Especially when Al Green is on--which means anytime this intensely self-alienated man can be observed in what feels to him like a role, in performance or offstage or at business--his speech is even more stylized than his singing. It combines three major elements. The down-home is rooted in the migrations of Green's growing up, on an Arkansas dirt farm and in the black downtown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The ersatz formal, common among undereducated successes, usually is more professorial. The cute, however, is entirely his own innovation. The man crinkles up his voice as if he's trying out for Sesame Street; he drawls like someone affecting a drawl; he hesitates and giggles and murmurs and swallows his words.
Like most great popular singers, Green transmutes and re-synthesizes his speech in his singing style, both melting it down until it begins to flow and shoring it up, rhythmically, against its own nervousness. This style then becomes the vehicle for a persona that is modest, even fragile, yet undeniably compelling, a term which in Green's case can mean only one thing: sexy. One wants to go to bed with a person who is down home, ersatz formal, and cute because these qualities have their conventionally attractive counterparts--earthy, self-possessed, vulnerable--and yet are unique in themselves. Combined with Green's physical charms--a lean body and winsome face, plus a warm vocal timbre--all this makes for a sex fantasy that is both sweet and original. And not just for women. Green's sexiness is so pervasive that no male who responds to his singing can do so without feeling a jolt that transcends identification.
Of course, we turn on not to a real person but to a persona--a fantasy of a real person that compounds several roles. Moreover, the chemistry is not our own. The Green persona is manufactured--in a process as calculated as a Gatorade assembly line and as natural as the production of sugar in photosynthesis--by Al Green himself. It can be disturbing to realize this, but it is rarely decisive. In October 1974, a woman who had gotten close enough to Al Green to learn that he was nowhere near as self-possessed, earthy, or vulnerable as a fan might hope, persisted in her dreams of marriage anyway. Green rejected her. In retaliation, she attempted to disfigure him with a scalding pot of grits--what an image of the soul music business--and then killed herself. I don't know why the woman continued to love Green; maybe she was still ensnared by the fantasy, or maybe there was something in the reality that continued to satisfy her. Maybe both. For those of us who take pleasure in Green's ability to create fantasies of character in the public drama of his life and in performance because of the genuine pleasure we derive from his music, that's just the way it is.
Green has constructed his persona for the same reason all stars do--to synthesize his need for approval with his need for a firm ego-base. But Green is even less trusting than most stars. He got his professional start as a young teenager, singing lead in a family gospel group, a stint that ended when his father threw him out of the group and the house for listening to Jackie Wilson; his father, perceiving all that Baby Workout as devil's music, couldn't understand that his son had a different kind of religion. "Music engulfs one's soul to exert himself beyond imagination," Green has said. "That music just tripped me out." Later, in 1967, when Green was 20, he and a fellow musician from Grand Rapids made a record called "Back Up Train" that eventually hit Number 41 in Billboard. He never got a cent for it. Soon he headed south.
In 1969, in Midland, Texas, Green and a trumpet player named Willie Mitchell were ripped off by the same club owner. Their bond thus cemented, Green accompanied his new acquaintance back to Memphis, where Mitchell was staff producer for Hi Records. Over the next two years, Mitchell constructed a new Memphis sound around a percussive studio style in which even strings were counterpointed rhythmically to the thick, third-beat drumming of Howard Grimes and Al Jackson, ex-Booker T. and the MGs and hence one-fourth of Stax-Volt's original Memphis sound. The signature of this sound was Green's soft-edged, almost indolent phrasing, full of audacious slurs, with his startling falsetto adding an intensity that was suffering soul and sweet pop at the same time. The team's first smash was "Tired of Being Alone," in mid-1971; to date, they have produced eight gold singles and six gold albums. The five albums of Green's great period--which probably ended with Livin' for You in November 1973--all flow with an intense consistency, thus earning the dubious appellation "artistic unit." That total has been approached by very few white artists of the decade; among black artists, who had no Sgt. Pepper tradition to admonish them when their own LP market established itself, only Aretha Franklin is in Green's class; and none of his peers, black or white--except for Elton John--has showed Green's consistency as a singles artist.
