News » Cover Feature

Let's Stay Together

Singer Al Green and his legendary producer Willie Mitchell try to make magic once again.



Willie Mitchell's office is in the most incongruous of locations -- a converted movie theater on South Lauderdale Street. Just a brick facade topped by some weather-beaten wooden shingles, the ambiance outside is less than promising. The faded white sign that's nailed to the front wall boasts "Studio of the World," but most people who wander by have little clue as to what miracles are taking place within.

Mitchell sits behind his desk, flanked by dozens of gold records that hang on the paneled walls behind him. He's leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed, a beatific smile curling beneath his trademark pencil-thin mustache. "Listen to this," he says, conducting an invisible orchestra with his fingers. A swirling wave of music washes over the room as Mitchell's grin widens.

Al Green's voice comes floating through the speakers. "Standing on the edge of the world/I'm lookin' for you baby," Green sings, effortlessly sliding up and down the scale. "I keep looking at the sun/But it's rainin' in my heart." Mitchell sways in his chair, taking in the sound. "Goddamn!" he says, punching the air in rhythm to a particularly tough horn solo. "Goddamn. We did it again!" He's speaking, of course, about I Can't Stop, his first real collaboration with Green since Have a Good Time, released in 1976.

Willie Mitchell's Royal Recording Studio and Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle Church stand less than five miles apart in the long-neglected streets on the south side of Memphis. Soulsville USA teems with abandoned houses, garbage-strewn lots, and burned-out buildings, but there's something here that, try as they might, area drug dealers and Shelby County government haven't been able to kill.

This is a neighborhood based on music: the modern-day raps of Al Kapone and Kavious, the soul sounds of Stax and Royal, and the gospel tunes that flow from Green's church and the other houses of worship that dot every block. Music, as Poppa Willie and Rev. Al can attest, provides a way out from the defeated atmosphere. Sing in the church choir, and you might escape -- mentally at least -- for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. Cut an album at Mitchell's studio, however, and you just might strike it rich.

Green, of course, has done both. The Arkansas native got his start singing in a family gospel group, playing revivals and country services in the dirt-poor Delta communities southwest of Memphis. As a teenager in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Green formed the Soul Mates, a group heavily influenced by the Motown sound. After cutting the surprise smash "Back Up Train" in 1967, he hit the road alone, booking a series of dates that corresponded to the crisscross route of a Greyhound bus.

A chance meeting with Mitchell at a Texas nightclub one year later led to one of the greatest pop-music collaborations of all time. Mitchell never tires of the story: "Al had the talent to really be something. He didn't have a follow-up to 'Back Up Train,' and he was down on his luck, really starving. I offered to bring him back to Memphis and work with him, but he wanted to know how long it would take to make him a star. I told him 18 months, and you know what he said? 'I really can't wait that long!'" Mitchell guffaws at the memory. "He came around, but first he needed some money -- he had some bills to pay up in Michigan. I lent him $1,500 without a contract, and he took it and disappeared up north."

Two weeks went by, then four, then six. "The doorbell rang at 6 o'clock in the morning," Mitchell recalls. "I thought it was a man coming to paint my kitchen, but the guy said, 'Don't you remember me? I'm Al Green!'" Under Poppa Willie's tutelage, Al scored big with "Tired of Being Alone" at the start of the 1970s and racked up hit after hit for the Hi Records label over a seven-year run.

Green put aside his religious upbringing to sing about the passion between men and women; yet as his trademark falsetto soared over the lyrics, his soul sank under the weight of his secular success. Then in 1973 he received the Holy Spirit in a Disneyland hotel room. From that moment on, Green vowed to commit himself to God, although more earthly matters continued to get in his way, culminating in a 1974 incident when jealous lover Mary Woodson poured a pot of boiling grits on his bare back, then killed herself in his bathroom. "All I wanted was to be with you and love you until I die. I love you, Al," the handwritten suicide note said. "I'm not mad just unhappy because I can't be with you."

While recovering from his third-degree burns -- an arduous eight-month process -- Green devoted his spare time to Bible study, immersing himself in the healing power of God's word. Once he started reading, Green was entranced. He learned that "no man can serve two masters" -- and that, if he tried, "he will end up hating the one and loving the other." As Al saw it, he had to choose between God and Willie Mitchell, and at the height of his career, he parted company with the hit-making producer.

"I wasn't reading the Bible while I was in the hospital," Green clarifies today. "This girl came by my room and dared me to read it, but I told her it was only a book. She said, 'Yeah, I know that -- so you can read it, right?' I just took it and threw it over with the rest of the candy and the balloons and stuff. I didn't start reading it until after I went home. I've been reading that same book ever since!"

