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In church with Al Green

A Sunday morning in Memphis which mixes the sacred and the secular

Hazel Sheffield | August 28th 2015

The Reverend Al Green became one of the greatest soul singers of all time on the strength of just a handful of gold-certified hits in the early 1970s. His songs have passed into the popular canon: who hasn’t heard his caramel falsetto on “Let’s Stay Together” on the dance floor at a wedding? Starting with the success of “Tired of Being Alone” in 1971, Green’s smooth Motown vocals, mixed with the stabs of brass synonymous with Memphis’s Stax and Volt labels, earned him a reputation as the father of a new breed of soul music.

But not for long. In 1974, he was badly burned and emotionally traumatised when a girlfriend threw a pan of hot grits over him, rooted out his pistol and shot herself dead. The incident prompted Green to turn away from secular music almost entirely. At first he released gospel albums, then he retreated to the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, which he founded in a leafy Memphis suburb in 1976, the year he was ordained. His secular appearances have become more infrequent as the years have passed.

I was passing through Memphis one Sunday in August, and went to the church. A coach was parked outside the angular concrete building, delivering 50 worshippers from Florida. With their hats and neatly pressed skirts filling the rows of pews, some studiously underlined passages in their bibles as Green delivered a sermon about Samson and Delilah.

Even though he performs from a pulpit, rather than big stages across the globe, there’s a glimmer of the big star about Green even now. His portly figure, cloaked in black robes, moved slowly up and down the aisles of the church as he recited his sermon. Every few lines, he momentarily broke into song. A burst of “Amazing Grace” revealed that the caramel falsetto is still going strong. A while later, after he suddenly broke into a verse of “When the Saints Go Marching In”, the church band of organ, piano, guitar and percussion punctuated the line with a little riff, like a jazz band filling in at the end of a solo. He peppered his service with anecdotes and jokes that kept the congregation grinning even as many of them began to battle the sweltering heat by fanning themselves with the order of service.

“They tried to get me to go back to work—to go back on tour—and I said, ‘Oh, I’m working! I’m working for the Lord!’” he told the congregation.

“The devil will always try to tempt you when you have found peace, when you are doing God’s work,” he went on. “I didn’t say no cuss words though—I didn’t say no bad words. ‘Tired of Being Alone’—ain’t nothin’ wrong with ‘Tired of Being Alone’!”

“That’s my favourite!” said a woman in front in a wide-brimmed purple hat. Everyone laughed. The gospel choir, in between two big signs reading “welcome”, started up with another hymn. Green, barely audible, mopped his brow behind the pulpit.

A stocky man with a white moustache, laden down with cameras, slid into the front pew and started to snap pictures of the band at work. Nobody stopped him. At the end of the hymn, Green thanked the congregation for coming. “I thank the Lord that I’m still here. I’ve lost so many of my brothers, so many of the greats: Michael Jackson, Bill Preston, Luther Vandross. But I’m still here, and I can only thank the Lord for that."

After more prayers, Green said his goodbyes and made for the back of the church. The man with the cameras darted quickly towards him, brandishing a CD and a pen from his pocket. One minute, Green signalled, as he led the gospel singers through a door. He’d be back to meet his secular fans once the service was over.

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