Interviewing Al Green is challenging and adventurous, like being a jockey trying to ride a bucking bull. Speaking to the Scene via phone, the 66-year-old R&B legend answers questions lyrically and at lightning speed, howling, cackling, preaching the gospel, breaking out into song, his voice sounding as iconic on the receiving end of an iPhone as it does out of a stereo speaker. At one point, he muses on how driving across Tennessee with the windows down makes him feel like Chuck Norris — complete with vociferous vroom-vroooming engine sounds. After 18 minutes of fielding questions in a style that's as much a performance as it is a conversation, he makes one demand: "Just put in there 'Al Green, I'm still standing!' "
Forty-five years after emerging with his 1967 debut LP, Back Up Train, 38 years after becoming an ordained pastor and turning to gospel — leaving behind secular R&B at the peak of his popularity as smooth Southern soul's reigning king — and four years following the release of the Grammy-winning Lay It Down (which was produced by The Roots' Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and featured collaborations with neo-soul notables John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Corinne Bailey Rae), Green is indeed still standing, still singing and showing no signs of laying down anything but love, heartache and happiness in song and onstage.
Green recounts a conversation he had with late, legendary Hi Records staff producer Willie Mitchell, wherein Mitchell said the songs they cut would "never die." " 'They're gonna outlive you, that's for sure.' I said, 'Willie, how can you say such a thing?' " Though Mitchell shuffled off this mortal coil in 2010 at the age of 81, Green is still the living, breathing last word on his own legacy. Green's catalog is a timeless trove of aphrodisiacal FM soul staples with which the singer single-handedly spawned a Nixon-era baby boom — and a catalog bona fide and well honored by every court in popular music, from the suits at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to many a fresh-faced American Idol contestant.
Green could do without the starry-eyed imitators. "How you gonna get somebody to play Al Green when Al Green is in existence," he says. "Talking Heads' 'Take Me to the River' ... that was a good display to me, artistically, of what some of my music could be, put in the hands of somebody else." That's because, even after years of crooning them, Green's interpretations and delivery of his songs are unchanging and faithful to their original recordings. "I don't know what other way to phrase them, or project them or sing them than the way they were written and the way they are," he explains. "You have to ask those mothers about delivery, they'll tell you about delivery."
Nevertheless, Green doesn't get tired of singing his staples. "Those are my children," he says, "The songs are my children. I pick one out and look at it and smile at it and hug it and kiss it and sing it and put it back where it belongs. And I love 'Love and Happiness.' I love 'For the Good Times.' I love 'Simply Beautiful.' I love 'I'm Still in Love With You.' I love 'Let's Stay Together.' " He says it's the singer who defines the song — and there's only one Al Green. "There ain't no emotion in the song, there's emotion in the person performing the song. That song, it's a song, but it's kind of, like, in a glass jar," he explains. "It's not there to tear the house down, that's Al's job!"
And to think, the Schermerhorn so recently spent $40 million in post-Flood restoration.