The Reverend Al Green had never set foot in the state of Iowa. Apparently, he had been waiting for a special invitation. He finally got one, and from the governor’s office, no less. It seems Mari Culver, the First Lady of the Hawkeye state, told her husband that the legendary R&B singer was her first choice to perform at his inauguration. After all, Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is the couple’s special song. So, husband Chet and his staff successfully petitioned Green to come to Iowa.
Green headlined the “One Iowa Gala” event—a three-hour celebration of the Democratic governor-elect’s rise to office. The gala was one of several Culver-sponsored festivities held during the week at various locations around the state, and certainly the entertainment highlight. The night, hosted by Hawkeye-booster and actor/comedian Tom Arnold, featured native talent like folk singer Pieta Brown, bluesman Joe Price, a magician, and a drum-and-drill corps. A jazz trio performed outside the concert hall in the drizzling rain for the pleasure of the patrons, while country rockers Brother Trucker played the lobby.
The pre-Green entertainment had fine moments: Vicky Price joined her husband Joe on two blues numbers and provided some spirited vocal and stringed accompaniment. Fiddler Al Murphy graced the stage with Brown, and the two filled the room with a series of rootsy rumblings. They ended their set by leading the audience in a version of Woody Guthrie chestnut “This Land is Your Land,” an appropriately edifying number for a post-election party.
Of course, the vast majority of people were clearly there for only one reason, and that had little to do with the governor, Brown, Price, Arnold, or anyone else. The crowd was there to hear Green, whose 75-minute performance dominated the program. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artist led an 11-piece soul revue that featured a tight Memphis horn section, two energetic female back-up singers, two drum-kits, and two keyboard players. Together, the number of African Americans on stage seemed to outnumber those in the audience, and this does not includie the two male dancers of the troupe who strutted and shimmied during several tunes.
Green’s act was a smashing success on every level. As a showman he did tricks like dropping to his knees to hit his trademark high notes with a piercing “eeeeyyyyaaahhh.” He performed many of his best-known hits as well as snippets of classic soul from the past, including Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home,” Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and the Four Tops’ “Can’t Help Myself.” During several numbers, Green went down into the aisles while he sang, passing out long-stemmed red roses to the ladies in the crowd. Green incorporated Iowa references in almost every song introduction (“Iowa, here I am” before launching into a rousing rendition of his Top Ten record “Here I Am.”) An essential part of a standard revue’s shtick, he also made the requisite bad jokes (“I hear in Iowa you all can hear the corn grow. You must have some mighty good ears if you can do that, ha ha”).
The talent of the musicians, the professional quality of the show’s lighting and sound system, and all of the other elements of stagecraft were first rate. But, it was Green’s magnificent voice that provided the evening’s fireworks—outdoing even the real pyrotechnics that accompanied a polka band who played outside after the indoor activities finished. The good Reverend acknowledged his spiritual side with a version of “Amazing Grace,” but mostly emphasized the sexual nature of his material by connecting physical yearning to the glory of love on classics like “Love and Happiness,” “Let’s Get Married,” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” He told the crowd he was going to sing every part of the song and give them the complete treatment. “Every ‘la la la’ there is and then more,” he joked. He pranced and strutted, did showy dance steps, and took deep bows with the microphone stand in hand.
The soul singer pulled out all the stops during his performance of the Culvers’ favorite tune. He started slowly and emphasized every syllable while the band gathered steam behind him. Then, he broke into a big grin and let his voice playfully cuddle the words, “loving you for-e-ver is what I nee-ee-ee-ee-eed” before starting to stomp and shake and raise the volume and pitch of his voice into something that resembled a yodel. I couldn’t see Iowa’s new First Lady, but I’ll bet she was pretty happy with her husband.