Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 850 from September 28, 2000. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
Picture this. Al Green is in New Jersey, performing in one of those vast, pricey, Vegas-style club/dinner theaters. The place is a favorite with local players, a haunt for drug dealers, gamblers, and other nocturnal entrepreneurs. They have all paid top dollar to hear the sexiest man in show business sing all those unforgettable make-out grooves. But Al Green has a different idea. Instead of “Love and Happiness,” Al has chosen for tonight’s entertainment a reading from the new testament — a long reading. A very long reading. In fact, the entire show is taken up with that reading. If the crowd is disappointed, or even furious, Al doesn’t much care. He has stopped worrying about what people want him to sing, say or do. As Green puts it to me when we finally have a chance to sit together, “The Lord said to me, ‘I want you to do one thing: Obey my voice.’ “
“His voice?” I want to say. “What about your voice?” That’s what people want, that’s what we miss, that voice — magical, singular, profoundly beautiful. Al Green is the greatest popular singer of all time. In his most prolific and commercially successful years — from 1971 to 1977 — he made a string of hits that remain not only strong sellers but are unsurpassed in their subtlety, grace, intimacy and invention.
Ezra Pound once wrote, “Art is news that stays news,” and Al Green’s work in the Seventies, which he made in collaboration with the great Memphis producer Willie Mitchell, still generates so much internal heat that, if you did not know better, you’d think the songs were recorded last week. From “Tired of Being Alone” to “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love With You,” “Call Me,” “Here I Am” to “Love and Happiness” and “Belle,” Green’s most famous records remain undiminished sources of the purest kind of musical joy. In a short list of the greatest popular singers — a list that includes Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Billie Holiday — Al Green’s style, soulfulness and musical intelligence place him at the pinnacle of the American style.
In spite of the magnitude of his success, Al Green chose to walk away from secular music — and, in fact, secular life — before the Seventies had ended. Every now and then, he surfaces in his old guise — a duet with Lyle Lovett here, a bit on Ally McBeal there — but for the most part, Green’s life since his religious awakening has been one of renunciation. As Green explains to me one day, talking about his born-again experience, “God said to me, ‘I want you to be priceless. The love of God cannot be bought.’ God told me I could have more clothes than I could ever possibly wear, and more food than I could ever eat, and more cars than 1 could ever drive, and all that money. And then he said to me, ‘I kept my side of the bargain — what about you?’ “
Now Al Green is keeping his side of the bargain — with a gesture toward God every bit as large as his talent. Gone are the Number One records. Gone are the drugs and the girls. It’s the Reverend Al Green now, and it has been for more than twenty years. The title is much more than honorary. He has a church where he preaches, and he has a congregation that looks to him for spiritual guidance and daily succor. Yet every once in a while, almost as if he is testing himself, seeing if he can still bring an audience screaming to its feet, Al Green gets the band together and hits the road.