Once again excepting Franklin (who in any case was making minor hits six years before she hooked up with Jerry Wexler in 1967), Green is much the last of the purebred house of soul innovators which seemed to have closed with Otis Redding and Sam and Dave in the mid-Sixties. Although his string of smooth-surfaced hits on man/woman themes tempted those consumers who like their aesthetic differentiation in the large economy size to dismiss his music as black bubblegum, in fact it represented a powerful synthesis and a unique style. The synthesis united the two mainstreams of soul, homogenized cool Detroit-Chicago (near where he grew up and began to record) and greasy get-down Memphis (near where he was born and where he now lives and records). Supported by a respectable variety of hooks and riffs, his vocal musicianship--control of timbre and volume, projection, and especially phrasing--showed a sophisticated instinctive musicianship unprecedented within his genre. His persona was equally original, nonmacho but not long-suffering (Smokey Robinson) or vague (Curtis Mayfield) or button-down (Bill Withers) or wimpy (Russell Thompkins of the Stylistics). He wrote or cowrote most of his own songs, and blended an audacious variety of outside tastes--from the Doors to the Bee Gees, from Hank Williams to Kris Kristofferson, from Roosevelt Sykes to the Temptations, from "God Is Standing By" to "Unchained Melody"--into his own cool-and-creamy sound. Although both music and persona were in a conservative black tradition, it is essential to realize that both were romantic enough, at least in theory, to pass as white pop--and that this is what Green intended.
Because Green's hit singles are so pervasive, even those astonished by his television appearances, where his expressive face makes a startling impression, can't imagine him as a live performer. But Green needs a stage. It's the only place where he can overwhelm his own good taste, providing a subtlety and a power not so easily available to the listener over the car radio--until Green has been seen live just once. The male soul star is expected to come onstage, as Green has said, "in some superman machine suit that glitters and lights up," but Green's conservative flash is both sexier and more subversive. Not only are his clothes tailored to show off the lithe eloquence of his body; they also make that body accessible. There was even a time when he would appear carrying a shoulder bag and looking slightly rumpled, as if he'd just gotten off a Greyhound, and he always performs with a layer of fuzz on his face, making it impossible to tell whether he's growing a beard or just neglected to shave.
Green shares almost nothing with old studs like Wilson Pickett's man-and-a-half or new studs like chesty Teddy Pendergrass. Yet unlike black lover boy Barry White, who sells his deep-voiced solidity like so much pomade, Green definitely does exploit his own immense physical attractiveness. He is exciting, not just secure. Every time he draws back from the microphone so that his trademarked high moans can waft unamplified over the arena, he works his savvy, diffident style of sexual confidence on everyone who strains toward the stage to hear. Every time he laughs mischievously at the passion elicited by his boyish come-on, he shares a joke about the pleasures of the tease. His interplay with the band is a model of generous authority; his interplay with the band is a model of generous authority; his interplay with the crowd a dream of self-possessed appeal. Only as the climactic riff sets in does he finally begin to stride and belt, and even though he doesn't quite muster the power of a soul man-and-a-half, the audience is more than fulfilled.
Yet this epiphany is a qualified one. For us, its failure is in its aesthetic spirit--especially compared to great predecessors like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Green lacks any sense of openness. For Green himself, the failure is commercial, for his control has never achieved the mass interracial success he intended. When it looked as if he might make it, the climactic riff went with a song called "Love and Happiness," a playful euphemism for good sex and all the things that go with it. Now that he is settled back into the role of second-level black hero, with the same reputation for general unreliability that has afflicted so many great soul innovators past their commercial prime, the show topper is "Take Me to the River," which is unclear in a mystical rather than an euphemistic way.
You get the feeling with many soul singers that the spiritual root of their music (call it God) and its emotional referent (by which I mean sex) coexist at the center of their musical conception. Perhaps it is appropriate that Green, as the last of the great soul men, should have apotheosized this confusing synthesis at its most extreme. In a rambling lyric that refers to his musical past (the phrase "sweet 16" is a title from Livin' for You) and is tinged with the paranoia that has lately become more explicit in his work, he seems to beg for a sexual deliverance that is identical to a country baptism. He demands to have his feet on the ground and to walk in the water. Perhaps it is the final tragedy of soul music that all its creators have hoped to do just that, and almost none of them have really managed it.
(Chart positions compiled from Joel Whitburn's Record Research, based on Billboard Pop chart, unless otherwise indicated; r* = position on Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart.)
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976