AL GREEN DON'T NEED NOBODY
New bio explores the strange life of '70s soul stirrer, grits and all.
by Don Stradley
Al Green's career defies the usual pop star trajectory familiar to baby boomers. There was no defining moment, no appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, no star turn at Woodstock, nothing where fans can say they remember where they were when they first saw him. Granted, there may be some out there who recall the first time he appeared on Soul Train, and apparently every child born in 1972 was conceived while "Lets Stay Together" was playing on the car radio, or on the Sansui 8-track, but Green's life story seems so unlikely, so damned peculiar, that a long biography of him never quite gains traction, and not just because he dumped his career as a soul singer to become a preacher and record gospel tunes.
Jimmy McDonough's Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green is bursting with details, as well as an insightful reappraisal of Green's recorded output, but Green is a troublesome subject. Reader beware: Green is neither likeable, nor especially interesting. At the most, he's slightly eccentric, but no more so than the average overpaid celebrity. He talks about himself in third person, is dumb about money, is mean to people, and has had a string of bad marriages. We could say the same about almost anyone in the NBA or the NFL.
Al Green (as he calls himself, as in "Al Green has got to please Al Green,") was slightly weird from the start, a strangely effeminate boy who was once kicked off his high school football team for being too rough. The Green family landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan by way of an Arkansas backwater; they were unsophisticated and prone to believe in voodoo spells, but the brood was musical, specializing in religious hymns and gospel harmonies. Like a young Michael Jackson did in his own family, little Al Green absorbed what his older brothers were doing and was soon blowing them away with his silky, soaring vocal style.
The family gospel group performed in such such faraway locations as New York and Canada. Al was electric, belting out gospel songs and stealing the spotlight every night, though he remained, in his own words, "the kid under a tree by himself." Al's father, Robert Green, was capable of extreme cruelty - he once shot Al's pet goat and served it for dinner as a joke - and Al's brothers never knew what to make of their "different" younger sibling. He was the meal ticket, though, and he knew that he was the most gifted member of his mediocre family. He also started to dig the sound of secular singers, namely Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Elvis Presley.
He left home at 16 and slept in the guest rooms of various musicians, older cats who knew Al had some talent but needed protection. He was soon fronting a group called The Fabulous Creations, honing his stagecraft in one city after another. He heard Otis Redding sing at Chicago's Regal Theater and it was a revelation. "It was like God or something," Green said, "slipping out of heaven." There were also prostitutes, transvestite nightclubs, and rumors that Al tried his hand at pimping, a trade his brother Walter had mastered. Al recorded a modestly successful single, "Back Up Train," but when it failed to turn him into a star, he grew desperate. Broke, with little to show for his first few years on the road, he jump-started his career by teaming with music producer Willie Mitchell, the production guru behind a little known Memphis outfit called HI Records. Together, they recorded the string of mesmerizing soul hits that made Green a phenomenon of the 1970s. You might say Mitchell made Green, or vice versa. Neither would ever be as good without the other.
McDonough, author of first rate biographies of Tammy Wynette, Neil Young, and Russ Meyer, has plenty of mysteries to unravel with Green. Here was a man given to violent mood swings, yet capable of singing in a high, romantic falsetto designed to make women crazy. Here was a man who carried weapons, and physically attacked people, yet was thought by many in his circle to be not just gay, but downright feminine. He was capable of great generosity, but those who worked for him recall Green as a stingy jerk, the sort who stifled most confrontations by saying, "Don't you know who I am? I'm Al Green!"
And, of course, there was the tragic death of Mary Woodson, a mentally fragile woman who had left her husband to be with Green, only to commit suicide in Green's home. One night she purportedly threw a pan of scalding hot grits at the singer's bare back, and then shot herself in the head with his .38. At least that's what we're supposed to believe. McDonough raises enough questions about the incident that one doesn't know what to think. It was shortly thereafter that Green began preaching at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, though he'll always remind you that he'd found God a year earlier, at Disneyland.
In the ensuing years he became a ghostly presence in the world of pop and R & B. His music has been sampled endlessly by hip hop artists, he has appeared on award shows to sing alongside Justin Timberlake and others, and a recent Green album was produced by Questlove. Green has won numerous Grammy awards for his gospel work, and even appeared on Broadway, disastrously, opposite Patti LaBelle in a show called Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. In 1995 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he stumbled through a duet with Aretha Franklin.
McDonough tells us all of this, plus stuff about drugs and guns and domestic violence, but he's too much of a music buff to go full-blown Albert Goldman. He treats Green as a kind of distressed genius, fawning over his talents with something close to blind adoration, describing Green's falsetto at the end of "Aint No Fun For Me" as feeling "like a little balloon escaping into the night sky." Then, seeking gravitas where there isn't any, compares another Green recording to "an ancient screed chiseled on tablets excavated deep within some pyramid."
Somehow, the reverence starts to sound like plain old ass kissing.
McDonough, as if trying to dilute his hero worship, occasionally declares that not all of Green's music appeals to him. Love is Reality, he writes, "gets my vote for the worst Al Green album of all time," adding, "I drove around in my car blasting this thing trying to like it." McDonough is a middle-aged man, but within him beats the heart of a truculent fanboy. A little of this is amusing, but sometimes his puckish asides are like finding a hair in your soup. When he writes that an album sounds "like 1979 on a bad day," you know he can do better.
He's more successful when writing about obscure songs and session players. I like how he describes Bulldog Grimes, a drummer who could "lay down a beat that sounds like King Kong doing a two-step in a metal grass skirt." McDonough's affection for Green's band members is palpable, as is the sense that the world of soul music was a world where men, not women, were the sex symbols. Women listened to Green, and other singers like him, and turned utterly irrational. They'd break into Green's home or church, storm the stage to give him their panties, anything to get close to "the black Elvis." One woman, completely undone by her favorite soul man's sweet vocals, dropped to her knees and begged Green to let her sniff his crotch.
If the book has a shortcoming, it's Green. Despite McDonough's depiction of the singer as a haunted loner, Green is too murky to be compelling. Plus, McDonough bales out of the Mary Woodson chapter too quickly. The book could've used 10 more pages of the Woodson scandal, and maybe 10 fewer pages about the history of Hi Records.
My aunts were all music lovers back in the day, and though their tastes ran towards the Bee Gees and Chicago, each of them had a copy of Al Green's Greatest Hits. I once asked my uncle what the deal was with this Al Green character, who to me looked like a skinny James Brown. My uncle, who never said three words when two would do, simply grunted: "He's for the broads." That was good enough for me. Yet, I've never forgotten the way my aunts talked about Al Green, the way they'd break into exaggerated giggles at the mention of his name. Al Green meant parties and good times and things I probably couldn't fathom in those days.
I fathom those things a little better now, thanks partly to McDonough. He gets in his own way sometimes, but this exhaustive biography works pretty well.