Happy Birthday, Al Green... and Praise the Lord!
OK -- quick question. What do Barack Obama and Tina Turner have in common? Maybe a lot of things, but most important, both have quoted that soulful crooner Al Green -- Turner in her incredible comeback hit, a redo of his standard "Let's Stay Together," and the prez in a recent attempt to croon a few bars of that same song prior to a public appearance.
Still, Al Green remains one of a kind, a soul singer in the classic sense and a man who recalls classic performers like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and David Ruffin.
Born April 13, 1946, he hit his heyday during the '70s, when his singles "I'm Still in Love with You," "Love and Happiness," "Take Me to the River," and, of course, "Let's Stay Together" became staples on both the pop and R&B charts. He withdrew from those realms by choice when, in the '70s and '80s, he turned to the church and became an ordained minister. Still, he had already achieved immortality. Rolling Stone named him number 66 in its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and in 1995, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The fact that he's sold more than 20 million records attests to his enduring influence and popularity.
Although Green made several attempts at stardom in the late '60s, both as a solo artist and through various ensembles that bore his name, it wasn't until he met musician Willie Mitchell, a member of Memphis' Hi Records' in-house studio band, that his destiny was sealed. A spate of best-selling albums -- Green Is Blues, Al Green Gets Next to You, Let's Stay Together, I'm Still In Love With You, Call Me, and Al Green Explores Your Mind -- became huge successes, each yielding singles that took him to the top of the charts.
Unfortunately, there seems to be something about soul singers that brings them a violent end. Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye were two examples of men killed in violent altercations with loved ones. Green nearly became another victim of this curse when, on October 18, 1974, his girlfriend, Mary Woodson White, became upset when Green refused to marry her and doused Green with a pan of boiling grits while he was showering, burning him on his back, stomach, and arms before she killed herself.
Never mind that she was already married or that the incident occurred only months after he scored a hit with the song "Let's Get Married." The episode was a turning point that convinced Green he needed to give his life to the Lord. He became an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis in 1976, and, after a final attempt to connect with the mainstream via The Belle Album and a subsequent fall from the stage, he turned to gospel music almost exclusively. In 1982, he appeared with Patti LaBelle in the Broadway musical Your Arms Too Short to Box With God but stayed away from any real secular sounds for several years after.
It wasn't until 1989 that he ventured back into those realms, releasing "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," a duet with Annie Lennox that appeared on the Scrooged soundtrack. That same year, he performed the international hit "The Message Is Love" with producer Arthur Baker. His 1991 album, Don't Look Back, became a viable commercial comeback, leading to a 1994 duet with Lyle Lovett and his ninth Grammy overall. He capped that achievement with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
In the past decade, Green's come full circle, thanks to a live cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" that was included on the soundtrack to Will Smith's film Ali, followed by a reunion with producer Willie Mitchell on the albums I Can't Stop and its follow-up, Everything's OK. He also sang a duet called "Simply Beautiful" with Queen Latifah on her The Dana Owens Album and collaborated with the Roots' Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Anthony Hamilton on his 2008 opus Lay It Down. That effort became his most successful album release in 35 years.
Of course, Green's songs remain an ongoing element in the pop lexicon, what with David Byrne still crooning the Talking Heads' cover of "Take Me to the River" and Tina Turner boasting "Let's Stay Together" as an indelible part of her repertoire.
And of course, having the president tapping one of your tunes doesn't hurt either...
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