The “Black Elvis” chapter of Jimmy McDonough’s Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green starts with an interesting epigraph from the legendary Memphis singer at the height of his powers: “Women crave certain gestures I make with my body.” It’s a succinct take on life as a crooner, a comment that might have come from Elvis himself had Presley been allowed breathing room to say anything beyond the control of his manager Col. Tom Parker.
What most listeners might know about Green comes from such hits as “Take Me to the River”, “Let’s Stay Together”, and “So Tired of Being Alone”. He was a master of the soul classic with the Memphis horns sound, a charismatic singer whose focus seemed to be acquiring love, keeping love, and (eventually) attaining the Higher Love of God (however that’s defined.) From his debut in October 1967 through to his most recent 2008 work on Blue Note, Soul Survivor covers every twist and turn in the life and times of this singer.
The lure of the chapter in question is how carefully McDonough details a crucial crossroads point in Green’s life and career when the singer had to come to terms with his power. He would make certain gestures, definite facial expressions, and attain definitive falsetto moments when his singing voice would reach heights of ecstasy from which there was nothing to do — man or woman — but surrender to his control. It’s the ultimate “come to Jesus” moment in the “Black Elvis” chapter where the singer has to determine that he cannot serve two masters. As McDonough explains Green’s conflict with the song “You Ought to Be With Me”, the reader comes to understand that If God is in the details, this is an incredibly sacred chapter:
“When writing the song, Al explained that he was ‘playing with God… I was so arrogant at the time, not being born again… I was saying: You’ — Green pointed upward — ‘ought to be with me.”
The inner struggles are deep here. He dissolves into puddles of emotional tears during a May 1973 concert in Manchester, England. He comes to understand the effect that this type of music could have on an audience. McDonough disputes the understood timeline of Green’s conversion, properly adhering to the obligation of accuracy, but the power of this chapter is in the emotional details of the religious conversion after a late night Disneyland show in a hotel room in Anaheim:
“At four-thirty that morning, Green awoke with a jolt… Feelings surged through him ‘like a charge of electricity.’ Alone in the room, he found himself testifying. ‘I’m saying ‘Thank you, Jesus! Hallejulah! Praise God!… The spirit had gotten its hooks into Al.” Green connects this moment with four years earlier, in 1969, when he’d asked the Lord to make him a superstar. The request had come true, so now (for Green) full payment was due. Others, like Jackie Wilson and Spinners lead singer Philippe Wynne, had been faced with this choice and refused. In return, they met sad ends.
The strengths of “Soul Survivor” are in full force in this chapter. McDonough obviously did his homework with extensive interviews with session people and producers and understandable dependency on people like Willie Mitchell and Teenie Hodges. It’s a crucial moment in Green’s life, and McDonough makes some astute (if arguable) commentary about the Talking Heads cover version of “Take Me to the River”, a song which on its surface seems like a standard woman done me wrong number (“You stole my money and buy cigarettes / And I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you yet”). It’s when he focuses on the spiritual power of Green’s performance that McDonough makes us feel the song’s religiosity:
“Turning heavenward, Green demands to know the worth of this love, then asks for deliverance… Back and forth the number lurches, from the flesh to church and back again… Al’s torment is palpable: this is deadly serious business to him. ‘Wash me in the water,’ he pleads over and over again, clearly desperate to be free.”
In the next page, McDonough pulls no punches when he deconstructs the Talking Heads 1979 cover version. While it might seem too harsh, he does manage to make us hear this song in a different key and have a deeper appreciation for Green:
“…I don’t think this deconstruction has aged particularly well-aiming for the cranium, not the soul, its art-school pretension feels over-thought, gimmicky, and trivial, resulting in a novelty not exactly worlds away from Pat Boone’s flat-footed Little Richard covers.”
That comparison seems a little harsh. David Byrne and company certainly had more groove and funk than Pat Boone. Perhaps the point is more about the spiritual energy of a song like “Take Me to the River”. McDonough throws in, almost as an aside, the improbably popular 2000 cover from Big Mouth Bass Billy, the unashamed wall-hanging novelty plastic fish that sang the song when it came in contact with somebody. On its own, or when compared with any cover version, Green’s original is a pure masterpiece.
