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Fresh Air celebrates July 4 with soul singer Al Green

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We wanted to feature something special on this July 4, so we went deep into our archive and pulled out a couple of interviews with perhaps the greatest of all soul singers, Al Green. His string of hits in the '70s include "Tired Of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together," "Call Me," "Take Me To The River" and this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND HAPPINESS")

AL GREEN: (Singing) Love and happiness. Yeah. Something that can make you do wrong, make you do right. Yeah. Love. Love and happiness. But, wait a minute. Something's going wrong. Someone's on the phone, 3 o'clock in the morning. Yeah. Talkin' about how she can make it right, yeah. Well, happiness is when you really feel good about somebody. There's nothing wrong being in love with someone. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, baby. Love and happiness.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Love and happiness.

GREEN: (Singing) Hey. Love and happiness.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Love and happiness.

GREEN: (Singing) Whoa, oh.

GROSS: Al Green's soul hits were made with producer Willie Mitchell, the force behind the Memphis-based label Hi Records. Success and Al Green's image as a sex symbol brought its own problems and temptations. In 1974, an angry former girlfriend threw a pot of steaming grits on him. He landed in the hospital with second-degree burns. She died by suicide. This incident got Green to question what he wanted musically and spiritually. By the end of the decade, he decided to give up secular music and for several years performed only gospel. This is from his 1980 Grammy-winning gospel album, "The Lord Will Make A Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO CLOSE")

GREEN: (Singing) I'm too close to heaven. I can almost see my journey's end. Whoa, I'm too close to shaking hands with all my, my, my, my, my, my friends. You know, I'm too close. Oh, to heaven. I can't turn around.

GROSS: It was in 1976, after being ordained as a minister, that Al Green bought a church in Memphis, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where he continues to preach. We're going to hear excerpts of my two interviews with him, from 1991 and from 2000, after the publication of his memoir. He started performing at the age of 9 with his family's gospel group in rural Arkansas, where his father was a sharecropper. In our 2000 interview, we talked about his early years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Your father sang gospel music...

GREEN: Right.

GROSS: ...And traveled around. You had a brother group.

GREEN: Right.

GROSS: You and your brothers sang...

GREEN: Correct. That's right.

GROSS: ...Did the whole gospel circuit.

GREEN: With my dad. Right.

GROSS: When did you start getting serious about singing?

GREEN: When I got put out of the house.

GROSS: And why did you get put out of the house?

GREEN: For listening to Jackie Wilson and Otis Redding and people like that. And Daddy wanted to keep the group a gospel group. I mean, we need to sing gospel. You need to turn that off. And I'm going like, well, but I want to hear it. And I had a Elvis Presley album, and I had never been to Memphis. I'm 14 years old, and I have all these "Love Me Tender" and "Teddy Bear" and "Jailhouse Rock" and all this stuff. And I'm not saying because I'm from Memphis - I had never been to Memphis. I was in Michigan. And Dad says, that's a bunch of junk, man. You need to consider what you're doing. You're singing gospel music, and you need to consider singing gospel music.

So I got this brand new album called "Baby Workout" by Jackie Wilson.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREEN: And, oh, I just looked at the cover, and this guy had all these fine pictures on there, and I says, oh, I got to play it. So I went and I opened it up, and I put it on. And by the time Jackie Wilson said, (singing) oh, baby, move up - a doo de doo de doo, first step - Daddy come in the door and caught me (laughter). I said, Oh, Lord. Oh, I got - so he went through the third degree with me, and I was out of there.

But I had a friend - luckily enough - lived right in back of us, named Lee Vergis (ph). And his father and his mom - his wife - and himself took me in. I had nowhere to go, really. And they took me in. But now this Lee Vergis was a tenor singer in a group...

GROSS: Oh.

GREEN: ...That Palmer James and Curtis Rodgers had started, and they called themselves The Creations. And so they - we used to rehearse in the house every day because we had nothing to do anyway. And every day, we had rehearsal at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. And we would just get up and stand in a line, in form, and try to come up with little dances like we'd see The Temptations do on the TV, and - that's right.

GROSS: So what kind of material did you sing with The Creations?

GREEN: Oh, God. I - we sung everything that was on the radio.

GROSS: Covers.

GREEN: That's right - "Dock Of The Bay," Wilson Pickett, James - I mean, we just some little group. We just sung anything.

