Al Green's extraordinary voice became known to the world through a string of legendary hits in the early 1970's, classics including "Tired of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together," "I Can't Get Next to You," "I'm Still in Love With You," "Call Me," "Here I Am," "Let's Get Married" and "Love and Happiness." Recorded in Memphis with producer and arranger Willie Mitchell at Mitchell's Royal Recording Studios, those songs and Green's falsetto screams, impassioned whispers, ecstatic cries and choked shouts are etched into the minds of music fans everywhere.
Green started singing professionally at age nine, when he and his brothers formed a gospel quartet, the Greene Brothers, in their hometown of Forest City, Arkansas. (Green dropped the final "e" from his surname when he went solo.) They toured the gospel circuits in the South, then began performing around Michigan when the family relocated to Grand Rapids. At 16, Green formed a pop group, Al Greene and the Creations, with high school friends, and the group released a single, "Back Up Train," in 1967 (under the new name Al Greene and the Soul Mates) that went to #5 on the national R&B chart.
Green and Mitchell's historic meeting took place in 1969, soon after Green decided to go solo. Mitchell by then a renowned bandleader, arranger and trumpeter hired the young singer to front his band for a gig in Midland, Texas, and hearing something special, approached Green after the show. "I told him, "You come to Memphis and you can be a star,'" Mitchell says. "Al asked me, 'How long?' and I said 'Eighteen months, it's going to take a little work.' He told me he didn't have that much time," says Mitchell, laughing. Green quickly reconsidered, though. "I didn't have any money," Green says, "so I told him, 'About this star thing, if that's what you really wanna do, fine but I need fifteen hundred dollars.'
Mitchell forked over the money, signed Green to Hi Records and soon began recording him at Royal arranging, producing and engineering the sessions himself. More important, Mitchell coached Green, pushing him to find his own, unique voice. "I was trying to sing like Jackie Wilson and Wilson Pickett and James Brown and Sam Cooke," Green says of those early days. "And Willie said 'Just sing like you.' I didn't know what that was, and so we just had to find that balance."
"It took a long time to find it," Mitchell adds," but we did it by working from 11 am 'til two in the morning, every day. 'Can't Get Next to You' was close, but 'Tired of Being Alone' was it."
Indeed, Green and Mitchell collaborated to shape a sound that defines its own place in pop and R&B music. They recorded eight albums that sold over 20 million copies worldwide, working together until 1976. At that time, Green changed his focus to gospel music, founding his own congregation in Memphis the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where he still preaches regularly and recording a series of albums that have earned him eight Grammys in gospel categories. "His voice is like an instrument," Mitchell says. "He can do anything with it; he's the best I've ever heard."