“Man, I wish the Derby was going on while I was there,” said the Rev. Al Green of his upcoming performance in Kentucky. “We could go out and put some money on those horses. But seeing as I’m a preacher, I’d have to keep my bets to $2.50.”
Following such a modest proclamation was a vocal trait almost as endearing and distinctive to Green as his singing: laughter.
It came like a cloudburst - quick, explosive and transforming. Almost without realizing it, you find yourself laughing with him.
“Hey, man, when I sing For the Good Times,” he said, referring to the Kris Kristofferson song he refashioned into a soul hit in 1981, “it means ‘for the good times.’ It don’t mean for the bad times. It means we’re going to make the most of our time together. We’re going to make it work. We gotta make it work because it’s getting pretty late in the game, baby.”
One can’t help but think the Rev. Al has his next Sunday sermon in mind when he talks like that. After all, the veteran soul singer with the killer falsetto has been an ordained minister in his adopted hometown of Memphis for more than 30 years.
But “late in the game” seems also to reflect the secular side of Green’s life and music. Two days before our conversation, he was winding up a European tour in support of “Lay It Down.” The recording is the third in a series of critically lauded albums for the Blue Note label that have set Green back on the path of the earthy, upbeat soul he explored during the early ‘70s. Green’s hits from that era with producer Willie Mitchell - “Let’s Stay Together,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “Love and Happiness,” “I’m Still In Love With You,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and many others - came to define one of the final golden eras of American soul music.
“Every house we played over there was rocking,” Green said of the European tour. “But this music is my life, man. I’ve been doing it ever since I came to Memphis and met Willie Mitchell in ‘70 or ‘71. We’re gonna do what we do wherever we go.”
But “Lay It Down” is the only one of the three Blue Note albums - 2003’s “I Can’t Stop” and 2005’s “Everything’s OK” were the others - that did not have Mitchell at the helm. Instead, Green co-produced Lay It Down with Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots. He also enlisted new-generation soul stars John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton.
While they summon more of Green’s ‘70s muse than material on the other Blue Note albums, the songs on “Lay It Down” were hardly premeditated. In fact, he wrote the bulk of them with Thompson and several collaborators after recording sessions had begun.
To set the scene, Green keeps his distance to offer a third-person perspective of his work at the sessions.
“If you had a picture of Al at the recording sessions, he would be sitting on the floor,” Green said. “Everybody else would be around him - the organ player, the drummer, the bass player. They’re all in a circle around him.
“That first night we got together, we wrote eight songs. I was talking to Willie about that. He thought that was astounding. So I asked if he liked the album. He said, ‘Of course, I like it. My only problem is I didn’t get to produce it.’ But he wished me well, hugged me and said, ‘Hey man, a fine album.’”
What “Lay It Down” shares with the preceding Blue Note records is Green’s boundless vocal exuberance. At 62, the gleam and fire of his falsetto and the sheer jubilance of his phrasing haven’t diminished. The singer says he takes care of himself, walks 3 ½ miles every morning and again, “at a very brisk pace,” in the evening.
“I’m still striving to be the best,” Green said. “The girl singers in our band say, ‘What are you trying to do when you’re out there onstage singing that hard?’ I say, ‘I’m trying to perfect something.’ And they’ll go, “Perfect something? This music was perfected when you cut it.’”
With that, the laughter pours out again like a waterfall.
“I guess my music is like an oil painting. I just try to touch it up - a little blue here, maybe a little red or white. I just want to perfect it so when I’m done with it, I can say, ‘Now I can sign my name at the bottom of it and present it.’ That’s it.”
When asked whether he had a favorite song among those paintings, Green fell silent momentarily before using audience reception on his recent North American and European tours as a gauge.
“Whether it’s overseas or in America, it’s going to be ‘Let’s Stay Together.’ On that one, everyone stands, everyone sings and everyone dances. And then Al comes out and throws flowers and roses everywhere (reviews of Green’s recent shows attest to the latter). It’s just a song that makes everyone come together.”
Of course, when Al Green, soul superstar and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, isn’t touring the world, he remains the Rev. Al to the members of Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis. But while concert audiences and church congregations might approach his music with different forms of devotion, Green says spiritual and secular followings are more similar than either realize.
“Man, I find life similar,” Green said. “And I always will. If we look at ourselves, we will find we have more in common than our differences. Take both groups and put them together and you have the answer because if you smile, the whole is going to smile with you. But if you’re a crybaby, well, you’ll just be crying by yourself.”