The Rev. Al Green may answer to a higher authority on spiritual matters, but when it comes to monitoring the content of his music, he’s still in pretty good hands — those of his own mother.
Since experiencing a religious reawakening and founding his Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis, Tenn., in 1976, Green has, understandably, checked himself when it comes to the smooth sensuality for which he’s still best known.
So now he runs finished music by Mom before anyone else — including the members of his own congregation — gets to hear it.
“If Mom likes it,” Green quips enthusiastically, “I don’t care what the other folks think!”
Last year’s I Can’t Stop (Blue Note) was Green’s first secular release since Your Heart’s in Good Hands (MCA) in 1995. The 2003 album reunited him with longtime writing partner, mentor and producer Willie Mitchell, whom Green had last worked with back in ’85, on the gospel effort He Is the Light (A&M). The two hadn’t done an R&B album together since Have a Good Time (Blue Note) nine years before that.
Many of the same musicians the pair worked with on their string of classic smash hits — “Take Me to the River,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and on and on — also put in an appearance on I Can’t Stop.
“Everybody asks me, ‘Why do you want to go and sing an R&B record now?'” Green reports.
For the pop-culture-revered reverend, it’s a loaded question.
First, Green fully understands the gospel community’s widespread conviction that it is inappropriate for a person to perform both spiritual and secular music. In his particular case, any tension arising from his pre-gospel background is only heightened by the passionate sexual current that’s always been an undeniable aspect of Green’s delivery.
To compound the pressure on him, there’s also the burden of being two decades removed from his last hit. Which does lead one to wonder: Why now?
Naming his comeback I Can’t Stop would seem like a pretty clear response from Green. As it turns out, he’s still feeling plenty vital these days, and has even more to say. So much so, in fact, that he’s now at work on no less than four new albums, including The Music Man, an R&B follow-up to his current release.
I Can’t Stop, he explains, “is trying to bridge the past R&B songs that we did, which is like 18 years’ worth, to the present day.” He promises that The Music Man will take his sound forward.
Still two songs shy of completing the latter R&B effort, Green expresses excitement over his other works-in-progress: an album apiece devoted to jazz, contemporary gospel, and “hardcore, like Southern Delta” blues. (All of them, by the way, are being recorded in different cities.)
“I’m doing it for the art‘s sake, not, ‘This is a minister and he’s singing, ‘I lost my baby last night,'” Green says of pursuing his different tastes.
So how much then does Green see himself as a predecessor to artists like, say, Meshell N’degeocello, who overtly mine the theme of sex in search of a deeper meaning?
Well, not at all, actually.
“When I’m talking about my baby,” he declares, “I’m talking about my baby. When I’m talking to God, my baby ain’t even in my mind.”
Message of love — all kinds of love
Though Green has at times distanced himself from his secular body of work, he staunchly — and with good humor — defends his decision to keep singing romance-oriented material. For him, it’s a matter of paying respects to and illuminating the presence of the divine in the day-to-day.
“It’s not because of being unfaithful to my calling,” he asserts. “I know what my calling is. And I know how to be faithful to my calling.
“This is a ministry that has been given to me — and to me only — to carry this message of love: You don’t have to fight, because there’s love in the world. And God is love.”
That is, all kinds of love.
“That concept is not trying to betray what God is,” Green insists. “But you have to acknowledge that people got here some kind of way!”
If the diehard gospel community won’t acknowledge sex, his secular fans sometimes do — like the stewardess on Green’s plane who “blamed” his music for inspiring the coupling that led to the conception of her child.
“She showed me a picture of a little girl and she said, ‘Look what you made me do!'” Green reports. “That’s kinda nice. A lot of folks in the gospel community are gonna say, ‘Man, you jokin’ me’ — and I understand that.
“But, if God don’t have nothin’ to do with your Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I don’t know what in the world he has to do with your Sunday.”
[Freelance music writer Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is based in Rochester, N.Y.]
The Biltmore Estate Summer Evening Concert Series presents Al Green with The Blind Boys of Alabama at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 3. (Summer Evening Concert tickets do not include or require admission to Biltmore Estate.) Show tickets are $55-$65. For more information, see www.biltmore.com, or call (866) 336-1255.