Some people are just born to do certain things. The first time Al Green held a microphone, the music industry knew his silky vocals were going to be a goldmine. And they were right. He had a voice that lit up the stage. It made you smile. It seduced you. With that sly dog raised eyebrow and lonesome falsetto, and hits like You Oughta Be With Me, I’m Still in Love With You, Love and Happiness, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, and Let’s Stay Together, the dude crooned some of the early 70’s most serious babymaking songs. Al Green helped overpopulate the world.
The son of black sharecroppers, he had scrapped and hustled and clawed his way to the top, and he wasn’t about to let his success go to waste. He had a spectacularly successful career singing about sex, and that translated into lots of available pretty ladies. The man who sang Let’s Stay Together never could. The man who was Tired of Being Alone never had been. He sang not from experience but from ambition. And ambition caused Al Green’s genitals to lead a legendary and undisciplined existence.
Pretty much anyone who’s ever heard Let’s Stay Together in a bar or in some movie knows the basic outline of what happened next. Al Green learned the hard way that he had sinned, grievously, against a whole lot of females. It’s the one biographical detail he never discusses, the moment when his story got turned around.
It was still dark on the early morning of October 17, 1974 when the last great soul singer of his era eased himself into a hot bath after a long night in the recording studio. A married mother of three, and scorned lover of Al Green, broke into his mansion and boiled a pot of grits downstairs in the kitchen. She carried the pot up the stairs and found the singer getting out of the tub. She poured the whole thing on his naked body. She scalded it all. Shoulders, back, belly, loins. And grits don’t fall off. They stick. He must have bellowed, raw and deep, no lonesome falsetto when your skin is sizzling.
The woman who chose grits as her revenge was 29-year-old Mary Woodson, pictured above, just another notch in a long line of ladies, and not even the one who occupied Al Green’s erotic imagination. That would have been Juanita, a whore he’d routinely pimped to white businessmen. Nor was she the one who troubled him the most. That would have been Linda Wells, a former secretary, who had charged him that summer with assault and battery. No, Mary Woodson was just another conquest. And she had done what she’d traveled to Memphis to do. While Al Green screamed in agony, she then went into his bedroom, removed a .38 caliber handgun from his nightstand, and painted the walls with her brains.
The police found in her purse a note declaring her intentions and her reasons. “The more I trust you,” she’d written, “the more you let me down.”
Not surprisingly, it took a while for the superstar to find peace.
Al Green was at a crossroads and he searched for an epiphany. He wanted to change his life. He remembered that Mary Woodson had once whispered that he would make a magnificent preacher if he ever chose to change his wicked ways. He had that kind of presence. In a joking moment, probably in bed, he had even promised to save her a seat in his church if he ever did start ministering.
In 1976, Al Green left it all behind and became a full-time ordained pastor.
Al Green fans know the legend. The story has become a folktale. They know he is a survivor and the last of his kind. His peers have all fallen away. Sam Cooke, shot to death by a motel clerk after he barged into her office, half naked, searching for the girl he’d just had sex with. Marvin Gaye, shot to death by his own father on April Fool’s day, 1984. Otis Redding killed in a plane crash. The long, awful dwindling of Curtis Mayfield. Teddy Pendergrass, Barry White, James Brown, Michael Jackson, all gone.
Today, the Reverend Al Green lives modestly in a house behind his church, which stands at 787 Reverend Al Green Road, just off Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee. He wears out Bibles as fast as he does his shoes. He still dances. He still sings. But after 30 years in the gospel desert, his back turned against his old hits, God allowed him to sing his sexy songs again when he went to Cleveland to see himself immortalized in the Rock n’Roll Hall of Fame. With a sly dog grin, he saw himself named to Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Nine Grammy awards adorn the shelf in his humble office. Memphis native Justin Timberlake credits Al Green as his biggest musical influence and attends his sermons whenever he returns home. The church is usually full on Sundays so places are limited. There is only one empty seat. It is always empty. Nobody sits there. Not even Justin Timberlake.
Albert Greene is saving that seat for somebody else.