There’s never any resolution in this chapter as to whether or not Green was the “Black Elvis”, but that’s not the point. Both singers were Memphis legends. Both singers were bathed in the Memphis sound. Fortunately, McDonough doesn’t rely on the easy device of comparing Green to Elvis. (After all, maybe by the mid-’70s and deep in the quicksand of creative nadir Elvis aspired to be the white Al Green.) McDonough opens the book by noting that he will not be focusing on the Al Green we knew, the “Love and Happiness” man. This is (to take from one of the chapters) “Little Al, Country Boy”, the man who described his mother as “Diligence, forgiveness, humbleness, meekness, steadfastness.” We meet the humble country boy, the man who published an autobiography (Take me to the River, 2009) that was riddled with dubious and improbable accounts. McDonough wants this book to be an antidote to the record Green set forth in that book, and he achieves it to great effect.
Who was Al Green? For those steeped in Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and James Brown, Green was of that school, though less funky than Brown (and without any overt social messages) and more in the vein of Sam Cooke. While the journey for Cooke started in Gospel and went to pop in a recording career that ran from 1957 to 1964 (when he was killed in a hotel incident still clouded in dispute), Green took a different route. The “Black Elvis” chapter charts the turning point from pop mainstream superstardom to life as a Reverend (later a Bishop) and Gospel recording artist. Before that, though, there was life with Hi Records, people like Willie Mitchell, and there was Memphis:
“Funny place, Memphis. Sun Records and soul music, Barbecue, Beale Street. Undeniably great, all of it, but nowadays it’s all neatly wrapped up as a fun, funky commodity to be fed the tourists… A certain gothic quality hangs in the air; there are whispers in the shadows. Memphis — it gave the world Elvis and denied it Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
McDonough is exhaustive in his details, and it pays off. The chapter “The Reducer” is an oral history focusing on studios like The Royal, getting testimony from the Hodges instrumentalists (Leroy, Charles, and Teenie), Reuben Fairfax, Boo Mitchell, and others. The focus is Willie Mitchell, producer and arranger and magic-maker the likes of which seemed to be common in Memphis during the ’60s. It’s a good chapter, and we learn about Stax and other landmarks of Memphis music. It probably would have been better served in a separate volume, even though McDonough notes early on that he will need to set the scene before focusing on Green. The stories of O.V. Wright and Ann Peebles, in particular, deserves deeper consideration and perhaps McDonough has enough material to do that at some point in the future.
The story of Green is filled with the hits, many of which were generic soul songs but a handful — “So Tired of Being Alone”, “Love and Happiness”, “I’m Still in Love With You”, and “Take Me to the River” — are masterpieces. It’s also a story of seemingly countless children from a revolving collection of women. Where Sam Cooke had the 1964 encounter with a woman that proved fatal, Green had the 1974 encounter with a woman named Mary Woodson. She threw scalding grits on Green and soon after he was found dead, at his house, in what was ruled a suicide. Green comes off horribly here, an abuser whose actions might have helped result in the woman’s death. McDonough prints here (for the first time) several of her suicide notes, as well as an appendix of police reports, and the material speaks for itself. Green certainly doesn’t acquit himself well by the end of the chapter when McDonough quotes the singer reflecting on the incident:
“‘That wasn’t a turning point in my life,’ he said in 2008. ‘I was born again a year earlier, in Anaheim. It had nothing to do with no woman.'”
To his great credit, McDonough accepts Green as he is now. He doesn’t mourn for the days gone by. He doesn’t want Green to be a tireless oldies act doing one night stands in small auditoriums of convention rooms. “For a biographer… his sermons are fascinating.” He describes a sermon from February 2016:
“Walking back and forth behind the pulpit, eyes closed, face dripping with sweat and what seemed to be tears, Green hung onto that last word [Whoooo] for a while, singing it in falsetto. He seemed oblivious to the congregation, that high, ghostly voice floating eerily in the air.”
The Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, which Green founded in 1975 and where he still preaches “on just about any Sunday in Memphis”, remains the focus of the singer’s life, and in spite of all the exposed scars McDonough unveils here, in sometimes excruciating detail, Soul Survivor does not revel in Green’s darkness. It’s difficult to create the volume of record for a soul legend who is still with us, but it’s unlikely Green will release a compelling modern soul record anytime soon. This book is a compelling and exhaustively detailed account of a man at peace with his life, a man who may in fact (as the author wonders) be pleased with a final exit that sees him keeling over dead in mid-sermon. No matter how the reader might feel about Al Green after the final page and all the sordid details, this book will send us all back to the love, happiness, joy, sensations, and wonder of the original recordings.