Al Green: Take me to the preacher

Paul Sexton goes in search of Al Green, the legendary soul man turned pastor, for his radio series on the singer's life and times
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It was a 20-minute cab ride, but it was like a pilgrimage. Out of Memphis city centre, past Graceland, out into the Tennessee suburbs and on to an unremarkable building called the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Pastor: the Reverend Al Green.

It was a 20-minute cab ride, but it was like a pilgrimage. Out of Memphis city centre, past Graceland, out into the Tennessee suburbs and on to an unremarkable building called the Full Gospel Tabernacle. Pastor: the Reverend Al Green.

As a fan and then as a journalist, he'd been on my soul soundtrack from the moment that incredible voice wrapped itself around the Hi Records rhythm section on "Tired of Being Alone" in 1971. So he only had one more truly global hit with "Let's Stay Together" - so what. For another five years, he was the original king of bedroom R&B, from "Look What You Done for Me" to "You Ought to Be with Me", "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)" and many others.

Now here I was in the adopted home of the poor boy from Arkansas to interview him for a four-part series for BBC Radio 2, and to explore the lifelong push-and-pull between the church and the charts that goes on inside the head of perhaps America's last great soul man.

Green may have been a committed man of the cloth since he bought his own church in a quiet suburb of Memphis 28 years ago. He may have temporarily turned his back on the sexually charged, romantic soul that made him a wealthy superstar in the early 1970s. But the minute you meet him, it's as if he's on stage, performing - and when you witness his sermon, you feel as though you should have paid to get in.

These days, making secular recordings again even as he tends his Memphis flock, he flips between the disciplines with apparent insouciance and eccentric charisma. But the inner feuding that got him here is plain to see.

Next week, he releases Everything's OK, his second "reunion" album with his career-long mentor Willie Mitchell, the man whose sensuous productions helped to make Green the prototype, open-shirted lurve man in the first place. The new record and 2003's Grammy-nominated I Can't Stop are joyous things, even if they pull up a little short of the astonishing work they did together between 1969 and 1976.

Mitchell is a frail, if still fun-loving, 77, and a more cynical world has a little less time now for lush strings that soar and swoop at Green's command. For anyone who does not equate soul with sin, hearing his instinctive vocal dexterity on new recordings is simply beautiful, to quote from that brimming treasure-chest of classics. But, by his own frank admission, not all his parishioners feel that way.

As we speak at Royal Studios on the very microphone where he made all his hits, I wonder if some of Green's disciples had a problem when they found their church had been bought by a soul star. " Have a problem," he corrects me. "There's going to be people that have a problem with that until the day we leave out of here.

"Something about this music, this sound, what he's saying [Green sometimes refers to himself in the third person], the tension of how the band is playing, the erotic way these guitars and horns, it really brings out a..." he hesitates. "I should say ecstasy. I'd better leave it at that."

He laughs loudly, before launching a typical non sequitur, something about a conversation with Hank Williams's widow. Later, the widely travelled producer Arthur Baker, who first worked with Green on "The Message Is Love" in 1989, tells me: "A lot of times, Al says things and they don't make sense, and then they make sense. You have to be in his world. I don't think you ever get the hang of Al. It depends which Al it's going to be. There's about three of them."

One of them, certainly, is the sixth child of 10 from a dirt-poor sharecropping family, raised in a dot on the Arkansas map so small that when Green went back to visit it, it had disappeared. He sang in the choir at school, excelling in music but little else. Soon after the family moved to Michigan, he started joining his siblings in local church performances as the Greene Brothers.

But the recurring contradiction in Green's life came of age at the same time he did. At 18, he was thrown out of the house by his father - hardly a paragon of religious virtue himself - for the sin of playing a Jackie Wilson record.

"Conflict is inherent in everybody's understanding of sanctification," says Robert Gordon, the music historian and author of the seminal local-music history It Came From Memphis. "Al came up in the church, he had a group with his brothers and his first pop band was called The Creations. The first commandment in the Bible is 'Be fruitful and multiply' - sex. So the conflict is inherent in everything, including Al's career. Every record he ever made with Willie had a gospel song on it."

Gordon's book will next month lend its name to a season at the Barbican in London celebrating the gloriously intertwined musical roots of Memphis. The series of concerts includes a Hi Records night featuring several other musicians who helped to create the label's sound, including Ann Peebles and members of the Hi house band. Green, interestingly, declined to take part, but he has since announced UK shows at the end of June.

Such is the unpredictable, other-worldly aura he shares with so many truly great performers. Gordon says: "On the very first recording Al made with Willie Mitchell and the Hi rhythm section [in December 1968], a take on The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand", the studio dialogue is preserved. Someone says, 'Al Green, you crazy.' And Al's already like this guy who doesn't really live in our world, he's just visiting."

Just the kind of stable influence you want as your local preacherman, then. But Green is making progress with his Sunday morning audiences, he believes, always quoting his own recordings and sounding much more live-and-let-live than fire and brimstone. "Now the congregation is beginning to say, well, there's nothing wrong with love and happiness - for the good times," he says. "What else are we saved for - for the bad times? What else do we have families for? This is not about hauling some old girl to the Holiday Inn."

In his autobiography Take Me to the River, Green says he has had carnal relations with more women than he could possibly calculate, and that before he was born again, he thought nothing of singing "Light My Fire" one minute and "God Is Standing By" the next.

"We used to have a lot of women hanging around here, man," he says, looking around the room at Royal where he honed his reputation as a lothario on wax. "Upstairs, downstairs, around the corner, in the control room, girls everywhere.

"A lot of this music has sexual overtones naturally incorporated in it, because that's the way I felt, that's the way the time felt. But that's what life's about. If it's not about that, you're missing a big chunk of life. It's about love, kids, falling in love, making up, and that's what we sung about."

His new secular songs have a decidedly "safer" romantic timbre, being written for his wife of 18 years, but he still has to explain to his congregation the implied compromise of his part-time return to showbusiness.

"I still sing those [old] songs, and I sing them now as life songs, because it's a part of life. God made you the way you are, and if you say you don't have this type of feelings, something is wrong with you.

"God didn't make you for sin so much," muses Green. "But if you find your mate, in the midst of all of this 'I love you' to different ones you're saying it to, just to get over... then that's what life is." He finishes the point with a sanctified "yeah," just as he probably will next Sunday morning.

'Everything's OK' is released by Blue Note/EMI on Monday. Paul Sexton's series 'The Reverend Al Green' continues on BBC Radio 2 on Wednesday at 10pm. The Hi Records night in the Barbican's It Came From Memphis season is on 22 April. Al Green plays UK shows from 29 June to 1 July