Playing Our Song 

Al Green's immortal work is the stuff memories are made of

The word "classics" is not strong enough to describe the '70s R&B hits of the Rev. Al Green. "Immortal" is more like it when you're referring to such songs as "Tired of Being Alone," "Love and Happiness," "Call Me (Come Back Home)," "Let's Stay Together," "Here I Am (Come and Get Me)" and "I Can't Get Next to You."

The great soul singer--and full-time Baptist minister--is on tour this summer to promote his latest album, Everything's OK, and will play with his band Monday night, June 13, at the Desert Diamond Casino.

"I'm bringing 21 men," the reverend said during a recent, all-too-brief telephone interview from his Memphis office.

"We're touring because of the new record, of course, but we're also touring because we tour a lot, and we're good at it. We get into a certain zone, and when we find it, we can't stop!"

When I spoke to the 58-year-old Green a couple of weeks back, he and his band were just about to play the first of nine nights in a row. When on tour, they rarely take more than a day off at a time. Said he: "We be moving it!"

Although Green's show will feature most of the hits from throughout his career, he will also perform songs from Everything's OK, released this past March, and 2003's I Can't Stop, which marked Green's first album of secular material in years and his debut on the jazz label Blue Note Records.

For both albums, Green re-teamed with producer and arranger Willie Mitchell at Mitchell's Royal Recording Studios, the same place in which the two masterminded those early-'70s hits. They hadn't worked together since Green's 1985 gospel release He Is the Light.

Of working again with Mitchell, Green said, "It's been magnificent. He has so much wisdom, and he knows all the cuts. If it's something a song is missing, he's gonna find it--the right sound, the right vocal. He will listen to a song, re-listen, double listen and then re-listen again. Nothing gets by him."

Since 1979, Green has been the pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, Tenn., and until two years ago, he had focused primarily on gospel music. In fact, Green went for eight years during that time literally without singing secular songs at all.

He calls that period challenging because he felt the instinctual urge to perform secular music, but he didn't know how to direct that energy. "I was so confused and devastated. I asked God, 'What are you doing? Why are you giving me all these (secular) songs?'"

He found his answers through much soul-searching, facilitated by a spiritual retreat in a cabin in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. Green said he remained there alone and without food--just water and coffee--for between 12 and 14 days. He continued to plead with God for an answer, he said.

"Finally, I got it. He said, 'Al, I gave you those songs. They're beautiful songs. You should sing them. How are people going to know it's Al Green without you singing those songs?'

"There's just one thing that He asked: 'Acknowledge me,'" Green attested. Which comes naturally to a minister.

"But God told me, 'Al, don't preach at them for 45 minutes in a concert. They don't want to hear that. Just sing a little "Amazing Grace," and then do those songs they want to hear.' So we do it like this ... "

At which point, the Rev. Al Green started recreating one of his performances: "The band is going 'boom bop, a-boom-boom, boom bop,' and I'm going 'I, I'm so in love with you.'"

And, well, "Let's Stay Together" was pouring out of my cell phone. Memories of the first time I heard that tune flashed through my head.

That's common, Green said. "I have come to realize that people have so many experiences connected with these songs that the songs become theirs in way. They tell me they were in college when they met their husbands or whatever."

Green wants people to know that his work--ostensibly and practically about the joys of love and commitment--is not simply about relationships between people. Some songs can be read as symbolic of a person's relationship with God, others as manifestations of God's love for us.

"The songs are written with secular overtones, of course, but they are made of so many different layers. If you don't see those other stories in the songs, you might think it's all about 'girl, girl, girl,' and you're not getting it all.

"It's not about being in a hotel at three in the morning with a woman you hooked up with. The message is simple: Be good to me, and I'll be good to you, and we'll walk away to victory together. ... Fall in love, stay together, have families."

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