Al Green was a total stud, in every sense of that word, at the very top of the soul music food chain in the early 70s, when something Earth-shattering happened to him. A woman with whom he was involved asked him to marry her, and he brushed her off. A few minutes later she returned to the room and dumped a pot of boiling grits on the singer. Then she went upstairs and shot herself in the head.
This horrible event proved to be a wake-up call for the artist. Al, who was known for his incredibly seductive lyrics and amazing voice, continued to perform, but soon noticed that he felt differently about the music he was performing. One night, while singing his classic “You Oughta Be With Me,” he began to cry. The band continued to play while he sang the lyrics “you oughta be with me, you oughta be with me” over and over again through a torrent of tears. As Al tells it, while he was singing the song, he realized that he had not written the lyrics for a woman, but had written them for God. He realized that all of his famously moving love songs were in fact songs of worship and of praise. (Yes, even “I’m a Ram”…).
Not long after that he spent an entire night in a bathroom on his knees lost in prayer and repentance and joy. After that, he felt that he could only sing Gospel music in good conscience. Do you remember the lyrics from his song “Belle”? “Belle, it’s you that I want, but Him that I need.” For Al there was no simple compromise to be had. When Willie Mitchell (his great producer at the Hi Records Studio) told him that he would happily record Gospel music as long as Al would also be willing to sing love songs too, Al replied that he could no longer sing anything but Gospel music. There was no deal to be had on that front.
It wasn’t long before Al bought a church, The Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis, TN, and became a full-time pastor.
There’s a documentary about his change of heart called Gospel According to Al Green. It’s not a great documentary, but it is a fascinating glimpse into the man’s life soon after he made this transition. The movie shows an extended portion of a church service where Al preaches a really weak, seemingly unprepared sermon. The filmmaker, clearly not a regular church-goer, didn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between good and not-so-good gospel preaching and obviously couldn’t figure out where to cut the recording. Nonetheless, the footage is worth watching because of the quality of Al’s still amazing voice. He was just a year or two past his prime, and you can almost feel him dragging the weight of his immense mid-70s impact into the film, in spite of his efforts to distance himself from his decadent past. The residue of his prior life drips from him in a wonderfully effective way. It is what sells the sincerity of his conversion. I’m sure he became a fantastic minister too, as he gained experience.
There’s a slight twist to the story that I want to share. A few years ago, when I was still living in New York City, I met a man from Memphis. I was, at the time, in the midst of my own kind of (re)conversion, and was pretty obsessed with the music of Al Green. I asked the guy if he had ever been to The Full Gospel Tabernacle. He had not. But he did relay a fascinating little piece of Memphis gossip, which I’m sure is nothing more than an old wives’ tale.
He told me that everyone in Memphis knew that the poor girl who had died in Al’s house had not committed suicide. Al had shot her himself in a blind rage and then poured the grits on himself in order to create an alibi. The guilt of what he had done was so immense that it obviously drove him back to God and to the church. Giving up his secular popularity at its peak was his obvious attempt to appease God. …I was floored. I still don’t believe it for a second, but thought you might find it amusing/interesting, as did I.
Enough of me talking about Al Green. Let’s listen to more of Al Green singing about Jesus:
BONUS TRACK: A little slice of pimp eschatology…