Praise The Lord! A visit to the church of Al Green

Off Elvis Presley Boulevard and a mile or two down a quiet hedge-lined Memphis street we find it; a modern brick church that you might see in any New Zealand suburb, identified by the sign ‘Full Gospel Tabernacle – Rev Al Green, Pastor”.

Our travellers’ clothes stand out from the sombre suits and smart Sunday frocks of the congregation; our faces are easily the pinkest in the place. We are warmly welcomed by two middle-aged black women who hold our hands and lead us to a pew near the back.

The choir and musicians have already taken their places on the rostrum behind the pulpit. The music begins, the organ and drums striking pup a funky pulse while the choir delivers a couple of rocking hymns. Two young choristers step forward to take shaky solos, which draw supportive shouts and applause. The flat notes and missed beats don’t matter; people are here to loosen up, get happy, fell good and thank Jesus.

The music is interrupted with some routine announcements, handled in a brisk, business-like manner by another middle-aged female parishioner. The youth carnival has been postponed; the building fund collection is due again.

The choir sways through another funky hymn. Meanwhile a slim, young-faced man with scholarly specs, a trendy Bobby Brown haircut and a purple robe sneaks in and quietly takes a seat by the pulpit. As the choir concludes he rise without announcement, takes the microphone in his hand and, sliding into a soft-shoe shuffle, begins to sing “Everything’s gonna be all right…”

It is that voice. The same one that pleaded ‘Let’s Stay Together’, moaned ‘I Can’t Get Next To You’, teased ‘I’m So Tired of Being Alone’, begged ‘Let’s Get Married’. This is the man who grew up poor in rural Arkansas, was discovered singing in as Texas bar by Memphis producer Willie Mitchell and went on to record the sexiest southern soul music of the 70s.

Earlier Memphis soul stars like Otis Redding and Sam and Dave relied mainly on machismo, energetic shouting over a pumping groove and a blasting horn section. But Al Green, with Willie Mitchell, devised a style that achieved at least as much intensity through understatement.

The backing on Green’s records stays on a slow simmer; tasty lines wafted over the beat while Green serenaded in the sweetest tones, always maintain the tension, letting out just a little steam at a time – yet always hinting that there was a pressure-cooker of passion waiting to be released.

It was a style that sold millions of discs worldwide and made him a sex symbol, renowned for handing out red roses from the stage to swooning female fans.

In 1973, at the height of his stardom, he awoke before dawn one morning, singing, dancing and shouting uncontrollable praises to the Lord. As he described it in a television documentary, The Gospel According To Al Green, he hurried to the bathroom holding his hands over his mouth so as not to disturb his sleeping girlfriend.

From then on Green declared himself “born again”, but he apparently wasn’t ready yet to give up the tours, the hits, the women or the roses, for religion. To do that would have been the revered of just about every other soul star’s career. Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke (a particular idol of Green’s), had all been stars in the gospel scene before switching to the more lucrative pop field. But when they raised those voices, that had once praised the Lord, to sing of sex and secular love, many church people were understandably upset. When Sam Cooke was shot dead by a woman in a motel in 1965, some saw it as a warning to those who stray from the gospel path.

One night in 1974 at his Memphis home, a woman Green had been casually involved with threw a pot of scalding water at the singer’s back before shooting herself dead. Green spent a lengthy period in hospital. The reminder of Sam Cooke’s fate must have been strong.

But it wasn’t until 1976 that Green told a disappointed Willie Mitchell that he wouldn’t be singing any more love songs. From now on he would sing only gospel. The way Green describes his decision makes it sound as if he experienced a kind of psychological breakdown as much as a religious calling. “Everything was getting crazy…” After wrangling with Mitchell over the future of their recordings, the two parted company. Green bought a church, then “went home, slept like a baby and preached my first sermon about two weeks later.”

* * * *

Fifteen years on, the Reverend Green signals the band to an abrupt halt to ask, “How many mothers do we have here today?” It is Mother’s Day and he has huge bunches of roses, red roses, one for each of the mothers attending the service. He hands them out, laughing, joking and teasing the women. Then he begins to preach in a voice that half-speaks, half-sings: “How many believe that He parted the Red Sea?”

There are scattered shouts of affirmation but Green barely seems to notice. His eyes close for a few seconds, then re-open, and seem to be focussing on a point beyond the walls of the building. “Oh yes, I do”, he murmurs, in response to his own questions. “Do you believe He’s coming again? Oh yes, I do.”

It is like a hypnotist gently preparing his volunteers to go under, but he seems to be preparing himself too. Moving to the pulpit he opens his Bible and begins to read, haltingly, like as school child with a difficult text. As he gathers momentum he closes his book and begins to improvise his sermon, leaving the pulpit and moving amongst the congregation. The musicians hold a long sustained chord, occasionally punctuating Green’s speech with a climactic crash.

In this way he controls the atmosphere for the best part of an hour, his voice rising and falling, sometimes breaking into song. Voices call from various parts of the church. “Oh yes!”, “Praise Him!”, “Thank you, Jesus!”

Suddenly things seem to explode. A woman seated just in front of us begins to shake involuntarily, bending her upper body forward then jerking it back in quick, violent movements, one arm shooting up behind her back as if being twisted by an invisible assailant. A woman dressed in white rushes over and holds her until the fit begins to subside. But all over the room other women break into similar fits, as if in chain reaction. One woman begins to run around the outer aisle holding her arms aloft and shaking her head vigorously. She completes several circuits before being restrained by other “nurses”.

The Reverend Green doesn’t seem to notice the disruptions, but slowly begins to wind down the pressure, lowering the pitch and volume of his voice. A suited gentleman rises from one of the front pews and gently interrupts the Reverend to address the congregation. “We have an old woman in this parish who has had her electricity cut off. We need $200 to have it put back on. Come on now. We need to raise this money today.”

As parishioners slowly begin to file to the alter to offer their tithe, Al Green picks up his briefcase and leaves with as little fanfare as he arrived, and we step blinking into the Memphis sun.

Tags: al greensoulgospelmemphis

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