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Al Green: Can he get an amen?

The preacher superstar — 18 years after going gospel, The Reverend is singing ”Baby” again

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Margaret C. Norton/Getty Images

”It’s been coming on for the last three to four years,” says Al Green, trying to explain the vague genesis of a feeling that’s brought him to another turning point in his career. A heady feeling. ”I’m in you,” he suddenly announces. ”I’m in the breath of the wind blowing through the trees. I’m in the snow. I’m in the Rockies. I’m everywhere. I am everything.” A pause, then a huge sigh of power and relief. ”Ahhhhhhhhhhh!”

It might sound to the untrained ear as if Green, 49, has been struck daffy by the delusions of grandeur that afflicted the lovelorn narrator of his 1970 hit, ”I Can’t Get Next to You.” But, of course, the Reverend Al — an ordained minister for going on 20 years — is doing what preachers will do, and affecting the deistic first person in the service of a point. Today’s message being, if God is the animus of all things, then who knows, He might even inhabit creations as divinely corporeal as ”Tired of Being Alone” and ”Let’s Stay Together.”

But, as the messenger says, this is a recent feeling. Eighteen years ago, the greatest living soul singer and eight-time Grammy winner signaled his impending passage from a prosperous pop career to a gospel music ministry by recording ”Belle” — a song that has, in the intervening years, become the single most-quoted account of a man’s struggle between flesh and spirit since Saint Augustine worked the same riff. ”Belle,” he confided, sounding like a tease even as he backed away, ”it’s you I want, but it’s Him that I need.”

Still, for those disciples of soul less disposed to theological dualism, the question had long lingered: What if you could have both? Lately, it seems, Green had come to ask that one himself. Belle, meet the Lord; Lord, Belle.

”It’s our first secular, physical album in a lot of years,” acknowledges Green of his newest release, Your Heart’s in Good Hands, which finds members of Jodeci and the Fine Young Cannibals working to contemporize his Memphis grooves without trying too hard to fix what was never broken. He doesn’t consider this re-embraced romanticism to be backsliding, as he might have just a few years ago. ”You learn that love is love is love — yeah, that’s right,” Green says. ”Now I can make this type of music and sacred music and Broadway music and the rest of it — yeah. Now. But then, to answer what you were probably thinking about, I couldn’t do that then.”

Always sartorially impeccable, Green is better dressed for a mid-morning chat in his West Hollywood hotel suite than most L.A. natives would be for a formal dinner. He looks ready for church, and sounds like it, too: The singer frequently ends sentences with self-affirmative declarations — a softly spoken Yeah! or That’s right! — which is probably a Southern thing, though one might suppose that the reverend, on his days off from preaching at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church back in his hometown of Memphis, simply subconsciously adds the equivalent of an amen for conversational punctuation.

Green says he now sees ”how easy it is to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and to still sing ‘Take Me to the River’ and still be the same person.” Who that person is, though, may be hard to get to, and not just because his marriages and other relationships have stayed so mysterious over the years. (His reps refuse to disclose personal details — even his current wife’s name — and most facts have proved elusive to journalists as well as those who work with him. But he’s known to have one young son with his present spouse, three daughters with a previous wife, and another daughter from a premarriage relationship.) There’s an inscrutability to Al Green, a sense of constant performance — though the performance is so endearing few probably even notice he might be a hard fellow to really know. I Get Joy was the title of an ’89 gospel release, but the verb bring would suffice just as easily. And considering that he’s famous for forgetting to show up on time, or at all, for interviews, rehearsals, etc., the delight he imparts to a room does make up for his proverbial multitude of sins.

”With most artists you work with, you’re part of the backstage scene, part of the team. With Al, you’re always part of the audience,” says A&M Records’ Diana Baron, who ran his publicity in the late ’80s. ”You never know what’s going on with him, and you were always on the edge of your chair to see if he’d make it to a commitment. But I don’t know anybody who doesn’t adore him, no matter what he’s done. He’s Mr. Forgivable.”

