CHECKING IN WITH . . . AL GREEN : The Master Still Preaches Gospel of Soul

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic</i>

Al Green isn’t just the greatest soul singer of his generation--he’s among the great est ever. Before becoming a minister and switching to gospel music in the late ‘70s, the Arkansas native mixed the passion of gospel music and the seductiveness of R&B; in such classic Top 10 hits as “Tired of Being Alone.”

On Tuesday, MCA Records releases “Your Heart’s in Good Hands,” Green’s first U.S. secular album in almost 20 years. It mixes new selections with eight tracks from a 1993 BMG International album that was released overseas. While he’s in top shape vocally, the production touches are tentative. ( See review, Page 68. ) On the eve of the release, a playful Green speaks about singing and his love of gospel and pop.

Question: Is a great singer born or made?

Answer: You are born with the natural talent, but your music is also seasoned by your experiences.


Q: What impresses you about a singer?

A: I want to be sure that everything is correct in reference to your notes and things, then I want to hear the phrasing . . . whether you make the story your own.

Q: Let me ask you about some of the great soul singers over the years. What do you admire about Ray Charles?

A: I love his versatility . . . the way he can sing anything . . . country, blues, jazz.

Q: Otis Redding?

A: His stamina as a performer.

Q: Sam Cooke?

A: Class.

Q: Let’s turn now to Al Green. What are your best qualities?

A: Class . . . stamina . . . and versatility [ laughing ].

Q: You still preach as pastor of your church in Memphis, the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. What is the satisfaction you get from a good sermon as opposed to a good concert performance?

A: That’s a very complicated matter, but let me just say this. When I do the ministry in the tabernacle, I am soaking wet when I come off. When I come off the live concert stage with a 17- or 18-piece orchestra, I am soaking wet. So it comes together.

Q: Do you feel closer to gospel music or the pop material?

A: Oh, that’s hard. I can’t put myself in one little teardrop and say this is Al Green. I can’t cut myself off from my whole river of tears. “Love and Happiness” is truly me and “Amazing Grace” is truly me. You add them up and it’s the total person. . . .

Q: Why then did you go so many years without making another secular album?

A: It was a matter of education. For a while I didn’t know to combine those old songs with my gospel music. You get [caught up] in figuring you have to adhere to one particular segment or thought or group.

As you go on, you find out really how big our creator is and that He gave you all those songs. There’s nothing bad about “I’m Still in Love With You” or “Love and Happiness.” A lot of people will not understand it, but I know in my heart that I am still supposed to sing them.*