•The Daniel Island Stage
With a potent mix of heart-heavy soul, funk, high gospel, and a dash of smooth romance, the Reverend Al Green has become a living legend, a Southern gem who pioneered a hybrid of spiritualized soul music.
This year, the vocalist, songwriter, and practicing minister has released the strongest collection of tunes since his heydey in the 1970s a lushly-produced, 12-song album titled Everything's OK (Blue Note). He turned 60 in April, but he and his signature falsettos and wails show no signs of slowing down on stage or at the pulpit.
"What can I say, man? I love it," he says, speaking in a high raspy tone by telephone from his office in Memphis. "It's my work. God is my duty, so I have to do that every week. And the people just love it. They look at me and say, 'Now, there's a man who's been studying.' I put as much velocity into my studying as I do into concerts."
For Everything's OK, Green once again teamed up with longtime studio producer and arranger Willie Mitchell at Mitchell's Royal Recording Studio the same studio where the two recorded Green's early hits. Green also reunited with Mitchell for his 2002 Blue Note debut, I Can't Stop their first collaboration since 1985's gospel album He Is The Light.
The new album boasts some great stand-out tunes many in a similar vein to the straightahead grooves and classy arrangements for his early-'70s work, such as the upbeat "Build Me Up" and "Nobody But You," and the heart-felt romantic ballads "Perfect to Me" and "Real Love." The brassy work of the Royal Horns and the string arrangements from the New Memphis Strings (both mostly comprised of old-school Hi musicians) pick up where Green and Mitchell left off three decades ago.
"That's Willie Mitchell's recipe for Zen," laughs the Reverend. "I've been working with Willie Mitchell since before Willie Mitchell was Willie Mitchell. He's fantastic. We've worked together for such a long time ... and he knows Al Green better than Al Green does, I stay out of his way and let him do his thing. He lets me sing the way I want and I'll get hints from him along the way. He and I sat down and wrote the whole album ... I had to take his liquor away from him, though [laughs]."
Willie Mitchell, 78, is probably best known as the guy who arranged for Al Green to sign to Hi Records and as the producer of Green's most popular tracks. Mitchell had a successful career as a horn player in the jazz and blues scene around Memphis in the 1950s and '60s before meeting Green. By 1970, Mitchell was in charge of the Hi label.
"I learn a little more each time we write and record," Green says of Mitchell. "It's a learning process. By now, I'm pretty much comfortable with the old man and he's comfortable with me. I've been working with him so long, he's kind of like a dad to me."
Green recorded at Royal with Mitchell arranging, producing, and engineering the sessions. "I was trying to sing like Jackie Wilson and Wilson Pickett and James Brown and Sam Cooke," Green says of those early days. "And Willie said 'Just sing like you.' I didn't know what that was, and so we just had to find that balance." They recorded eight albums that sold over 20 million copies worldwide, working together until 1976. By that time, Green experienced a spiritual revelation, bought a church building, and became an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle at 787 Hale Road in Memphis.
Thirty years later, Everything's OK comes full circle, embracing the secular and religious sides of life, inside and outside of the church.
"The Tabernacle is where you get the thoughts and the ideas and that's the root of the whole thing. I've been doing that for 28 years. I really can't see Al Green now if he's not at the Tabernacle. It ties everything together for me. That's why we do a little bit of 'Amazing Grace' and Sam Cooke's 'Nearer My God to Thee' on stage, because it ties everything together with Everything's OK. It is! God is love. So couples who got married to my music 'Let's Stay Together' and all that ... it all ties together."
For this Saturday's Chazzfest performance at the Daniel Island Stage, Green leads a 14-piece band with a full horn section, dancers, and a small choir of backing vocalists.
"We're going to be stepping down off our high horses when we get down to Charleston, man," he chuckles. "We're gonna rock the joint a little bit there. We're playing everything, like 'Take Me to the River,' 'Tired of Being Alone,' 'I'm Still in Love With You,' and 'Let's Stay Together' ... then we'll come out of that with the Four Tops, and then back to Al Green with [starts singing the opening line of "I'm Still in Love with You" into the phone] 'Spending my day, thinking about you girrrrllll...' [Laughs]. Oh yeah. The show opens with 'I Can't Stop.' Oh, we know what to do. When we come to Charleston, we're gonna rock ... and we're gonna rock!" T. Ballard Lesemann