Q&A with Al Green
It’s hard to not to be a bit star-struck when Al Green starts singing the first verse of “Let’s Stay Together” on the phone from his home in Memphis, or even just talking to him. But Green has a way to make a guy feel at ease and about thirty seconds into our interview any anxiety this writer had speaking with the soul legend was tossed out the window, as he was quite funny at times. And those magical moments like when he starts singing on the phone, well, it’s a good thing the tape was rolling. Westword’s August 28 profile on Green focused mainly on his new album, Lay it Down, in this Q&A he speaks about his singing history, elaborates on his hit “Let’s Stay Together,” and talks about what the “it” is on his song “Lay It Down.”
Westword (Jon Solomon): When you went into Electric Ladyland Studio with ?uestlove and James Poyser, you kind of approached things organically and didn’t have any plans, right?
Al Green: That’s exactly right. We didn’t have anything written down. We just wanted to get together and see if we clicked at all and had any vibe to do anything. We were supposed to be getting together to meet one another, and we wrote eight songs. So I said, “That vibe must be pretty strong.” I went back to the hotel and I was drained. But trying to write eight songs in one night can be a mamma jamma, ya know. The lady sent the room service up there and I never answered the door, man. The next thing I know I seen that room service has been up here- the tray and the asparagus and the baked salmon and everything sitting right here. I said, “We better send this back and order something else” because I was knocked out, man. The guy said, “Me knock Mr. Green. Me knock several times.” I said, “Baby, I was out of it. I’m sorry. So send up some Raisin Bran.” (laughs)
It’s kind of like the way we wrote “Let’s Stay Together.” I mean, Willie’s playing these chords on the piano, and I said, “What is that?” He said, “I don’t know. Take a pencil and write something to it.” So I wrote, “I’m so in love with you.” Like my little boy said, “Hey dad, you just made it all up.” An eleven year old. I said, “That’s right boy, I just made it right up, ya know.” He’s a sweetheart, little Trevor. But he said, “That it’s dad, you just made it all up.” Now that’s genius and from a kid’s standpoint you go in here and write these songs, it’s not about what you’re feeling or what the emotion is. Little brilliant Einstein. It’s amazing. But he’s still playing his game. But he’s sweetheart and maybe he’ll sing one day. He’s going to be fantastic.
WW: When you were about his age, you started singing, right?
AG: Yeah. I was a little kid. My dad and my brothers had a group called the Green Brothers. And so we just went around Michigan, Ohio and maybe sometimes, Chicago or Detroit or whatever and be singing songs, yeah. But it wasn’t a committed effort because we didn’t cut no records together or get that big or anything. It was just like one of the stepping blocks that help you grow up and mold and shape you really into what you are today. So they were talking about cutting me off, a little kid from Grand Rapids, Michigan – Al Green, he ain’t gonna be nothing. So they were talking about cutting me off and God said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Before you cut him off, let me have him for a while. I said (in low voice), “Hey, who is that?” He said, “Come here, I like you.” I said, “Well, OK.” I told him, “I ain’t no good for nothing.” He said, “Come on.” I guess he washed me up, man. Cleaned me off, man. Dusted me up, man. Kind of changed my heart about a lot of things -- all the partying and stuff we were doing. He said, “Look here, I’m gonna keep your songs. I like the songs, and you sing ‘em real good, but always acknowledge me a little bit, ya know, tell somebody in there about Jesus. And then you keep on going and sing ‘Let’s Stay Together’.” I said, “OK.” And that’s what I been doing. (Starts singing the first verse of “Let’s Stay Together.”)
WW: How old were you when you wrote “Let’s Stay Together”?
AG: Let’s see… I wrote it in 1972. So it’s been one of the classics that we can’t do a show without singing that or the whole house would be mad. Oh man, they’d throw tomatoes at you. Come on, man, come out here and sing “Let’s Stay Together,” man. So we kind of have to do it.
WW: And you were saying that when you and Willie got together on that song it came together pretty quick.
AG: Yeah, he started playing (starts humming the intro). I said, “What’s that?” He said, “I don’t know. Just get a pencil and pad and start writing something to it.” It just kind of came together. We wrote it in about ten to twelve minutes.
AG: Yeah, I was just writing something. It was just another song. We’d put down a year’s worth of songs. So, to me it was just another song. We went over to London for 28 days before it came out and when came back over here to America all these women were jumping on stage and hugging ya, and rubbing up against you real close. “Excuse me, ma’am, but what are you doing?” And the people had to tell me backstage, “They love you.” I said, “Why?” “Your new song that’s out – ‘Let’s Stay Together.’” I said, “It’s out?” “Yeah, it came out two weeks ago over here in the States.” I said, “Oh, really?” Women were running all over the place and I’m going like, “Oh, man. OK, then.”
WW: How was it working with ?uestlove and James Poyser versus working with Willie Mitchell?
AG: It was just like it should be. They was gonna play all this hip music and all this fancy stuff. And the more they worked on that stuff, and the more they tried to fit it to Al, the more it sounded like Al Green in 1973. And that’s exactly what you got out there. You got an Al Green cut that sounds like the 1973 stuff – “You Ought to Be With Me,” “Look What You Done For Me” – all that stuff. It sounds like that. It’s just cut in 2008. And that’s exactly what you got. So when they got done playing they hip stuff and everything, the only thing that would fit was the stuff that Al Jackson and Willie Mitchell and them was playing from the beginning.
WW: I’m really digging that title cut.
AG: The church folks was asking me the other day, they said, “Reverend, on ‘Lay it Down,’ what is ‘it’?” I says, “’It’ to me maybe one thing and ‘it’ to you maybe something else. Why don’t you take a pad and pencil and figure it out.” He said, “OK, I’ll get back with you.” I said, “I can’t be the ‘it’ for you. You gotta be whatever you write. ‘Love and Happiness’ to me means this, and to you it may mean that. So the ‘it’ for me may mean ‘it, it, it.’ And ‘it’ for you may mean ‘it is.’ So let every man have his own ‘it.’ And everybody went to clapping and said, “Amen.”
WW: And Lay it Down is all about love, right?
AG: Ain’t no doubt. Lay it down. Let it go. Fall in love. That’s what it’s about.
WW: One last question. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in life?
AG: Probably to live and let live and don’t ever stop giving. You always gotta leave room to give because when you do that leave enough room for you to receive.