Clip: Al Green and Willie Mitchell
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
"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 Johnsons 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.