For years the trademark of soul singer Al Green’s stage show was giving his swooning, mostly female audience long-stemmed roses. Al had quite a rep for gathering rosebuds too. The most lurid and tragic instance occurred in 1974 when he returned home from a recording session with a young woman. As Green soaked in the tub of his 21-room Memphis mansion at 4 a.m., an ex-girlfriend burst in, dumped a pot of scalding grits on him and then fatally shot herself. Al was hospitalized with second-degree burns and hellfire in his heart.
While not dropping the showbiz career that earned him 22 gold and platinum records (including Let’s Stay Together), Green has since undergone a born-again act that matches in drama, if not publicity, Chuck Colson’s. Late last year Al became, at 30, an ordained minister and pastor of Memphis’ Full Gospel Tabernacle, which he personally bought for $355,000 from the Assembly of God.
Green’s nondenominational church has already grown to a membership of 400, including Al’s mother and many of his 30 employees. SRO crowds jam the 550-seat tabernacle on the three out of four Sundays when the star forgoes the road to preach himself. Sometimes he is joined by his backup trio, the Angels, and a seven-piece R&B gospel band. What the worshipers (who include Catholics, Jews and curiosity seekers) get is an evangelistic version of Al’s club act. “Our music’s different,” he clarifies. “We let it happen natural. And,” he adds with a wink, “many of our ‘seekers’ get caught.”
The other development in Green’s life is that the dude, who once was formally petitioned by 208 Memphis women never to marry, got himself “caught” last June. He married divorcee Shirley Ann Kyles, a gospel singer who opened his show one night two years ago with a now defunct group called the Revelations. “I saw her perform but I didn’t meet her then,” Al recalls. “It was almost a year before I got to shake her hand.” That was when she joined his church. One day, continues Green, “I asked her, ‘Are you busy?’ and she said, ‘No.’ So I asked, ‘What are you doing for the rest of your life?’ and she said, ‘Helping you.’ I took her hand and slipped the ring on, and said, ‘How ’bout it?’ ” They were wed two weeks later, and she is now his choir director.
Green was a professional gospel singer at 9, teaming with his brothers. He was the sixth of 10 children born to sharecropping parents in Forrest City, Ark., and when Al was in grammar school, the family migrated to Grand Rapids, Mich. The Green Brothers began to do church gigs (their strict parents didn’t allow secular music in the house), but Al broke away. He listened to pop in record stores and made the charts with his first single, Back Up Train, when he was just 20.
The only slump in Green’s career came at the time of his spiritual rebirth (which was actually under way before the bathtub incident) when he would annoy paying customers by interspersing sermonettes with his club act. Now, however, he separates church and stage. His new LP, The Belle Album, self-produced in his own $350,000 recording studio, goes with the flow and the funk, including some disco cuts and his first hit single (Belle) in two years. He’s contemplating a second production for (and possibly dueting with) wife Shirley. “We sing well together,” Al says, and are “very, very happy.” Of course, as the Reverend Green can’t resist preaching, “the purpose of religion is to make people happy.”