"Hey, this is Al Green. Hello? Hello?" says the voice on the other line.
Yes, it's the Al Green, the legendary voice of Memphis soul, the man behind timeless classics like "Love and Happiness," "Let's Stay Together" and "I'm Still in Love With You." His voice is rough and thick, unlike the light tenor he employs in song, and marked by an accent of indeterminate origin. (Born in Arkansas and raised in Michigan, Green eventually settled and made his name in Memphis, where he still resides.) He talks through a speakerphone, distorting his voice so thoroughly it sounds like he's yelling into a megaphone. I can't understand half of what he says, but who am I to tell Al Green to get off the speakerphone?
Suddenly, a strange record begins to play, and I make out a voice speaking, "Thank you very much ... ." What was that? "Oh, that was Sam Cooke," says Green. "It's his [live Sam Cooke at the Copa]. Hello?"
"Yes, I can hear you," I answer. "You were saying something about Sam Cooke."
"I was listening to his live performance at the Copacabana. It's awesome," he says.
I ask Green if he is planning to do an album based on Cooke's 1964 stand at the New York supper club. "Hmm. That's a good idea! Yeah, why don't we do that?" he says. Then he starts playing the record again, generating a healthy amount of phone static. "Man, that sounds great, doesn't it?" he asks.
Eager to get the interview back to, uh, normal, I ask him about his relationship with Willie Mitchell, the jazz trumpeter who produced Green's best-known recordings. "C'mon, man! It's Willie, man! What you talking about?" he says, chuckling genially. Then he starts playing the Cooke record again. "Ha ha ha! Whoooo!" he laughs. "That boy's something else!"
"So tell me," I ask, "how have you guys kept your creative relationship going for so long?"
"Well, Will will write a song and say, 'Hey, man, come down and take a listen to this. I think it's pretty sharp.' And I'll write a song and put it on the machine," he says, apparently referring to Mitchell's musical arrangements and his own lyrics and melodies. "If we keep writing these songs, the 'love and happiness' should come through."
Green peaked in the early '70s, and then suffered a series of personal and career setbacks. By the end of the decade, he decided to stop recording secular music, and became a pastor at his own Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis, as well as a Grammy-winning gospel performer. Over the last three decades, however, he occasionally scored mainstream songs like "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," a 1988 hit single with Annie Lennox.
2003's I Can't Stop and last year's Everything's OK marked his major comeback to R&B music. Both albums reunite him with Mitchell, who orchestrates a backdrop of lush, uptempo Southern blues. Meanwhile, Green takes the occasion to testify and extemporize with little care for lyrics, creating a masterful soul-gospel experience. "I think it's wonderful," says Green of those two albums. "Everyone just did a great job -- Willie Mitchell and the band."
Green now believes everything he makes -- whether it is those early hits, his gospel-themed albums or his new albums -- is given to him by God. Asked why he returned to making secular music after years of recording gospel albums, he replies, "We're not going back to doing anything. We're going forward to do what the plan was laid out to do." But he also says nothing in his discography, including Everything's OK, represents the penultimate expression of his relationship with God. "No, I have not yet arrived for lack of knowledge. I'm patient. But I know the time and space of where we are, you and me. We can't just sit around. We've got to make the dream come true, so to speak."
Then he asks me, "Nobody gets these interviews! How'd you get one?"
I answer that his publicist contacted Creative Loafing about speaking with him.
"Oh, that's fantastic," he says.
When I hear that lyric it makes me think that he’s projecting…
Good question Chad. It took awhile. I concede defeat, but I'm pretty sure Carmella and…
The correct answer is Logan. Tickets go to Sophie Dillard! Please drop me a line…