; sing all of it. So that the people can know. And then, this is closing, in all of your ways, acknowledge. And I always give the Lord his propers when I come on stage. I say, “We wanna thank God for his goodness and mercy for bringing us here safe.” And I sing one verse of “Amazing Grace” and then I’m into “Doom-bob-doom-boom-bop” [mimicking “I’m Still In Love With You”] and everybody go, “Ohhhhh!” There you go. I’ll see ya, baby!