I've always listed Al Green alongside the late Philippé Wynne from the Spinners as my favorite voice in soul music. Simply put, the man is a legend. When I was scheduled to speak to Green, I told friends at parties, complete strangers, and even my own mom. Everyone was impressed that I would be talking to the Reverend, but that's my first issue: How do you address Al Green? Al? Mr. Green? I am not even remotely religious, but I chose Reverend. It just felt right.
To be honest, I was not prepared for the Reverend to take our conversation where he took it. Hell, I don't even know where he took it. There was no path, no direction, and no structure. But I do know that at six minutes and 32 seconds into our conversation—out of nowhere—Green started singing, at the top of his voice, "I'm so tired of being alone." He did this a number of times, as he'd hum the first few bars of "Let's Stay Together," or (while talking about the Beatles) serenade me with a verse of "Something." From that point on, all bets were off.
It might not be the most enlightening, or logical, conversation of all time, but Al Green sang to me—to me—over the phone. So at least I've got that going for me.
MERCURY: Reverend, you have not been to the Northwest in a while. Are you bringing a full band this time around?
REVEREND AL GREEN: Yeah, we're bringing the people that know stuff. I don't want to bring in somebody that's trying to learn the songs. I'm not interested in that, [we're] bringing the people.
You started out in a band alongside your brothers, but your father kicked you out because he caught you listening to Jackie Wilson.
Isn't that amazing? Isn't that amazing? Just because I listened to Jackie Wilson. I mean, think of what the kids are doing these days. They're posting stuff online that's more vulgar than Jackie Wilson's "Baby Workout."
Did you ever get a chance to tell Jackie about what happened to you?
No, I never did get a chance to tell Jackie. I think he read it one time, because we did several shows in Chicago and Detroit. It kind of dumbfounds you that this could happen, but then again... you go one block over to your friend Lee Burgess' house. He and Palmer James are working up this group called the Creations and they ask me, can I sing? I'm going like, "I don't know, man. I really don't know if I can sing or not. I sing in the choir at school." We cut this song called "Back Up Train" and that starts all this. It's quite a career, isn't it?
The Creations were around 1967 or '68, right?
'67 or '68, yeah. "I Can't Get Next to You" was in 1970, and "Tired of Being Alone" was in '71. "Let's Stay Together" was in '72. "I'm Still in Love with You" was in '73... with the white suit on [the album artwork]. Come on man, I don't know. I know there's a lot of kids been born to those songs.
When you were singing about love, some of your contemporaries were singing about social issues. Did you ever get people telling you to quit singing about love?
No, they left me to sing "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," "For the Good Times," "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Take Me to the River," and all these things... because we need love. Everybody needs love. Everybody needs somebody. Portland, Oregon, as sparsely populated as it is, everybody is going to definitely have their main squeeze. When the snow falls, I'm going to have the, you know, the hot chocolate and everything.
Reverend, this part of the state has about a million people living here.
That's fine! That's what I'm talking about. We're going to need about a million people to get this done. Yeah.
Do you still enjoy touring?
It's kind of a feely-feely thing. All the music has a personal type to it. I use "Let's Stay Together" as a National Anthem because everybody stands on their last day together and they sneak a little kiss in on the person that they're with.
Reverend, nine months after your show here our population is going to be at 1.1 million.
It may be 1.2 million. Because, you know, we're going to bring it on. You know. We came out here to do a show. It's like a boxer, you know, before you go into the ring. There's no sense in going into the ring with rosaries hanging on the arm, you gonna get yourself beat. So you have to go into the ring after a lot of practice and a lot of abstinence. You go into the ring to defend what you stand for, and we stand for the highest goal, for the love of Christ and the population of the world.
You are happy every single minute of the day, aren't you?
Well, yeah because we're not into using a bunch of stuff to make us happy. We're happy naturally. I'm not a coke fiend or a heroin fiend, or anything. My doctor won't give me nothing but Advil, I just hate him for that. I'm saying he give me a damn Advil! He says, "Here Al, take one of those. You got a muscle ache, take one of these." I'm going like, "This is an Advil! This Ibuprofen, man!" He says, "Al, that's all you need. You don't need a pill for every time you ache, my god." So that's about all he'll give me.
We're just happy because, number one, we're still here. Because we started with a lot of folks who've gone on now, even Luther [Vandross] has gone on now! We started with him at the Apollo Theater. Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis, Phyllis Hyman, Lou Rawls... I mean you go on. Billy Preston, my best buddy on piano.
Billy Preston was amazing.
Oh, talk about amazing on an organ. He played with the Beatles, come on! Nobody wants to give him credit for playing on a lot of the Beatles tunes, but he played on a lot of these songs [Green singing "Something" by the Beatles], that was Billy back there. I got to be with him sometimes at the church. Reverend James Cleveland's church, no doubt, and him playing the piano there and playing the organ on a few of the gigs. The Mandela tribute... what was that? You can't have nothing?
"Nothing from Nothing"
Yeah, that's it. He was phenomenal. Just like these other people. But you know, like they say, if the candle burn bright, the shorter the life of the candle, so you kinda have to go back to studying what they was saying to us a long time ago. This little pal, Al, this little light of mine. I'm gonna let it shine. Little light, I said. There was a big light, lot of meteors come across the sky, light up the world. And they go out just as fast.
[I have no clue how he segues into this, but he continues to refer to himself in the third person—Ed.]
I go to Walmart. That just gives you the Al Green I'm talking about. I go to Walmart and people in Millington [Tennessee] are taking pictures with their little camera phones... they talk about it in the papers, "That's the way to treat a crowd down there. Al Green he took pictures with everybody, hugged everybody, they took photos, and he signed their autographs. It only took an hour and 10 minutes." And Al is going, "Yeah an hour and 10 minutes!" But I mean, you know, in a small town like Millington, they like you to be yourself. I mean you can go up there in some big, fancy automobile and everybody says, "Good afternoon, Mr. Green." But if I go up there in my old, raggedy Toyota pickup truck, everybody goes, "ALLLLLLL!" So that's just the way people are. If you are approachable, I can approach you with the approachability that I know is in your music.
But if you are, way, way, way, way up there, I may call you "Mr. Green" instead of "Al." I go in my jeans and shoe ain't tied, because I know the people that are getting up for work at six in the morning, their shoes ain't tied. And their hair ain't combed. And they are trying to stand in line to get coffee just like me. And that's how we get along. The fire department, police department, everybody been up all night and they headed home, baby. Gimme the coffee. A couple sugars and a cream and I'm outta here! And that's the way it is around here, man. And they love it. If Al comes around in his raggedy truck. "Oh, man. Hey, Al. What's going on?" But in a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, they go, "Oh. Ahem, good evening Mr. Green."
And you'd rather be Al, right?
I'd rather be Al.
You once said, "I'm not a God or an idol, I'm just a kid from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who wrote a couple of songs."
That's Al. You've got it right there. That's the quote, man.
Reverend Green, thanks for the chat, I really enjoyed it.
Tell everybody at the Mercury I said, "Simply beautiful."