GROSS: Al Green, recorded in 2000. We'll return to that interview a little later. In 1991, I spoke to Al Green before a concert in Philadelphia. I wanted to know if he was still singing soul songs or just performing gospel music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Are there songs of yours that you won't sing now?

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Which ones?

GREEN: Well, I can't sing some songs because I wrote them because of - I love you; baby; darling; I care for you - you know, I wrote them because of sensual love - I want to take you in my arms and sweep you off my feet, put you on a plane, go to a nice resort area with a cold bottle of champagne and kiss you - (imitating kisses). I wrote them because of that. And then - but now, like, "Let's Stay Together" I wrote for couples because - whether times are good or bad, happy or sad. Whether we're right or wrong, forgiveness is in there, and we can always make up - that's always a lot of fun - and we can go on with our lives, being who we're supposed to be.

GROSS: Well, Al Green, I'm going to play "Let's Stay Together."

GREEN: Let's play that.

GROSS: That's something you still sing, right?

GREEN: I still - I'm singing that tomorrow night.

GROSS: OK. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S STAY TOGETHER")

GREEN: (Whispering) Let's stay together.

(Singing) I - I'm so in love with you. Whatever you want to do is all right with me. 'Cause you make me feel so brand new. And I want to spend my life with you. Let me say that since, baby - since we've been together. Ooh, loving you forever...

GROSS: That's my guest, Al Green, and his hit recording of "Let's Stay Together."

Do you remember how you met Willie Mitchell, who was the person who signed you to Hi Records...

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And produced all the hits that you had with Hi?

GREEN: Yeah, I remember how I met him.

GROSS: How'd you meet him?

GREEN: I met him in the country, out in in Midland, Texas, and Odessa, Texas, out there. I met him out there, and he asked me about going to Memphis to sing on a recording because he worked at a studio. And we were riding in the car that day, and I said, how long do you think it'll take me? I was so flamboyant. I don't understand how I did it. I was right on this guy, and I says, how long will it take me to become a star?

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREEN: He says - and he swallowed and, like, choked, right? He says, a star? Well, about two years, probably, if you really work at it. I said, excuse me, let me out. I can't - I don't have any kind of time.

(LAUGHTER)

GREEN: And he says, you're not serious. I said, I'm serious. I don't have two years to waste on practicing to become a star. I need - in fact, I need some money now (laughter). And really, so he took me down to Hi. He says, this kid's going to be phenomenal. They says, how do you know that? He says, because he's got it in him. And so he borrowed $1,500 for me from the president of the company to get me a place to stay and all that and says, I want to work with him 'cause he's going to be phenomenal. Just watch.

GROSS: Gee, it really pays to have chutzpah, huh (laughter)?

GREEN: I guess. I just told him I just - you know, I wanted to be what I wanted to be.

GROSS: Now, the first song that he asked you to record was a cover of The Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand," right?

GREEN: Would you believe that?

GROSS: It really is hard to believe. Why did he choose that?

GREEN: I have no idea.

GROSS: What was your reaction to it?

GREEN: My reaction was good. I thought it was a great song. It was a wonderful song, but it was for The Beatles.

(LAUGHTER)

GREEN: You would - I sung "I Want To Hold Your Hand." I sung "Drivin' Wheel." We was trying to find Al Green. Let's go - we was trying to find out - who is this guy? Who is this guy with the high falsetto and the rough voice? And Willie says, I tell you what, don't sing with the rough voice. I said, well what do you want me to do? We was cutting all these different songs by different people - just a lot of songs. He says, sing mellow. Don't sing hard. Sing mellow. And I just went out there and started singing, (singing) I'm so tired of being alone, and (singing) I'm so tired of on my own. Help me, girl, as soon as you can.

And I looked in the studio mirror - they have this glass, right? - and you can look in at the engineers...

GROSS: Yeah.

GREEN: ...And everybody was jumping up and jumping up and jumping up. And I says, well, I must be doing something right. So I'll just keep on singing, (singing) People say - and that's - I don't know how that started. That's the way it started.

GROSS: Well, that was your song. It was a song you wrote, so...

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You already had it written.

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's such a...

GREEN: I said - well, after we got done cutting all these other people's songs - The Beatles and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREEN: ...And all these blues songs, and The Temptations' "I Can't Get Next To You," and all these songs, I says, I got a song, too. So Willie says, oh, please - 'cause he'd been cutting all day. We'd been cutting all day. It was 1 o'clock in the morning. I says, I got me a song, and I wrote it on my own. So Willie told one of the guys, go out there and see what he's got, would you please? I got to have a drink. Willie had a little shot of vodka or something. And after he went to feeling better, he says, all right, what we got out here? And it was the song, "Tired Of Being Alone," and I had worked it up with the band. And I sung it, and it became our first million seller.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to play it.