”He’s probably a genius on both the IQ and intuitive levels, and he’s definitely operating in another zone from most of us,” agrees Tom Willett, a former VP for Green’s last gospel label, Word/Epic. Willett remembers one Easter Sunday a few years ago when Green, apparently on a whim, ”stiffed the press and his church. He decided to fly to the beach in Florida, neglecting to tell anybody he wouldn’t be preaching or showing up for his cover-story interview. Finally, three and a half hours after the service started, one of the deacons said, ‘I believe the Lord is leading me to preach today!”’

Green’s short set was heralded as the highlight of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert in Cleveland last September. He’s not above relishing his unique status in the institution. ”It’s controversial, isn’t it?” he wonders aloud. ”The reverend. Somebody said to me, ‘How many preachers do you know that are in the Hall of Fame?’ And I cracked up. Isn’t it ridiculous? But wonderful all at the same time?”

Plenty of legends have crossed over from gospel to pop, or vice versa, but few superstars, if any, have doubled back quite so often as Green. He started out, as he’ll remind you, a member of the Greene Brothers, the gospel quartet he and his siblings formed when Al was 9. At 16, the Arkansas-born, Michigan-raised sharecropper’s son cut loose and started his first secular band, Al Greene and the Creations. In 1967, he recorded ”Back Up Train,” which became a top 10 R&B hit, and dropped the e from his last name. His astonishing string of solo successes began at the turn of the decade, with years of grinding tour work paying off by the time ”Let’s Stay Together” topped both the pop and R&B charts in 1972. Into the mid-’70s and beyond, he was one of black America’s preeminent sex symbols.

Writers have long pegged Green’s ”conversion” to the infamous 1974 ”grits” incident, when an ex-girlfriend badly scalded Green with grits while he was taking a bath, then killed herself. (It has been alleged that he gave as well as he received: One of his wives, Shirley Kyles, reportedly charged spousal abuse during divorce proceedings in 1983.) He’s always downplayed any such direct impetus for his return to the fold, but in any case, it wasn’t long after his ordination in December of ’76 that Green was questioning whether he should be performing, let alone writing, the sensual material that made his name. By 1980, he was recording albums as unsexy as The Lord Will Make a Way for a Christian label.

Though critics eventually came to believe that the gospel albums included much work on a par with his paeans to womanhood, his insistence on not singing the old songs in concert was greeted by the fans with dismay or, more often, lustful denial. ”It didn’t make any difference, did it?” he cackles. ”I’d be talking about God, and women’d be going ‘Mmmmmm, mmmmmm!’ I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’m not doing something right!’ You’d come back out and try it again, and the girls are going ‘Oh, my, my! Fine, fine, fine!‘ You think, ‘Oh, this is not working.”’

By the mid-’80s, he’d begun working teasing snippets of old hits into his gospel sets, and he gradually came to play them in full. But recording new romantic material, for some reason, seemed to be another matter. Willett remembers riding with the singer in a limo while promoting 1992’s Love Is Reality. ”We suggested to him that he didn’t have to do 10 out of 10 religious songs, that his faith could inform songs about other subjects. But at the time he was too rigid to consider that. He turned and gave me this look and said, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!”’

What changed in the short time between warding off devils of secularism and welcoming Jodeci into the studio? Green maintains the phases of his career have been ”predestinated,” not subject to his own artistic whim. And he gets uncharacteristically bashful when the subject turns to whether he might rightly be considered a sex symbol again, now that he’s back in the balladry business. But he seems to have found some personal reconciliation between the aphrodisiac siren song of ”Call Me” and his higher calling.

”I got on a plane to come out here,” says Green, ”and the stewardess comes up and says, ‘Are you Al Green?’ She went in the back, got her wallet, and there’s a picture of a beautiful little girl in there. She says, ‘Do you see what [your music] did?’ She caressed the picture, and — yeah — that’s kinda special.”