History Lesson // Al Green

To separate the man from the music

When I was travelling last year, I ended up in a strange situation where the movie Chef (2014) was, for some reason, the only one I had downloaded on my laptop. As you can imagine, hours of waiting time in airports, train stations and bus stops allowed me to get quite familiar with this movie, and upon my 6th viewing in the space of a few weeks, just before I missed my flight in a German airport, I noticed this song. About 10 minutes into the movie, 'Tired of Being Alone' by Al Green starts playing (in the movie it's sung by this skeleton-puppet-street-performer-thing, weird) and after a little research, I came across the rest of his music. This, ridiculous as it may be, was my introduction to one of the greatest soul musicians of all time.

Just to give some context for those who are also too young to know him by name: when I googled 'Al Green' (whose name is actually 'Al Greene', but he dropped the 'e' during his career), it came up with over 10 billion results. I am not kidding. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in '95 and has gathered an astounding 21 Grammy nominations, winning 11 over his career, as well as gaining the prestigious rank of #14 in Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers of all Time. He has 8 Gold singles and a Platinum album (by US thresholds) and his top song on Spotify - 'Let's Stay Together' - has over 230 million listens… so basically, if you don't already know him, you, now you can pretend that you do.

Honestly, after digging through a few of his 29 albums, I understand the praise. Green's voice is as smooth as butter, and most of his albums through the 70s are the type of music that can change the atmosphere of a room. Gets Next To You from 1971 is one of my favourites, as different songs showcase a good range in pace, but still works as a cohesive experience, maintaining a high level of emotionality through the whole album. As most of the great soul albums do, this one also weaves in an appropriate level of funk with smooth synths, all manner of horns and subdued electric guitar riffs. It's a little less dramatic than his next album, Let's Stay Together (which is the one that went platinum) but if drama is what you look for in soul music, then have at it.

But see, despite all that, Al Green is one of these unfortunate cases where we're obligated to separate the artist from their art: the guy seemed like he had serious problems. He was kicked out of home as a teenager because his extraordinarily religious father caught him listening to Jackie Wilson (a rhythm and blues singer from the 50s) and while he did start his music career with his first band 'Al Greene & the Creations' when he was in high school, he also got involved with some shady stuff, including drugs. In 1974, his girlfriend of the time poured boiling grits on him, causing second-degree burns, and then committed suicide shortly after. Green has cited this as an indication that he needed to turn his life around, and proceeded to open a Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis in 1976. The following years saw Green getting married to one of his church employees, who filed for divorce multiple times, accusing him of beating her often. In 1974, his former secretary had filed a civil suit that also involved Green beating her. In 1977, he was arrested for assault, then the next year, charged with assault and battery in an incident involving a tree branch.

Regardless of the man's personal doings, the music, as art independent of its creator, is brilliant. Soul isn't the most popular genre right now, but music like Al Green's can help us youngin's understand why people loved it so much.