Al Green’s voice is hoarse. Not just a little rough, mind you, but harsh, grating, rasping.
Can this man struggling to speak into the phone in his Auburn, Mich., Holiday Inn room really be the singer who made all those mellifluous, euphonious sounds that have defined Memphis soul since the early 1970s?
If he is, surely he should be sipping hot tea and honey, not taking questions about how he keeps his voice in shape.
Perhaps sensing distress on the other end of the line, Green, 61, pushes ahead with his answer.
“I don’t have any regimen,” he says with some difficulty. “My voice is a gift. I know I don’t sound like I can sing right now. But I could sing if I had to.”
And almost miraculously, a minute or so later the five-time Grammy Award winner is singing snatches of songs in that trademark lithe, lively Al Green voice as he converses freely about the inspiration behind his music, his rigorous tour schedule and his upcoming hip-hop influenced recording with The Roots.
First, though, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer fields a question about the sensual/spiritual elements that co-exist in his music. As he does throughout the interview, Green answers the query indirectly.
“These guys in London asked me, `Do you know how many kids were conceived to your music?,’” he begins. “And I said, `Oh, God! What did I do?’
“You know what this music does?” he continues playfully and knowingly. “It makes you want to light the fireplace, open the white wine. It’s snowing out. You start stroking her hair. Before you know it, you’re in heaven.”
The use of religious terminology comes easily to Green, who was born in Arkansas, raised in Michigan and did his earliest singing in a gospel group called the Green Brothers. In the mid-1970s, at the apex of his popularity, he became an ordained minister and began making gospel records, returning to secular albums only periodically.
“I don’t know what happened, except in 1973, I had this religious conversion,” Green said, “and Willie Mitchell (his longtime producer and songwriting partner) goes, `Oh no! You say you found Jesus! How we gonna make money with that?’ People were having a fit. But I couldn’t help it.”
Most Sunday mornings when he is at home in Memphis, he can be found preaching at his Full Gospel Tabernacle Church.
“I was given this - we, myself and the 19 guys who are with me (on the road) call it the ministry of love and happiness - that’s what God gave us,” he said of his career.
Asked about notable songs such as “Nobody But You,” “Real Love” and “All the Time” on his most recent CD, 2005’s well-received “Everything’s OK,” Green said, “I can’t explain myself because I don’t know how I got here.”
He did reveal, however, how he came to write “Nobody But You.”
“God was saying to me on the plane, `I gave you the song. You be good to me and I’ll be good to you.’”
Thanks to his 2003 comeback disc, “I Can’t Stop,” and “Nobody But You,” Green has spent a lot of time on the road. Last year, he did 147 shows, touring the world and garnering rave reviews. This year, he will do at least 130.
“The shows are intense,” Green said. “A little girl in London asked me (recently) what I was doing after the show, and I said I was going to be at the hotel and going to sleep. I give everything I have on stage. I don’t have the energy to stay out all night.”
And when band members josh him about not going out on the town with them? “I tell them, I have to sing the show, they only have to play it.”
Asked about opening for B.B. King as a replacement for the ailing Etta James, he replied with a laugh, “I always say the sooner we get to the watering hole, the sooner we can leave.”
“There’s no rest for the weary,” he said, relating the latest development in the recording of his next album, which is being produced by Roots drummer Amir “?uestlove” Thompson.
“I was asked, `After the Newport Jazz Festival, could you come by New York for a couple days. (British vocalist) Corinne Bailey Rae is dying to sing with you.’ Now, I want to go home! But that’s all the time she has available. So I said, `Maybe I can come and sing a couple of songs. And maybe I can sing a song with her when she cuts her album in November.’”
On Aug. 14 and 15, Green will return to Electric Ladyland studios to record with Rae, pairing with her as he has done previously with Anthony Hamilton and D’Angelo, among others.
“They want Al to sing the way Al sings, but they want to hip-hop the music,” Green said of the recording that likely will be released in the fall. “It sounds so fresh, so today. That’s why I’m going to do some more work. It’s a wonderful project.”
Despite his enthusiasm for the record, Green looks forward to the day he can return home for an extended stay with his wife - “I’ve been loving the same woman for 18 years,” he said with pride - and their four sons.
This is how he envisions his homecoming: “My 5-year-old grabs me around the leg, my 9-year-old grabs me by the waist, and my 13-year-old grabs me by the neck and they all rassle me to the floor and we’re tickling one another,” Green said, noting that his 2 ½-year-old will be sitting nearby watching. “Then my wife comes in and asks, `What are you idiots doing laughing with the door wide open and the bags on the floor?’”
Green has many songs to sing before he gets back to Memphis, however. For each concert, he has three sets of songs to choose from. “I sing 15 songs in a set, but I can’t sing everything (people may want to hear). We open with `I Can’t Stop,’ then go to `Everything’s Going to Be Alright,’ `Amazing Grace,’ `Let’s Stay Together,’ `How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,’ `Here I Am (Come and Take Me),’ `Simply Beautiful,’ and then it will be either `Take Me to the River’ or `Love and Happiness,’ depending what (set) number I call out.”
Green also plans a medley of Four Tops, Sam Cooke, Temptations and Otis Redding tunes.
More than a few fans have come to Green’s music through Talking Heads’ 1978 cover version of “Take Me to the River.” While Green calls the Heads’ take on his tune “fantastic” and “healthy,” he leaves the impression that there is room for only one definitive version of song.
“I thrive on competition,” he said. “I like to either beat up on somebody or be beaten up by somebody myself. I liked it in the days when we were working with Sly and the Family Stone - (sings) `I wanna take you high-er!’ - Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and the Mighty Clouds of Joy.
“Once, I was on a bill with Clarence Fountain and the Five Alabama Blind Boys. I had never heard them, but they made those people (in the crowd) have a fit. I like that. It makes (performing) interesting, and gives you something to make you want to rise to the occasion.”