We're at the precise spot where the sacred meets the secular -- Rev. Green's office, located in a cinderblock building behind his church on Hale Road. The walls, the furniture, and even the carpet are colored a gleaming white; as in Mitchell's office, gold records and other awards cover nearly every surface in the room. Green impatiently drums his fingers on his desktop, searching for words that are momentarily beyond him. Then he pounds his fist and leans forward.

"I've gotten kicked in the rump more than five times," Green says, alluding to, among other incidents, the time he fell off a Cincinnati, Ohio, stage while singing "I'm Still in Love with You." "But you've got to learn to ride the tide," Green continues. "Just 'cause I got down today, that don't mean I ain't gonna be up tomorrow! You've gotta learn how to ride it," he laughs. "Every day ain't gonna be a happy day."

"I've been preaching for 26 years. How should I reconcile this album with the public?" Green wonders. "I asked my church folks, 'What about this music?' They said, 'Al, if you tell us you love us and you don't lie, that means everything. But if you tell us you love us and you're jiving, you ain't worth nothing. If you say you love us and you mean it with all your heart, you can make all them records you want to make.' I said, 'Hot dog!'" Al laughs again, victorious.

It hasn't always been that simple. Just read the introduction to Green's autobiography, Take Me to the River, published in 2000: "The Al Green onstage bears no resemblance to the Al Green in the pulpit. The Al Green who sings 'You Ought To Be with Me' wants nothing to do with the one who sings 'Jesus Is Waiting.' The Al Green standing in the wings has got nothing in common with the Al Green kneeling in his prayer closet. Most of the time, they can't even stand living in the same skin."

But today Green is at ease with the subject, gracefully balancing the roles of conscientious pastor and salacious sex symbol. He conjures up a parable of his own: "Me and my wife have had arguments -- words, if you will -- where it ends up that I'm sleeping on the couch," Green whispers conspiratorially. "She's got the bed all to herself. I'm not gonna give in, she's not gonna give in, so therefore get out the blankets and the pillow," he chuckles. "That's the way that goes until we decide to make up."

"Even the pope is a human being," Green insists. "And that is what this album is about. When people come home from the church house and start dealing with the children, their job, the mortgage, and the insurance, they're gonna deal with this album. It's about life."

Green flashes back to the mid-'70s and shakes his head. "I was in such a trauma then," he remembers. "I was being transformed. Psychologically, I was a mess. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't think. I was out of it, and I had no idea of what to do with the gift I'd just received. Meanwhile, I had producers, promoters, record companies, booking agents, all these people saying, 'Al is doing what? Al has got what? Religion? What are you talking about? Eighteen million dollars invested in this boy and he's got religion? We've got a career going here! We need to sell some records!'"

"Everyone around me was saying 'We don't need God right now. Tell him to come back later.' But there's a very conscious place where the rubber meets the road," Green muses. "I had to reconcile what was going on with me, because this was the only thing that was gonna save me."

He laughs, remembering a casino gig that went down amid all the melodrama. "I stood onstage and said, 'When you open the Bible to Deuteronomy,'" Green intones. "I had never seen 3,000 people leaving out of a place so fast! All the pimps and their ladies grabbed their stuff off the tables and they were gone. The promoter said, 'Please, no, no, not the Bible.'"

"One couple stayed," recalls Green. "They were two white people, a little up there in age, and they said, 'Um-hmm, very good. Um-hmm, wonderful.' And I was wondering, 'Is this weird or what? Are these people real?' With all that was happening to me, they could've been angels."

The Belle Album, Green's last serious stab at pop music, was released in December 1977. Green calls the record, cut at his own American Music Studios, the result of "a musical housecleaning." As he wrote in his autobiography, "I was stepping out in faith, walking a tightrope without the old comforting net of Willie and the rest of the crew, but I have to say that it felt good." The title track channeled Green's emotional turbulence into an unlikely R&B chartbuster but failed to cross over; ultimately, it closed the door on his secular career.

"It's you that I want/But it's Him that I need," Green sings, remembering the lyrics to his final hit single. "I was singing about Mary Woodson," he confirms, "and my desire, which was elevated to the spiritual level. I needed Christ in my life. I needed God's love -- not a woman's love. I meant every word."

At the time, Mitchell, a trumpeter and popular bandleader, appeared unaffected by Green's actions. After all, he'd seen nearly everything at Hi Records, where he'd been pumping out records since the late '50s. Mitchell had produced hits for O.V. Wright and Ann Peebles -- as well as his own chart-topping instrumentals "Sunrise Serenade" and "20-75" -- long before he'd even met Al Green, and he refused to let the mutiny of his latest protÇgÇ sidetrack his own career.