GREEN: Let's play it. Come on, let's...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREEN: Let's play it.

GROSS: This is Al Green's first big hit - a song he wrote - "Tired Of Being Alone."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIRED OF BEING ALONE")

GREEN: (Singing) Listen baby. I'm so tired of being alone. I'm so tired of on my own. Won't you help me, girl, just as soon as you can. People say that I found a way to make you say that you love me. But baby, you didn't go for that. My, it's a natural fact, that I want to come back. Show me where it's at, baby. I'm so tired of being alone. I'm so tired of on my own. Won't you help me, girl, soon as you can. I guess you know that I - huh - I love you so, even though you don't want me no more. Yeah, hey, hey, hey. Huh - and I'm crying tears - all right - through the years. Huh - I tell you like it is. Honey, please love me if you will. Yeah, baby.

GROSS: So when you wrote "Tired Of Being Alone," were you alone? Were you tired of being alone?

GREEN: Yeah. Well, I - my girlfriend kept leaving me the key and leaving the apartment, and she would leave me a lot. And I was - and I - so I says, well, how - it was snowing one night. It was snowing, and I had all the windows open because I was there by myself for hours on end, and I says, well, how can I do something with this? How can I make something out of this? And so I took a pencil and started writing it down 'cause I was angry, and I was writing - I'm tired of being alone. I'm tired of on my own.

Then I wrote several other things, I scratched those out, and I said, help me as soon as you can. And then I went to getting serious about it - people say that I found a way to make you say that you love me - which is, I don't have to make you. If you really loved me, you'd be here with me. And I was writing on that connotation. You didn't go for that. It's a natural fact. That's...

GROSS: We're listening to my 1991 interview with Al Green. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating July 4 by listening back to two of my interviews with the great soul and gospel singer Al Green. Here's more of our first interview from 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to get back to a story you were telling me about, you know, how you had to sing "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (laughter).

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: First of all, how did you sing that? I mean, what voice did you use?

GREEN: I don't know. I just kind of sang - (singing) Hey, you got that something (vocalizing). I think I understand. When I feel that something, I want to hold your hand. I want to hold your hand.

Like that.

GROSS: That sounds great (laughter).

GREEN: I sang it in 1971. That was 19 years ago (laughter).

GROSS: Right, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND")

GREEN: Yeah, we got the feeling now. We got the feeling now. Oh, boy, I don't know. All right, yeah.

(Singing) Oh, yeah. I tell you something, girl. I think I - I think you understand. And when I, girl, I said that little something to you, I want to hold your hand. I've got to hold you every day now. I've got to hold you, oh. Oh, please, girl, say to me, baby, honey, say, let me be your man. Oh, please, please, say to me, walk up and tell me, I want to hold your hand. I want to hold your hand, baby. I got to, got to hold your hand. Ooh, yeah.

GROSS: There's a story about you that's kind of legendary in music lore. And I'm thinking of the story of the time a woman you were with poured hot grits or hot oatmeal or something...

GREEN: Cream of wheat.

GROSS: Cream of wheat on you while you were in the bath and scalded you and then took her life.

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: She killed herself afterwards.

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Is there a connection between that story and your being born again?

GREEN: No, not whatsoever. People in journalism like to say that that was the reason. But I was born again in '73. This incident happened in 1974, so it really don't correlate. I was born again because I was - they saw what I could be, not what I was. They knew what I was. I was a no-good, woman-hunting, champagne-drinking, good-time-having, Saturday-night, blues-singing man. But they says, I'm not interested in what you are; what we are interested in is what you can be. And so I was born again on that premise.

GROSS: How soon after you were born again did you become a minister?

GREEN: I was born again in '73. I ran for three years trying to keep from becoming one, and I started a church in December 1974 - 1976, I'm sorry.

GROSS: So when you became a minister and started a church, did you have the church built? Was it a building that already existed, or did you have it built?

GREEN: No, I was in a hurry. I went and bought the church. Time I saw it, I says - I didn't know what church it was. My mind was in such a turmoil. I was a star. I could go anywhere. People know - but I was spiritually so turmoiled.

GROSS: Since you were a star...

