The Reverend Al Green is known the world over for his extraordinary voice, his unmistakable sound and his legendary hits. With Everything’s OK, his new release for Blue Note Records, Al Green comes to an exciting new chapter in his artistry. Strong in voice and in spirit, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer sings a dozen songs that reveal his renewed passion for the kind of music that made him a household name some 30 years ago.
It was in the early 1970s that Green carved his place in music history with a run of celebrated hits that made him not just an R&B star but a pop icon. Since 1976, however, Green has concentrated on gospel music (recording numerous albums, but only two pop offerings), and since 1979 has led his Baptist congregation, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis, Tenn. For Everything’s OK, Green embraces both worlds by releasing a "secular" album under the name the Reverend Al Green—a symbolic gesture, perhaps, but a significant one nonetheless.
"I wanted to put on this album who I am—to 'fess up to it," Green says, laughing. "I'm the Reverend Al Green, and everybody calls me that, from Argentina all the way to the Catskills. So that's who I am."
Everything’s OK is not a gospel album, however—musically, it draws on classic R&B and pop, and the lyrics speak of love relationships and life lessons. But for Green, 58, it has come time to spread his message beyond the pulpit.
"I've got people in the church saying, 'That's a secular song,' and I'm saying, Yeah, but you've got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday to be anything other than spiritual. You've got to live those days, too!" says Green, clearly revitalized by his latest recording. "Everybody still needs love, needs happiness in the family, needs to keep the kids on track."
For Everything’s OK, Green once again teamed up with producer and arranger Willie Mitchell at Mitchell's Royal Recording Studios, the same studio where the two recorded those early hits—classics including "Tired of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together," "I Can't Get Next to You," "I'm Still in Love With You," "Call Me," "Here I Am," "Let's Get Married" and "Love and Happiness." Green also reunited with Mitchell for his 2002 Blue Note debut, I Can’t Stop. (That recording was their first collaboration since 1985, when they recorded the gospel album He Is The Light.)
To explain what brought the two back together, Green says, "Willie has that twinkle in his eye, he has a talent. He's the founder of the Al Green sound, that personal sound. It's finishing the aural painting that we started with 'Tired of Being Alone,' 'Let's Stay Together,' 'For the Good Times' and all those things. It's a beautiful painting and we should finish it, so that's what we're doing."
In fact, their renewed partnership inspired the album's title. "We've been recording now for 32 years, and we went through some hills and valleys, some low points and high points, some great spots and not-so-great spots. But we looked around and we said 'Hey! Everything's OK!' Regardless of how we thought it would turn out, everything has turned out OK."
Actually, better than OK, as proved by this recording and recent concerts (including Green's show-stealing version of "What'd I Say" on the recent CBS TV special Genius: A Night For Ray Charles). Throughout the album, Green's voice is strong, his performances spirited. Hear him sweetly pleading on "Be My Baby," rejoicing on "Another Day" and "I Can Make Music," grooving on "Build Me Up." Listen for that unmistakable falsetto on "I Wanna Hold You," and for his trademark screams throughout the album.
On ballads ("Perfect to Me," "Real Love") Green is sweetly restrained as he sings straight from the heart, his voice real, intimate, and genuine. And for his tender rendition of "You Are So Beautiful," a cover of the song made famous by Joe Cocker, Green reworks the melody with subtle yet emotionally powerful turns, instantly making the song his own. "That was Willie Mitchell's baby," Green says. "He loves that song, and I already knew it because I love Joe Cocker. Willie told me 'Let your guards down, and then just sing it,' and that's what I tried to do." His vocals perfectly offset Mitchell's understated arrangement of organ, strings and woodwinds.
Listen too for the sound of joy, heard in the flow of Green's lyrical improvisations, in the laughter in his voice, and in the sound of him literally dancing around the vocal booth.
"Willie tried to get me to stay quiet, to stay still, but it's hard to stay still singing something like 'You Are So Beautiful' or 'Nobody but You,' or 'I Can Make Music." I mean, how am I supposed to stay still? So he said, 'Well, just go on then, as long as we get it on tape.'" In fact, on "Perfect to Me," the song fades out as Green insists, "That's all I got to say," while actually dancing out of the vocal booth, still singing.
Of the album's 12 tracks, six were written by Green alone ("Real Love," "Be My Baby," "Magic Road," "I Wanna Hold You," "Another Day," "All the Time"). In these songs, Green revisits the intimate sound he began exploring with 1977's The Belle Album and 1978's Truth And Time, albums he produced himself at his own American Music studio. In 1979, Green devoted himself to gospel music, recording a series of albums that have earned him eight Grammy’s in gospel categories (Green also received two nominations for I Can’t Stop in this year’s 47th Annual Grammy Awards, one for Best R&B Album and one for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for the title track).
Green started singing professionally at age 9, when he and his brothers formed a gospel quartet, the Greene Brothers, in their hometown of Forest City, Arkansas. (Green dropped the final "e" from his surname when he went solo.) They toured the gospel circuits in the South, and then began performing around Michigan when the family relocated to Grand Rapids. At 16, Green formed a pop group, Al Greene and the Creations, with high school friends, and they released a single, "Back Up Train," in 1967 (under the new name Al Greene and the Soul Mates) that went to #5 on the national R&B chart.
Green and Mitchell's historic meeting took place in 1969, soon after Green decided to go solo. Mitchell—by then a renowned bandleader, arranger and trumpeter—hired the young singer to front his band for a gig in Midland, Texas, and hearing something special, approached Green after the show. "I told him, ‘You come to Memphis and you can be a star,'" Mitchell says. "Al asked me, 'How long?' and I said 'Eighteen months, it's going to take a little work.' He told me he didn't have that much time," says Mitchell, laughing. Green quickly reconsidered, though. "I didn't have any money," Green says, "so I told him, 'About this star thing, if that's what you really wanna do, fine—but I need fifteen hundred dollars.’”
Green signed to Mitchell's Hi Records label and began recording at Royal, with Mitchell arranging, producing and engineering the sessions himself. Mitchell also coached Green, pushing him to find his own, unique voice. "I was trying to sing like Jackie Wilson and Wilson Pickett and James Brown and Sam Cooke," Green says of those early days. "And Willie said 'Just sing like you.' I didn't know what that was, and so we just had to find that balance."
"It took a long time to find it," Mitchell adds," but we did it by working from 11am 'til two in the morning, every day. 'Can't Get Next to You' was close, but 'Tired of Being Alone' was it." Indeed, Green and Mitchell collaborated to shape a sound that defines its own place in pop and R&B music. They recorded eight albums that sold over 20 million copies worldwide, working together until 1976.
Nearly 30 years later, Everything’s OK returns to and updates the signature sound that Green and Mitchell pioneered, a sensuous groove layered with strings and horns that showcased Green's remarkable voice. And with this album, Green is coming full circle, embracing his world inside and outside the church.
"This minister wrote me a letter saying we need an apostle, someone who can be a positive influence outside of the religious community, someone to preach love and happiness," says Green. "He said, 'Al, please step up to the plate and take that position. You've got to be the apostle!'
"It means that, when you come home from work, tell your wife 'You Are So Beautiful.' Bring her a dozen roses—or one rose—and take her in your arms and tell her, ‘Hon, I'm knocked out from work and I'm so glad dinner's ready.’ Tell her, 'Nobody But You' I don't even want anybody else but you. Tell her 'Everything's OK,' honey, we can make it.
"The music is the message, the message is the music. So that's my little ministry that the Big Man upstairs gave to me—a little ministry called love and happiness."