While Green struck out on his own, Mitchell soldiered on at Royal, producing a bevy of hard-hitting R&B albums. Then, in 1979, the Hi label -- which Mitchell had run since founder Joe Cuoghi died nine years earlier -- was sold against his wishes. Mitchell nevertheless held onto Royal, Hi's longtime studio, where he continued to churn out such acclaimed releases as Ann Peebles' If This Is Heaven, Syl Johnson's Uptown Shakedown, and Ike Turner's comeback album, Here and Now. Musicians like Keith Richards, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, and blue-eyed soulster Marti Pellow passed through the studio doors, but no one dared touch Al's microphone, which was gathering dust in the tape vault.

Green and Mitchell reunited just once, in 1986, to record the album He Is the Light. While the recordings might be the most dynamic of Green's gospel career, neither man was satisfied with the end result. When questioned about the sessions, Mitchell, no fan of religious music, simply makes an ugly face; with his mustache drooping and his mouth turned down, he looks like he just drank a pint of sour milk.

Only Green is willing to shed some light on the matter. "Willie's intentions were good," he says. "He was trying to come toward me, and the album was a meeting point. Everybody had to give up something. But -- as he give up this, and I give up that -- we found that if you don't stand for something, you'll fall face down." Without any further ceremony, microphone #9 was retired for another 17 years.

Fast-forward to last winter. Mitchell, a diabetic, went in and out of the hospital; while not the main catalyst, his illness prompted the reunion that led to the I Can't Stop sessions. "Willie said, 'You've started, Al. Now we've got to finish it,'" Green relates. "He compared my career to an oil painting, telling me I had to fill in all the details, and then I had to sign it. 'That makes it yours,' he said."

"We talked about fooling around with some songs," Green says. The two discussed putting together a collection of standards, but Mitchell refused. "'We've got to write songs like we did before,'" Green says, uncannily impersonating his mentor's distinctive tenor. "'I don't want to do all these cover tunes that someone's done 1,500 times, nah. It's gotta come from the altar of your heart.'" Green claps his hands, delighted. "I said, 'Pops, you're a cruel man.' He said, 'No, I want the cream!' And so that's the way we did it."

The duo spent February and March writing songs. As Green explains it, "Willie would start playing the piano, and I'd sit next to him with a legal pad and pencil. He wanted me to write what I feel." The words that poured out onto the page provided the lyrics for a dozen songs, many of which -- "I've Been Waitin' On You," "I'd Write a Letter," and "I'd Still Choose You" -- describe the intangible cord that binds the two men.

"Willie's my brother and he's also a father figure to me. When I cry, he cries, and when he cries, I cry. You'll find some of that on 'Rainin' in My Heart,'" Green says, citing the third song on the album. "I'd sung the song four times, and every time Pops made me sing it all the way through. He won't take no overdubs! So there's a grunt at the beginning of the track, where I just let go -- 'Unnnhh.' That's what Poppa Willie does to me!"

Much of the old Hi Rhythm Section was brought in, including guitarist Teenie Hodges and his brother, bassist Leroy Hodges, both veterans of Green's classic sessions. Other Hi alumni -- pianist Lester Snell, guitarist Skip Pitts, drummer Steve Potts, and the Rhodes-Chalmers-Rhodes back-up singers -- played on the album, as did the Royal Horns (trumpeter Scott Thompson, trombonist Jack Hale, and saxmen Andrew Love, Lannie McMillan, and Jim Spake) and the New Memphis Strings.

"It was like old times -- a family reunion," Green crows. "I was grateful, I was excited, I was nervous. I hadn't done this in about 15 years," he adds. "Every last word on the album is true. Just the other day, Willie told me that he knew I would do it. He said, 'If he's got in him what I know is in him, he'll come.'"

"God's time is the best time for doing anything. There's a lot of people I'm singing to who don't go to any church. I'm being sent out to the highways and the hedges, the streets and lanes of the city, to compel men to come. I know where I come from and I know where I'm going," Green maintains. "I'm not asking great things to be committed to me. That's not what I want. I'm not asking for millions and millions of jobs and trillions and trillions of dollars. No, I want to be able to play with my kids and go to Wal-Mart. I want to be happy."

"What if I'd never crossed paths with Willie Mitchell? That's the one question that runs outside of providence. I was supposed to meet Willie that night. I'm kinda glad I did," Green concludes. "I borrowed $1,500 dollars from him, and he still hasn't gotten it back!" He laughs, his face crinkling at the memory. After pausing for a moment, he begins to sing the final verse of "I'd Still Choose You." "I still trust you, I grow with you/Forever and ever and ever and ever," he croons thoughtfully, his voice sounding as passionate as always. "If I had to do it all over," he sings, "I'd still choose you."

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment