When the spirit moves him, the Rev. Al Green throws his head back to laugh, clapping his hands and stomping his feet. His producer, Willie Mitchell, who helped Green craft some of the great soul albums of the early 70s, only smiles in his reserved, dignified way.
The two men could hardly seem more different, but they are onnected by a special bond that has lasted more than 30 years. Now the partnership between Green and Mitchell has produced their first soul album together since 1976 — “I Can’t Stop,” due Tuesday on Blue Note Records.
It was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, where Green and Mitchell worked together from 1969 until 1976, when Green turned to gospel music and preaching.
With Mitchell as his mentor and producer, Green developed the unique vocal style of falsetto bursts and intricate phrasing that make his 1970s hits instantly recognizable. At Royal, he cut such classics as “Look What You Done for Me,” “I’m Still in Love with You” and “Here I Am (Come and Take Me.)”
“Then, I was really just getting the hang of who Al Green was,” Green, 57, said during an interview at the studio. “I think we’ve got him now.”
Mitchell, now 75, already had a solid reputation as a band leader and record producer when he brought Green to Hi Records and his small, modest studio on a side street near downtown Memphis.
“This man here is the greatest singer who ever lived. He can do anything with his voice that he wants to. And he’s lazy,” Mitchell said, setting off a round a cackling from Green.
Mitchell said he wanted something unique from Green, who was then heavily influenced by other soul singers such as Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.
“I said you sound like everybody else. I don’t want you to sound like everybody else. I want you to sound like Al Green,” Mitchell said.
Searching for the sound
But the search for the right sound wasn’t easy.
At times, Green would storm out of the studio and tear off in his car, vowing never to come back. Green said he needed time to understand what Mitchell wanted.
“You’ve got to sleep with it. You’ve got to nurse it,” Green said.
Many of the backup singers and musicians on the new CD also worked with Green and Mitchell in the old days.
They include Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar, Leroy Hodges on bass and Donna Rhodes, Sandra Rhodes and Charlie Chalmers with background vocals. The Royal Horns provide the touch of brass that helped Hi Records and the old Stax studio develop what came to be known as “the Memphis sound.”
It’s a return to soul for Green, who for more than two decades has been focused on religious music and leading his church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis.
He gave up the dope-smoking, parties and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle in the late ’70s. “Didn’t no days go without being high. You know, you got to be high,” he said, breaking out again in a burst of laughter.
At his church, Green offers a straight-from-the-Bible, foot-stomping faith. Visitors are welcome, and tourists often show up for Sunday services.
Accompanied by guitar, electric bass, drums and organ, Green and his choir break into song easily and often. Even when the music has stopped, Green can slide into a half-speaking, half-singing sermon.
Church member Carol Walker said Green “tells you what you need to know.”
“Making records is his job,” she said after a recent Sunday service. “Preaching for God is his duty.”
Green likes to tell about overhearing a church member who had missed a service ask another about the subject of his sermon.
“I don’t know what he was preachin’ about,” he quoted the respondent as saying, “but he sure was preachin’.”
The new album was the result of another spiritual revelation for Green: His voice is a gift from God and sharing it with others is the right thing to do, even through secular music. He and Mitchell say they’re discussing other possible projects to follow “I Can’t Stop.”
“I’m singing what’s real, and if you’re singing what’s real, that means it ain’t no lie,” Green said. “And if it ain’t no lie, then it’s all right for me to sing it.”