Friday, September 16, 2005

TIME OF THE PREACHER

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 16, 2005


When The Rev. Al Green was a teenager his father kicked him out of their family gospel group after finding young Al listening to Jackie Wilson records.

That’s a classic example of the conflict between the sacred and the profane, a Faustian struggle that has been a major and ongoing theme in the history of American music.

“There’s a difference, of course, in both worlds, the secular and the sacred,” said Green -- who is performing at the Santa Fe Opera Saturday -- in a phone interview Monday. “But I can only be one person. I have to reconcile these things in my mind to persevere and press on.”

This conflict was apparent from the earliest days of rock, when Little Richard denounced the sinful ways of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle to become a preacher -- at least for a few years. And when Jerry Lee Lewis told Sun Records owner Sam Phillips in essence that he knew rock ‘n’ roll would lead him straight to Hell, but he intended to rock all the way to the flames. It was central to Sam Cooke, who stunned devotees of his gospel music by going to the secular world and helping create a sound known as “soul music.” It ate away at Marvin Gaye -- shot to death by his father, a minister -- whose biography is titled Divided Soul. It’s been a major issue for Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Prince, Robert Randolph and who knows how many others.

Filmmaker Robert Mugge, who made a 1984 documentary called The Gospel According to Al Green, said in an e-mail interview this week that “the sacred-secular conflict clearly represents both the heart and the soul of Al Green.”

Mugge said he used to introduce the movie saying, “This is a film about love, about the connections between soul music and gospel, and about a man who flew to close to the sun, got his eyeballs burned, and has been singing ever since with fire coming out of mouth.”

But Green said Monday he long ago reconciled this inner conflict.

“I don’t have any blockades to hinder me in the things the Lord has allowed me to do,” he said. “I look at what God has done, and I think `How magnificent!’ … I don’t have to draw lines. Other people might think they have to draw lines on everything, but not me. No, because I’m Al. I know who God is. To me, God performs a miracle every day when I wake up in the morning.”

Born in rural Arkansas and migrating with his family to Grand Rapids, Mich. at an early age. By the age of 20, after his dad had thrown him out of the gospel group, Green was pursuing a musical career in the world of soul.

In 1969 hooked up with a trumpet player and producer named Willie Mitchell in Midland, Texas. (They’d both been cheated by a nightclub owner there.) Recognizing Green’s vocal prowess, Mitchell took him to Memphis, where he was a producer for Hi Records.

Together, Green and Mitchell created a new soul sound. And by 1971 Green was swimming in hits: “Love and Happiness,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “I’m Still in Love With You.”

“I was 21 and this sex-symbol type of Al Green,” Green said. “ There was a poster of me with my shirt off and a picture of me with my thumbs in my pants. That was back then. It doesn’t make for me today. I wrote those songs about girls, not the Lord. But as time goes on, you begin to reconsider about what‘s important.”

As documented in Mugge’s film, Green’s guilt and conflicts with his soul star lifestyle and his religious upbringing were becoming apparent even by the mid ‘70s.

It all came to a head in a horrible 1974 incident in which a spurned girlfriend threw a pot of boiling grits in his face as he was bathing, causing second-degree burns. She then went into a bedroom and committed suicide with a gun.

Green converted to Christianity and by 1976 was an ordained minister. By the end of the decade he turned his back on secular music for years.

Mugge said his interview with Green for the documentary was one of the first time Green publicly talked about some of his darker times.

“Some of his longtime musicians were in the control room of his studio, basically standing there with their mouths hanging open,“ Mugge said. “I learned from them afterwards that Al had spoken to me of things that, to their knowledge, he had never discussed with anyone. Naturally, the so-called `hot grits incident’ was, for him, the most painful subject for him to address. But I had the sense that he really did what to talk about it that day -- to get the matter out on the table, to let people know exactly what had happened, and then to be done with it.”

Though his past two secular albums, I Can’t Stop (2003) and Everything’s O.K. have received strong critical acclaim, Green considers his church, The Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, his true work.

He says he preaches there 52 weeks a year, including Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night services. The church, which seats 150, has become a Memphis tourist attraction.

“People come from all over,” he said. “Yesterday there were people from Finland. We’ve had people from Austria, Japan, Australia, Ireland, they come from everywhere. The word has spread that if you’re really into Al Green, you’ve got to go see him at his church. You think he’s something on stage, you should see him at the Tabernacle.”

Green said his secular work serves God as well as his gospel music.

“Love will make you do right,” he said. “Of course it can sometimes make you do wrong too. But I’ve had couples come up to me and say they got married to my music.

“Some have said they had their children because of my music,” he said. Green said he asked one woman how that was possible. She answered in song, he said, then he imitated her: “Lay your head on my pillow …” he sang. (This is from his version of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.”)

Green said he’s already begun a new album, which he said will include a cover of a Marvin Gaye song, though he refused to say which one.

He’s also going to be the subject of an upcoming biopic starring Mekhi Phifer. The working title is “Tired of Being Alone.”

As for the show Saturday night, Green said, “Tell Santa Fe I’m going to bring them `Love and Happiness.’ "

Who: The Rev. Al Green with opening act Raul Midon
What: Soul Music
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday Sept. 17
Where: The Santa Fe Opera
How Much: Tickets range between $25 and $85. Call Santa Fe Opera Ticket Office 986-5900
Contact Fan Man Productions

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