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Showbiz and A.G.: What happens in Saratoga, stays in Saratoga.

True Grit

When Al Green is on a roll, watch out

By Todd Inoue

YOU CAN'T FRONT on Al Green. He's a survivor, a man whose soothing falsetto launched many back-seat moves. The singer and reverend (Sundays at Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis—visit sometime) keeps hearts aflutter with a repertoire of songs that smoothed out Memphis soul's rough edges to arrive at a style that exuded class and sexiness. Green's calling cards "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," "Let's Stay Together," "Love and Happiness" and "I'm Still in Love With You" are lasting templates of timing, expression and execution.

In the mid-'70s, at the top of his popularity, Green had a pot of boiling grits poured on his back by a jilted girlfriend, who then shot herself in the head. The incident shook Green's commitment to music, and for the next two decades he dedicated himself to God's work—becoming an ordained pastor.

Over the years, Green cut a few R&B albums but was focused on gospel. He was lured back to the studio with mentor/producer Willie Mitchell for 2003's I Can't Stop. In 2005, Green reunited again with Williams to create a new generation of secular Al Green hits on Everything's OK.

I went to his Mountain Winery concert last year and was bummed out. Though his voice is splendid, Green spent much of the concert proselytizing, performing little teases of songs, letting audience take over for the more popular ones and skipping others completely. Green was having a good time, and the audience was courteous in his presence but grumbled on the way back to their cars. And the set was short—barely an hour. A website was established (www.watermelonpunch.com/algreensucks/) for disgruntled Green fans. "He'd do a line or two from each song, then make the audience sing the rest," groused Rose from Brooklyn. "If I wanted to sing along, I would have stayed in my shower and saved some money."

So when Green's publicist offered a phone interview, I had to take it. To call the conversation odd would be partly correct. He was nice, though a day late and scattered in thought—singing "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" one second and talking about Clint Eastwood the next. Here's how it went down.

METRO: Your career took off in Midland, Texas, during the late '60s. What singers were you admiring at the time?

AL GREEN: Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Mahalia Jackson—where are you calling from? San Jose? We're coming to San Jose! [sic, Saratoga.] Like Jethro and the shotgun, we'll be cooking up some possum stew. I love to rattle their nerves once or twice. [Singing] "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" We had so much fun. We drove up in our Lincoln rental car. We got up to San Jose and got checked in. We wanted to drive up Highway 1. It was really pretty, and we went south to Monterey. The houses are $6 to $8 million.

Well, now they're probably twice THAT MUCH.

We were driving and someone said Clint Eastwood lives around there. We left the mailbox where it was, ha ha ha. He's a real talented man. He's like Morgan Freeman.

How has your relationship with Willie Mitchell changed over the years?

I just try to do what Mr. Willie Mitchell wants. I'll get an idea, "What do you think about these changes?" He'll say, "Yeah man, that's good! Write it down!" I don't think [our relationship has] changed yet. He has talent for recording and cutting music. I think our relationship has grown stronger. It started at one place and got stronger and stronger. I can call him any time day or night. He's right there. He's like a big brother, a confidant. I can call and ask, "What you think about Susie?" He'll say, "Susie is a fine girl. Susie will run your ass wild." I'm a preacher! I'll say "Willie, you can't say that, I'm in the church!"

Unlike other soul singers, your voice has maintained its resonance. How were you able to keep your voice?

Now it wouldn't be a secret if I told you. I was at the White House and there was a man standing in front of us. I asked him, "Are you the Secret Service?" He wouldn't say. I asked again, "Are you with the Secret Service?" Then he said, "If I told you that, I wouldn't be a secret." Mr. Clinton was president. He invited me to come sing with Sheryl Crow. They had dogs come down and sniff the car.

Did you leave with any souvenirs? Did Bill know your songs?

I took a picture with Bill and Hillary and their child. Bill knows "Let's Stay Together." [sings] "Don't mess with Bill, leave my Billy alooone." Ha ha ha, I love that song.

How do you get fired up to sing 'Let's Stay Together' for the millionth time?

Ahhh man. They always want to hear "Tired of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love With You." Then you got to do "For the Good Times," "Take Me to the River," "Love and Happiness." Owww. I was on an airplane and someone showed me a picture of a little girl. He said, "Look at what you made me do." I said, "What happened?" He said, "Your song, [my wife] likes your song and [the picture of the girl] is what came of it."

Some R&B singers are in high profile cases—R. Kelly, Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson. As someone who has gone through tough times, what advice would you give them?

I can't tell them what to do. I would say you have to be focused on what you do. Don't let the atmosphere of what you're doing take over. You have to run the atmosphere and not let the atmosphere control you. I've been out here for 33 years and you can't do nothing. I wear the suit; I don't let the suit wear me. O Lord, have mercy. As a preacher, I sound strange saying that, but I have the ministry of love and happiness! There are a lot of people turning it down but this is good for me. His word will come alive.

Al Green performs June 17 at the Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Road, Saratoga. Tickets are $57-$72 and available through Ticketmaster.

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From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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