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And you still are a star, but, I mean, when you started the church...

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...People knew you as Al Green, you know, soul singer.

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you have a lot of people showing up, especially early on...

GREEN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...Just to hear Al Green sing?

GREEN: Still do.

GROSS: Still do.

GREEN: Still do, yeah.

GROSS: So how much do you sing in the church?

GREEN: I sing quite a bit, but I - so when they come, I also drop the bomb. Yeah. That's it.

GROSS: (Laughter) You don't let them off easy.

GREEN: No. I catch them with that voice, and I hold them with that voice, and then I tell them what they - and they wind up agreeing with me.

GROSS: Al Green, recorded in 1991. He's still leading services at his church in Memphis. We'll hear more of the interview I recorded with him in 2000 after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE RIVER")

GREEN: I'd like to dedicate this song to little Junior Parker, a cousin of mine that's gone on, but we'd like to kind of carry on in his name. I sing.

(Singing) I don't know why I love you like I do after all the changes that you put me through. You stole my money and my cigarettes, and I haven't seen hide nor hair of you yet. I want to know, won't you tell me, am I in love to stay? Yeah. Take me to the river and wash me down. Won't you cleanse my soul? Put my feet on the ground. I don't know why...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We've gone deep into our archive for the holiday to play back excerpts of two of my interviews with the great soul and gospel singer Al Green. He was ordained in 1976, the same year he bought the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis, where he continues to preach. Before we hear more of the interview we recorded in 2000, let's hear music from his 1981 Grammy-winning album, "Higher Plain."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

GREEN: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. Oh, Lord. I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: How did you want your church to be similar to or different from the churches that you grew up in? And you grew up in a small town in Arkansas before your family moved to Michigan.

GREEN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah. So tell me about those churches and what you wanted to keep and what you wanted to not keep.

GREEN: I'm interested in the church being real. And when you get into that area - and I was told by this by Reverend Blair, Blair T. Hunt, who's gone on now, but he was a very, very, very astute, educated doctorate man. And I went to him when I was in trouble undertaking - going through the undertaking of this particular job of what you're calling me now, the Reverend Al Green, OK? Still - with the calling too, now, with the calling.

And he said, well, Al, let's do it like this, not so rudely that the people are, you know, animals or something like that. But if you take an animal and the animal is sick, he - let's take a dog, for instance. The dog is sick. He wants the can of meat. Now, what I want you to do, I want you to take the medicine that the dog needs. See, he don't know he needs the medicine. He know he wants the meat. So what you do is take the medicine, push it down in the meat and give the dog what he wants. And that's the meat. So while he eats what he wants, he gets what he needs. And that's the way I want you to try to overcome this, and...

GROSS: Well, tell me about the churches you went to when your father was sharecropping.

GREEN: (Laughter) Back to the question.

GROSS: Yeah, back to the question.

GREEN: Got to love it. Oh, I can't get her off this. OK, well, the churches were Pentecostal, tambourines, a very expressional, very religious, a very - for real. These people were overcome by something. These people were - I mean, I'm willing to express myself because he's been good to me.

GROSS: Were you ever afraid watching people who were overcome, overcome by the spirit, and they'd start behaving really differently?

GREEN: Yeah. Totally. Absolutely. I have been right next door to somebody and they were sitting here perfectly calm a minute ago, and all of a sudden, they all over the place. And I'm going like, what is this, you know? And that's right.

GROSS: What song had the most meaning for you as a child in church?

GREEN: Oh, as a child, it would be two things. (Singing) Jesus is is coming back again (vocalizing).

Now, this is all way back out in the country now. This is Jacknash, Ark. (ph) - way back, no gravel roads. I mean, when it rains, you just stuck, OK? You can't drive a car back there. These songs, "He's Coming Back Again," and then I heard Sam Cooke on the radio, on my grandmama's radio, singing "Nearer My God To Thee." And oh, I just went - and I used to hear the - Roy Acuff and Grand Ole Opry years ago. We didn't have a TV now, just Grandmama's old radio. And I used to listen to these, and then sometime they'd form the little gospel groups on the end and they'd sing "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" and all of these. And I was just so amazed to hear a guy sing, I saw the light, I saw the light. No more darkness, no more night. All my days will be sunny and bright. And then he said, praise the Lord. And I said, that's strange.

GROSS: Now there's a part in your book in which it describes when you first moved north to Grand Rapids, Mich., that, you know, you were kind of small. You weren't used to cities, and you got beaten up by a gang really soon.

