My first words to Al Green in our telephone interview in August, after the opening pleasantries, were “I owe you big time. It’s because of your music that I landed my wife.” Green was already laughing before I finished the sentence.
“There are a whole lot of folks that owe me, Jim,” said Green, who appears at Riverfest Amphitheatre on Friday, Oct. 27. “We were cracking up about that the other day. A man came up to me in the airport, and said, ‘Al, two of my children were …’ and I said, ‘Don’t tell me no more.’ ”
Green, the 60-year-old native Arkansan who became one of the biggest names in R&B music in the early 1970s, knows he’s brought lots of people together, and helped them stay together — as the lyrics say in one of his greatest hits — and “that’s good, I’m kinda proud of that. I never did know the music would do that, but like I said, that’s a good thing. If they’re saying ‘I’m still in love with you,’ especially if that’s true, that’s a good thing.”
Green was originally scheduled to bring his romantic and bluesy sounds to the amphitheater on Aug. 19, but excessive heat forced postponement of that show. Tickets purchased for the Aug. 19 date will be honored, and general admission is $10, with reserved seating $20 and $30 through Ticketmaster outlets or at the gate. Gates open at 5 p.m., and opening acts will start about 6 p.m. Green should go on close to 9 p.m.
The concert celebrates the 10th anniversary of the River Market.
It was over “some incredible long nights” that the Al Green sound evolved in the late 1960s and early ’70s after he moved to Memphis and began working at Hi Records.
“Al gets out of high school,” he says, “and all this is going on, 1968, ’69, the turmoil in America, the Kennedy boys, Rev. Martin Luther King … Then comes ‘Al Green Gets Next to You.’ God said, ‘I’m going to take you and take your music and use both for my glory.’ That’s the first time I gave up everything and said thank you. I’ve never told anybody that before.”
Green, Willie Mitchell and Al Jackson formulated a sound in the studio at night. “I wrote all the stories, that was my job,” Green said. “Willie Mitchell was on the piano, playing all these different chords to the stories. Al Jackson was beating a rhythm on his knee in the corner, just beating it like this. I just jumped in and sang, ‘I,’ ” — Green holds out the “I” as he sings into the phone — “ ‘I’m so in love with you.’ We never planned nothing. We didn’t plan these songs. It got near 200 songs and we didn’t plan none of it. Me, Willie and Al Jackson. Willie would say, ‘Al, you got the voice on you.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. I guess I’m blind.”
What came out of those impromptu sessions were “I’m Still in Love With You,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me,” “Love and Happiness” and many other chartbusters that Green and his band will play Friday.
After a period recording spiritual music, Green returned to his R&B roots, and he’s been working on a new release with other artists, including Alicia Keyes, R. Kelly and more.
Green is originally from Dansby, down state Highway 1 from Forrest City. “If you went through it, you wouldn’t know it. I don’t think they have a stoplight yet,” he said. He has relatives up around Crowley’s Ridge. If you run into anyone named Hines, chances are they’re Green’s cousins.
He grew up singing in the family gospel group the Greene Brothers. He’s now referred to as Reverend Green, still preaching in a Memphis church, Full Gospel Tabernacle, on Sundays. He’ll slip in during the week for choir rehearsal, and if it’s a good one, “I stay for the whole thing.” He proudly notes of turning his life around in the 1980s, “Thank God the word won, not me.
“A preacher can’t say it’s luck. I’m blessed. The music is going to last so long, and I can’t find a kid who doesn’t know ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and doesn’t say, ‘look what it’s done for me.’ A woman in Tacoma told me she and her husband played it at their wedding. I go into this gas station, full of people going round and round about the songs. A man points to his wife and says, ‘I’ve been with her 18 years,’ all because of those songs.”
Preach it, Al.