How can anyone’s permanent mark on popular musical culture be assessed? Sales of albums or CDs used to be one sure way of measuring a legacy, but in the Internet Age of iPod downloads and endless free streaming of all content, purchasing CDs or albums is a throwback to a bygone era. And yet, here is an interesting tidbit.
During the two presidential campaign years when Barack Obama was on the scene (first as a trailblazing candidate in 2008; and again when running for re-election in 2012), there were two powerful reminders of Al Green’s musical legacy, and those reminders were transmitted to the masses in two entirely separate ways.
Quickly: In 2012, at a major campaign appearance, President Obama did more than deliver a speech – he sang a few words into the microphone, offering a melodious and nicely phrased musical flourish with merely three words: “Let’s stay together!”
The audience swooned. Everyone seemed to recognize the song. It’s one of those classic ballads that’s still heard on radio shows devoted to Classic Rock and varied specials like “Saturday at the Seventies.” And the kicker is that while President Obama did a fine job of echoing the famous recording by 1970s soul singer Al Green, there’s no doubt that the original recording is what filled everyone’s imagination.
Rewind a little bit more: In 2008, when the Obama vs. Hillary campaign was stoking the nation, the summer of ’08 was lightened up a bit by the first movie rendition of the hit TV show Sex and the City. In one heartrending scene, as a couple working through an adulterous episode try to repair their relationship, the soundtrack soars with “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” Once again, Al Green’s legacy was not only reinforced, but measured anew with great appreciation. Al Green is a legend.
He is also a mystery. An enigma. A bundle of contradictions. A seriously religious seeker who walked away from fame and fortune to found a Memphis-based church.
Al Green is both a legendary performer who served as a bridge figure between the 1960s and the MTV-laden 1980s. If Motown in Detroit—plus Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin and James Brown on varied labels—ruled the soul music scene in the 1960s, while Michael Jackson was the central MTV icon in the 1980s, then it’s fair to say that Al Green had a successful run in the 1970s that still looms large.
Journalist and biographer Jimmy McDonough has made a significant contribution to our cultural knowledge with this first-ever book-length biography of Al Green. And to do so was no easy task. Since largely exiting the major music scene after 1976, Al Green has not just cultivated a loyal church following in Memphis at his Full Gospel Tabernacle Church—he’s also cultivated an eccentric, elusive, mysterious persona.
Born the sixth of ten children in an obscure Arkansas town in 1946, Al Green’s family and upbringing were steeped in the black church of America’s South, with its blues-enhanced, country-inflected, deeply rooted gospel music filling not just the churches his family attended, but the atmosphere in general. Music was in the air. Always. And outside the home and church, there were the varied secular influences in the late 1950s coming from television and the radio. Al Green absorbed all of it.
Jimmy McDonough highlights one particularly strong influence on Al Green: “One rock and roll singer had a huge impact on Al—Elvis Presley. ‘I had every Elvis record I could find, and I saw every movie.’ It was one more thing he felt his family just didn’t understand.”
Green said that he, “didn’t make distinctions between spiritual and secular music to any great extent back then. If they sang with feeling, from their hearts, I loved their music.”
That was taboo to Al Green’s father, in particular. Much like the fraught tension evoked in the novels of James Baldwin (whose father, like Green’s, was a strict and severe religious zealot), the household life of young Al Green was a minefield of domestic intimidation. In his late teens, as the 1960s unfolded, Al Green left home.
Years of apprenticeship in all aspects of the music world (endless efforts with varied instrumentalists and ever-changing back-up singers), plus the rising tides of social turmoil and cultural waves that made the late 1960s spill over into the early 1970s with a national soundtrack equally driven by Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and Rock music—all that, and more, set the stage for Al Green to emerge as a star in his own right.
Like Elvis Presley (“He’s remained a lifelong fan,” notes McDonough), Al Green settled in Memphis and, once there, helped enlarge and expand that city’s musical integrity. Memphis (both geographically and culturally) has for many decades been a beacon for music lovers and musical aspirants. Americana itself thrives all over Memphis, with its incredible racial and biracial blending and overlapping influences from all aspects of many traditions: country, jazz, blues, gospel, folk, rock, and so on.
It’s no accident that independent Memphis-based record labels, like Al Green’s Hi Records, and indie studios (at different times) have provided sanctuary to myriad bands and singers, all of them eager to escape the clutches of the rabid accountants helming the larger record labels in Los Angeles and New York.
But even a serious music-maker like Green could not escape the troubles swirling around pop stars in that epoch. Needless to say, while his record sales, radio play, and TV appearances were greeted with vast appreciation and hefty sales (he was beloved by whites and blacks, across all genres, with hit singles like “Love and Happiness,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “Let’s Stay Married,” and “I’m Tired of Being Alone” damn near causing a latter-day baby boom between 1971-76), plenty of high-risk elements were omnipresent: Drugs. Femme fatales. Con men. Freeloaders and party crashers of all types; always taking advantage of the man with the million-dollar career.
In 1976, a troubled woman with whom Al Green was romantically linked killed herself in his palatial Memphis home. The official investigation concluded that it was a suicide. Case closed.
But that scandal tainted Green’s reputation, thus launching a new quest.
He had already had a born-again episode that he took seriously as a sign to change his ways, all the way back in 1973. After his ex-girlfriend’s 1976 suicide in his home, everything changed. Gradually, star Al Green evolved into today’s Bishop Green.
He still performs on occasion. But his true calling revolves around his religious devotions. Having once been immersed in all of the profitable excesses and sensual delights of the secular world at the peak of the postwar pop music epoch, it has been Al Green’s fate to hear his distinguished legacy sustained on radio shows and even more prominently on the soundtracks to major motion pictures. His music lives on.
More importantly, so does Al Green. In that respect, he’s been luckier than Elvis.
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