GREEN: Right.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you ever felt that you were, you know, cool until you got on stage and you started singing and people really got who you were through the songs, you know?

GREEN: I don't know...

GROSS: Like if you had - if you got more - feel more comfortable on stage and if people thought of you differently on stage than, say, in the street.

GREEN: No, we were too poor for that. I mean, no, we didn't have any cool, anything like that. We just had a pair of jeans and a...

GROSS: I don't even mean clothes. I just mean...

GREEN: No, no, I know what you're saying, but I'm trying to express the best way I can put it. No, I wasn't cool or anything like that. We were very poor. There was five boys, five girls. So that's 10 people; Mom and Dad, that's 12. So somebody got to get out, you know? So, you know, and my brothers started to marry off, and that's right, and that's right. But, no, I really don't know anything about cool or anything like that. I was just - the one thing I am and one thing I was and one thing I will be and that is a loner. I'll always be alone.

And all my friends, like - that was in school. I'm measuring from school now - were like - I don't know - kind of like people that everyone else really didn't pay too much attention to, you know? If it wasn't a guy that had polio or something, a cripple or something. It was always somebody else. So I was always a black sheep in the family and always a loner, kind of like a lone wolf, always alone or by myself. Not too many people loved me, and I know that. So I never thought that the good Lord would bring it around to all of this.

GROSS: So how did it feel after, you know, feeling that not that many people loved you, that you were a loner, to be on stage and be this kind of lightning rod for adoration?

GREEN: Yeah, well, that was kind of weird because I was young, fine, hips, beautiful. And then again, I was different from everybody else because everybody said I was some kind of vert, some kind of - not a pervert but, like, an introvert or something. This guy hangs out over in the corner by himself, mumbles to himself. Always some type of stuff. Like, in shop class in the fifth grade, this guy's in here singing in shop class with the machines going. And I never thought I could sing. And some guy says, you know, hey, that guy really can sing, man. Did you hear that guy?

And the machines going (vocalizing). So I think can't nobody hear me, and I got my earmuffs on and my glasses. So, you know, and I'm in here just singing away. And so when I look around, the whole class is behind me and everybody going, hey, man, that is fantastic. And that's the first time I ever heard that I could sing. That's not in the book.

GROSS: Did you ever think that you would be a sharecropper yourself before you had a singing career, before you got out of Arkansas? When you were a kid, did you say, well, if this is going to be my life?

GREEN: No, I never said that. And my daddy didn't believe it was going to be his, either. And that's why we got out of there. One night, about 12 o'clock, all of a sudden, Daddy says, hey, let's go. And Mom was saying, like, what you talking about? Where are we going? And everybody's up going like, what'd he say? He said, let's go. Pack your things. Put your stuff in there and let's go. And - what are we going to do about the cattle? What are we going to do about the goats? What are we going to do about the mules? What are we going to do about the farm equipment? I mean, what are you going to - Daddy said let's go. So we start packing stuff. Let's go. He said, let's go, I mean, let's go. So we left...

GROSS: How...

GREEN: ...And left all the stuff.

GROSS: How old were you?

GREEN: Nine, 8, like, in there. Riding on the back of a truck one night with all this stuff jammed on the back of a pickup truck. I don't know. Going to Michigan, I think it was (laughter).

GROSS: We're listening back to my interview with Al Green recorded in 2000. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRUS CHESTNUT'S "AMAZING GRACE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Al Green in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You were born-again in what year was it, '75?

GREEN: I was born-again in 1973...

GROSS: '73.

GREEN: ...By the grace of God. Yes, Lord.

GROSS: And in the book, it says that when you told Willie Mitchell that, your producer, he said to you that, you know, there's going to come a time very soon you're not going to want to sing secular songs anymore. You're just going to be singing gospel music. And Willie Mitchell said that he didn't produce that kind of music, so he wouldn't be able to work with you after that.

GREEN: Well, he said he couldn't cut gospel music 'cause he had never cut one before, and he hadn't. But I was so determined. I went and got a boy from Alabama, Bill Cantrell, and asked him if he could build me a studio out of a rehearsal hall we had built here along with the office. And he said, well, I mean - and he's looking around the building, and he says, well, it's possible, Al. I mean, it'll take some soundproofing and, you know, a board room to put the board and machine to record it, but I think it could be done.

