Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green
By Jimmy McDonough
Da Capo Press, 432 pp., $28
The struggle between the sacred and the profane is nothing new for singers – and especially R&B singers. But does any performer in any genre reflect that dichotomy more than Al Green?
“We’re all pulled and tugged by God and the devil,” Green once told an interviewer. “We’re in a constant battle between good and evil.”
On one hand, the singer his longtime producer Willie Mitchell once called “silky on the top, rough on the bottom” was a libertine with a harem of women across the world, a man who took part in shady business dealings and didn’t flinch at walking over those who had helped him in his career. But he was also charming, deeply religious, insecure and at the height of his career bought his own church — the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis — and became the Reverend Al Green.
That’s something of a theme here for the man who made pleading an art form in tunes like “Let’s Stay Together,” “Still In Love With You,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “Call Me (Come Back Home),” “You Ought to Be With Me,” and “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).”
McDonough debunks some prime Al Green myths here, like how the singer turned to God and became a born-again Christian after an emotionally fraught girlfriend named Mary Woodson scalded the naked Green with hot water (or Cream of Wheat…or Malt O Meal…or grits…). And just before she shot herself in his home and leaving him with painful second-degree burns.
“His life was more ambiguous, chaotic, and unsettled than the clichéd happy ending usually reported [after the Woodson incident],” McDonough writes. And throughout this book, Green is indeed a man of many faces and moods – and apt to change abruptly. As a famous (and oft-analyzed) lyric of his goes, albeit summing up his outlook a bit too prettily: “It’s you that I want, but HIM that I need.” Still, the man sometimes called the “Black Elvis” could have an almost supernatural power to make panties fly on the stage and women lose their shit.
For his part, Green himself maintains his religious conversion happened a year before…at a hotel Disneyland, and that he got so emotional he had to stuff a pillow in his mouth to stop crying. But it’s hard to tell, as he has given conflicting stories and details over the years in interviews.
McDonough nicely includes sub-chapters on producer Willie Mitchell (whose symbiotic relationship with Green is almost as responsible for the singer's success as Green himself), Hi Records and the Hi Rhythm and Enterprise Orchestra backing bands, and Royal Recording Studios in Memphis. Green’s singing contemporaries, rivals, and partners like O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and Ann Peebles are also welcomely profiled. Not all of them have nice things to say about the Reverend.
There are also plenty of cool details, like how Green's royalties for his own version of “Take Me to the River” – and even the Talking Heads’ hit rock version – were at one time dwarfed by checks from The Sopranos, when Tony’s singing Big Mouth Billy Bass warbled it as a harbinger of death for poor Big Pussy.
For most of the ‘80s onward, Al Green has spent more time at the pulpit than in the recording studio, and even then his output has tended more toward gospel than secular music.
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McDonough – who did not speak to Green for the book but has sat in the pews of Full Gospel Tabernacle many times – maintains there is an incredible record to be made just from what Green sings during service...if you cut out his sometimes meandering sermons.
Al Green has already told his own life story, 2009’s Take Me to the River with writer Devin Seay. But the subject has said he’s never actually read it. And even Seay admits it’s a thin, sketchy job based on the scant amount of time Green actually chose to sit with him; the memories he chose to share barely break the surface.
While Al Green the singer is one of the biggest R&B and soul stars of all time, Al Green the man is more of a shape-shifting phantom. Soul Survivor is masterful and exhaustively researched, and will be as close as a reader gets to knowing a practically unknowable artist.