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Clip: Al Green and Willie Mitchell

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  • Carl Zimring
    The Rev. Al Green is still in love with love songs Ben Fong-Torres,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 13, 2005

      The Rev. Al Green is still in love with love songs

      Ben Fong-Torres, Special to The Chronicle

      Saturday, June 11, 2005

      Memphis -- When the Rev. Al Green returned to singing love songs, he did
      more than revive his pop music career. He may have saved a life.

      Green, who will headline the Russian River Blues Festival in Guerneville on
      June 18, had enjoyed a string of hits in the early '70s with smooth,
      sensuous songs such as "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love With You,"
      and "You Ought to Be With Me." But by mid-decade, he'd been born again,
      switched to gospel music, become an ordained minister and opened his own
      church in Memphis.

      Then, early last year, he heard that Willie Mitchell, the veteran Memphis
      musician and producer who'd recorded and, in some cases, co-written many of
      Green's biggest hits, was in the hospital with diabetes.

      "Willie was in bad shape," says Green, in his office behind his Full Gospel
      Tabernacle church. On a wintry spring afternoon in Memphis, he's nursing a
      cold, but looks dapper in a crisp black suit over a black, V-neck shirt and
      vest. He wears shades and just a bit of bling -- a gold chain, a gold watch
      and a couple of bracelets.

      Mitchell, he recounts, had been in the hospital for a week. "He was
      drinking -- which is not good for his sugar diabetes -- and not caring.
      Earlier this last year he'd lost his wife, and then his brother."

      Green visited his musical mentor. "I said, the first thing we should do is
      give him something to do, something that knocks his socks off. And what has
      he wanted to do all this time but cut an album with Al Green?" He flashes a
      broad smile. "That's it! Oh, man. He sits up. He said, 'When we gonna get
      started?' Well, that type of thing gives you the energy, the energy to perk
      up. "

      "It was a nice boost," says Mitchell, still dapper at 77. He is in the
      control room of his funky Royal Recording Studios, a former movie house in
      a residential neighborhood. "I was really sick, and everybody said you
      can't even go into the studio. But we started cutting the album, and it
      brought some kind of life to me."

      The result was the album "I Can't Stop," which earned critical praise and a
      Grammy nomination. In May, Green issued another co-production with
      Mitchell, "Everything's OK."

      In his memoir, "Take Me to the River," Green, who is 59, refers to Mitchell
      as a father figure. It was a role, he wrote, that was "vacant since that
      day I had marched out of the apartment and turned my back on my daddy's
      plans for my life."

      That apartment was in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Al, the sixth of 10
      children, and his parents had moved, looking for a better life than they'd
      had in Forrest City, Ark. There, Robert Greene (his son later changed the
      spelling of his surname) was a sharecropper, and he'd formed a family
      gospel group. Al, however, also loved the music of Sam Cooke, Jackie
      Wilson, James Brown and Elvis Presley.

      Elvis? "I loved the music," he says. "The shake, rattle and roll, hip-
      swinging, hair-down-in-your face -- that was one of my little fantasies,
      and this guy filled it really well."

      Al would sneak records into the apartment, and one day, his father, who'd
      forbidden the playing of secular music, caught him dancing to a Jackie
      Wilson record. Al, only 14, left home to move in with a friend who lived

      He soon formed a singing group with some buddies. But, he says, he made
      certain to finish school. "I wanted to prove something to my dad. When
      someone tells you you're not gonna do something, then I made up my mind I
      was going to do it."

      In 1969, Green was a struggling young singer with one modest hit record,
      "Back Up Train," when he met Mitchell, a saxophone player, bandleader and
      record producer, at a nightclub in Midland, Texas. Mitchell liked Green's
      voice, and they were soon working together at Mitchell's studios. After a
      couple of duds, they clicked with a song Green wrote, "Tired of Being
      Alone." With "Let's Stay Together" hitting No. 1 in late 1971, Green became
      a star, and in 1972 and 1973, he sold 20 million records.

      Now, Green has written six songs for another album. And Mitchell, he says,
      is raring to go again.

      "He wants to 'finish the oil painting.' He doesn't refer to me as Al, but
      as an oil painting. 'Al,' he said, 'It's a masterpiece. You've got to
      finish it, and be proud of it and sign your name to the bottom of it.' "

      Another album or two, Green says, should complete the painting. Mitchell,
      who has said that he considers Green the greatest singer he's ever heard,
      told him that he needed to defend the turf he'd claimed back in the '70s.

      "He said, 'You take a stand on that land and claim it and defend it,' "
      says Green. " 'You can have the whole world if you want it, you just have
      to want it. And if you want it, take it. If you don't take it, somebody
      else will walk away with it.' "

      "You just stopped," Green says Mitchell told him, "because of religion and
      because you don't understand who you are and what you're doing and what God
      is doing for you!"

      "And I didn't!" Green says. When he began contemplating a return to love
      songs, he says he had a consultation with God. "And God said, 'Al, I gave
      you the songs, they are wonderful songs, they are beautiful songs.

      "Nobody's shooting or killing or anything in here, these are what you call
      life songs, life experience songs."

      And so, in concert these days, the Rev. Al Green sprinkles a couple of
      gospel favorites into a show that features hits from the '70s and his more
      recent recordings. He clearly favors, and savors, the early hits.

      In fact, in his office in Memphis, he interrupts our interview to go his
      desk, where he finds a recording of "I'm Still in Love With You" to play
      for me. It's not a remake, an alternative take or a live version of that
      1972 hit. He just wants to hear it.

      "I'm talking about how fresh it is, with today's music," he says. "It still
      sounds new. I was listening to it the other day, and Willie started
      laughing with me!"

      He plays it full blast. Soon, he is exulting in his own voice, punctuating
      his lines with whoops and shouts of "Right!" and "Yeah!" He scats, he
      dances a bit, and he laughs, out of sheer joy.

      "Woo!" he shouts. He may have a cold, and the next day, a Sunday, he may
      not be able to preach to his flock. But right now, to the sound of his own,
      timeless music, the Reverend is testifying.

      The Russian River Blues Festival takes place June 18-19 at Johnson’s Beach
      in Guerneville, with artists including Los Lobos, Ike Turner and the Kings
      of Rhythm, Maria Muldaur, Shemekia Copeland and the Tommy Castro Band. For
      more information, call (510) 655-9471 or RussianRiverBluesFest.com.
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