To a greater extent than even his predecessors Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Al Green embodies soul music’s mix of sacred and profane. He was one of the Seventies’ most popular vocalists, selling over 20 million albums. His wildly improvisational, ecstatic cries and moans came directly from gospel music, and in the late-1970s he returned to the Baptist church as a preacher. In the 2000s, Green returned to secular music and continues to turn out acclaimed albums, staying close to the Memphis-soul sound that made him famous.
Green (who dropped the third “e” from his surname when he went solo) was born on April 13, 1946, to a large family of sharecroppers in Forrest City, Arkansas. When he was nine, he and his brothers formed a gospel quartet, the Greene Brothers. They toured the gospel circuits in the South and then the Midwest after the family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, three years later. Green’s father dismissed him from the quartet after he caught him listening to the “profane music” of Jackie Wilson. At 16 he formed a pop group, Al Greene and the Creations, with high school friends. Two members of the Creations, Palmer James and Curtis Rogers, founded a record company, Hot Line Music Journal, for which the group — renamed Al Greene and the Soul Mates — cut “Back Up Train” in 1967. The single went to Number Five on the national R&B chart. Follow-ups failed, however, and the group broke up.
Green met his most important music collaborator, Willie Mitchell, in Midland, Texas, in 1969. Mitchell was a bandleader, a producer, and a vice president of Hi Records of Memphis, to which he signed Green. He also became Green’s producer and songwriting partner for the next eight years. Green Is Blues introduced the sound that would distinguish all the records Green made with Mitchell: simple but emphatic backbeats riding subdued horns and strings, and Green’s voice floating untethered over the instruments.
His second album contained Green’s first solo hits — “You Say It” (Number 28 R&B, 1970), “Right Now, Right Now” (Number 23 R&B, 1970), and “I Can’t Get Next to You” (Number 11 R&B, 1970) — and his first gold single, “Tired of Being Alone” (Number 11 pop, Number Seven R&B, 1971), which he wrote. That began a three-year string of gold singles, most of them written by Green, Mitchell, and Jackson: “Let’s Stay Together” (Number One pop, Number One R&B, 1971), “Look What You Done For Me” (Number Four pop, Number Two R&B, 1972), “I’m Still in Love with You” (Number Three pop, Number One R&B, 1972), “You Ought to Be with Me” (Number Three pop, Number 1 R&B, 1972), “Call Me (Come Back Home)” (Number Ten pop, Number Two R&B), “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” (Number Ten pop, Number Two R&B), “Sha La La (Make Me Happy)” (Number Seven pop, Number Two R&B, 1974), and “L-O-V-E (Love)” (Number 13 pop, Number One R&B, 1975).
In October 1974 Green was hospitalized with second-degree burns on his back, arm, and stomach after a former girlfriend, Mary Woodson, poured boiling grits on him while he was bathing in his Memphis home and then killed herself with his gun. The incident apparently triggered a spiritual crisis in Green, and he announced his intentions to go into the ministry. In 1976 he purchased a church building in Memphis and was ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle.
He did not, however, give up on his pop career, and he preached at his church only when he was not on tour. His records continued to place regularly on the R&B chart and occasionally on the pop chart. In 1977 he built a studio and, with Belle, began producing his own records, maintaining the style and standards he had set with Mitchell. But during a 1979 concert in Cincinnati, he fell off the stage and narrowly escaped serious injury. He considered the incident a warning from God. For a time thereafter, his public appearances were limited to religious services in churches around the country, where he both sang and preached.
His Eighties recordings, distributed by Myrrh, a gospel label, contain only religious songs, both standard hymns and Green’s originals, in a style that mixes Memphis soul with gospel. In 1982 he did a stint on Broadway, co-starring with Patti LaBelle in Vinnette Carroll’s gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. Talking Heads scored one of their biggest pop hits with a cover of Green’s “Take Me to the River” in 1978, and Green himself duetted with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics on the Jackie DeShannon classic “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” for the soundtrack of the 1988 film Scrooged.
In 1992 Green signed a new deal with BMG Records and returned to the Memphis soul sound of his roots with Don’t Look Back, which featured production help from David Steele and Andy Cox (Fine Young Cannibals) and Arthur Baker (Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and other early-Eighties electro-dance hits). MCA released a revised version of the album in the U.S. as Your Heart’s in Good Hands in 1995. The year before, Green duetted with Lyle Lovett on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” for Rhythm, Country, and Blues, a collection of duets that teamed up well-known artists in each of those fields. That collaboration netted him a Grammy. The four-CD Anthology includes not only the hits and other album cuts, but his onstage sermonizing and interview snippets. In 1995 Green was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He sang “Funny How Time Slips Away” with Willie Nelson at the induction ceremony. Green had an ongoing role on the TV series Ally McBeal playing an evanescent character who moved in and out of McBeal’s subconscious. In fall 2000 HarperCollins released Green’s autobiography Take Me to the River. Two years later the Grammys awarded him for lifetime achievement.
In 2003 Green had a late-career resurgence with I Can’t Stop. With Willie Mitchell working with the soul singer for the first time in 18 years (it had been even longer since they’d made secular music together), the album was a triumph that utilized the band Mitchell and Green used in the early-1970s. Green made it into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2004, and the following yearEverything’s OK appeared, a more confident version of the I Can’t Stop blueprint.
In May 2008, at age 62, Green released Lay It Down (Number Nine, Top 200), produced by the Roots’ drummer, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and keyboardist James Poyser and featuring duets with younger contemporary artists such as John Legend, Corrine Bailey Rae, and Anthony Hamilton. In 2009, Green teamed with Trinidadian R&B singer Heather Headley on a version of the soul classic “People Get Ready” for the Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration compilation.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.