And that was such a strange time because Willie Mitchell and I kept going to California, hoping to get a Grammy. And "Tired Of Being Alone" - we didn't win a Grammy. So the next year, we went for "Let's Stay Together," and we didn't win a Grammy. So the next year, we went for "Still In Love With You," and we never won a Grammy. So Willie said, to hell with it. But you got to know Willie. You know, Willie said to hell with it. Al, we're going to make the money here. Forget about a Grammy 'cause I'm not going anymore. You know what I mean? I don't ever win anyway.

So, you know, so I came out with "Look What You Done For Me," - no, "You Ought To Be With Me" - that's right. And I went to the Grammys, but I didn't win a Grammy. So Bill Cantrell says, well, I'm about done with the studio. So what are you going to sing? I sung "The Belle Album." There's this Belle song. And then I did "The Lord Will Make A Way" album, and I won a Grammy for "The Lord Will Make A Way." And I thought that was the strangest thing to go and cut a gospel song, and I win a Grammy. I went over to Nashville and cut "Precious Lord," and they gave me two Grammys. And I'm going, like, this is the weirdest thing. I'm cutting - that's right. Sacred music - they give you a Grammy. You cut something to sell about 5 or 10 million records - no Grammy.

GROSS: Were you surprised when you had your born-again experience?

GREEN: Oh, my God, yes. I was at a party. I was in San Francisco. I mean, I played the Cow Palace. I had my little diamond on, you know, and I called and had my girlfriend to fly out from Detroit. I'll take care of the ticket, you know? Oh, I was tippy, tippy, tippy, tippy, tippy-toe. Oh, I was in - oh, honey, I was gone, you know? So Disney sent their plane up and picked us up in San Francisco, flew us down to Anaheim to do the 12 o'clock show that night, right? And we did the show - me and the band, on - having a little champagne and, you know, the girls all on the plane. And, you know, we just having fun and talking and chilling, you know?

So my girlfriend came. And so after the show - the second show that night - I was kind of tired. I said, Babe, I said, I am zonked. I says, I'll just see you in the morning. And she said, well, after that flight - oh, man, it was about three or four hours - five hours or whatever it was. She said, I'm tired too. I'll see you in the morning. I said, OK, great. Well, I'll see you in the morning (imitating kiss), bye-bye. And, you know, she went thataway inside the suite and closed the door, and I went thataway inside the suite and closed the door. Now, between that time - which was about 12, 1 o'clock in the morning - to 4, 4:30 in the morning, this guy's born again here. And I've never been the same since - since that day. Since that very day, I never been the same. I never been the same.

GROSS: You have your own church now.

GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: You've had that church for how many years?

GREEN: Twenty-two years.

GROSS: Do you often think, like - who would you have been, what would you have been doing if it wasn't for being born again and if it wasn't for your church? What life would you be leading? Would you even be alive?

GREEN: That's a good question right there. Man, that's a good question 'cause there's so many of my friends that started when I started - even in Philadelphia here, and all around the country - Detroit and in different other places. I don't know what I could have been, but I don't want to get caught up in all of that drug inducement, hallucination, Donny Hathaway. So many of us that started at the same time - there's such a tragic aura around great success - Sam Cooke, all these people. There's such a - and I was afraid. Otis - the plane.

GROSS: So you...

GREEN: So yeah, I was - I would be afraid to take a chance like that. I would rather hold onto the Lord and make Him and let Him be the master of my life than me trying to do what we were doing coming from the Cow Palace down to Disney 'cause, you know, I mean, my intention was just to have a party. That's all I was thinking about.

Now, this born again - waking up out of my sleep, you know, with the amen and the hallelujah and the thank you, Jesus, and the overflowing. And then my dad came out, and he was across the hall, and he says, what's wrong with you, boy? And so he grabbed me by the shoulders - what's wrong with you? And I said, look at my hands. Look at my hands. And I'm crying. And he says, what's wrong with you? And I said, look at my hands. I mean, would you look at my hands? And he says, what's wrong with your hands? And I said, look at my feet. Look at my feet. Look at my feet. And he says - so he turned right then and kind of, like, caught himself and turned. And he, himself, went to saying, thank you, Lord. That boy's been saved. Thank you, Lord.

GROSS: Al Green, I really wish we had more time, but we have to let you go. It's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so very much.

GREEN: I'll go and sign books.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: The Reverend Al Green, recorded in 2000 after the publication of his memoir. He continues to preach at the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis, Tenn.

After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review a science fiction film set during a pandemic of sudden memory loss. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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