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Kennedy Center honors Al Green for soul and staying power

December 8, 2014 at 6:10 PM EST
Al Green was one of five artists honored at the Kennedy Center this year. Jeffrey Brown talks to the singer, whose iconic voice has stirred souls with pop music and gospel for decades, about a life of making music and preaching.
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GWEN IFILL: Last night, the annual Kennedy Center Honors were awarded to five artists for elevating the cultural vibrancy of the nation, singer Al Green, ballerina Patricia McBride, singer-songwriter Sting, comedienne Lily Tomlin, and actor Tom Hanks.

Green was paid tribute by contemporary soul singer Usher, as well as veteran hit-makers Earth, Wind and Fire.

Before the ceremony, Jeffrey Brown talked to Green about his career.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the Kennedy Center proclamation reads, “Al Green’s iconic voice stirs our souls in a style that is all his own.”

And, indeed, for a period in the 1970s, Green stirred a lot of souls, unveiling hit after hit. He would ultimately sell some 20 million records and be named one of the 100 greatest artists of all time by “Rolling Stone” magazine.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Those guys didn’t think I would do it.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: Through the years, his legion of fans, including a rather prominent one, have remembered every word.

BARACK OBAMA (singing): I’m…

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA (singing): … so in love with you.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: Green himself came from a family of sharecroppers in a small town in Arkansas. He began singing gospel music as part of his family’s performing group, before turning to secular soul music and making it big from his adopted home town of Memphis.

Along with fame, though, came a series of personal setbacks, including a serious fall off a performance stage and then a turn back to religion. Green became a pastor, set up a church in Memphis and for close to two decades recorded only gospel music.

Eventually, even while remaining focused on his preaching, he found his way back to popular music and performance, recording duets with musicians from various genres. In 2003, he released “I Can’t Stop” with his longtime producer Willie Mitchell and later collaborated with Questlove of the Roots on the album “Lay It Down” and with Justin Timberlake at the 2009 Grammy Awards show.

We talked at Washington’s Kennedy Center on the eve of his being honored.

Can you remember what it was about soul music, rhythm and blues, that first grabbed you, that made you want to do it?

AL GREEN, Musician: It was the — it was seeing Mr. Brown and Mr. Cooke.

JEFFREY BROWN: James Brown, Sam Cooke.

AL GREEN: Yes, Otis Redding, on stage, and I said, boy, I wish I could do that.

And I was like 13, 12, 14. Yes, I was just — you know, I was in grade school.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you, in a sense, create your voice, I mean, that famous — the falsetto, the sweetness of the voice, but also has the kind of rawness of soul?

AL GREEN: Yes.

Well, some lady asked me the other day, well, do you have to drink hot tea?

(LAUGHTER)

AL GREEN: I said, no, ma’am. Well, do you have to do a training, something, exercise before you sing? I said, no ma’am.

(LAUGHTER)

AL GREEN: Well, what do you do? I says, I don’t do anything. I let it alone.

JEFFREY BROWN: You let it alone?

AL GREEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s in there somewhere?

AL GREEN: Yes, it’s in there somewhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so you sort of became Al Green in some way.

AL GREEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it becoming Al Green or becoming yourself?

AL GREEN: No, I was in San Antonio, Texas. And I made a vow, and that’s what started all that, that I would work. And when I work, I work as hard as I can every time, no matter if I’m sick, I’m well, I don’t feel good, whatever. I think the audience deserves to see the best there is, and that’s why, on stage, I’m an ass-kicker.

(LAUGHTER)

AL GREEN: That’s right.

(LAUGHTER)

AL GREEN: I always kick ass.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is the key to soul music? What is the appeal? What is it you that think grabs people?

AL GREEN: I think the sincereness, the rawness of the soul, especially Otis Redding. He sings so — and that’s very hard to sing like that. It’s very difficult.

You should try it Jeff. It’s: (singing): I have been loving you.

And you could just go walk — walking on the stage and everybody will fall out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, my wife has heard it. I think we will probably leave it at that.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: OK?

AL GREEN: OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

There was a certain point in your career, and your career was soaring.

AL GREEN: Yes. We was on a 48-day tour over in London, and England, the U.K., and when I came back to America, all the girls were shouting and screaming, and jumping up on the stage.

And I said get back, get back. What’s wrong with you? And I was asking, what’s wrong with these people? And he says, don’t you now that your music is on everywhere? They’re playing it. You’re a star. I says, star?

JEFFREY BROWN: But then there was a point in your life where you decided — you turned back to religion. You decided not to record soul anymore. Was it…

AL GREEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why? Was it you just felt you couldn’t?

AL GREEN: Jeff, please.

Of course, I felt like I couldn’t, and I would have. But I was recreated, made over, changed from within to without, and that was in ’73.

JEFFREY BROWN: And was it hard for you originally to step away from that big life you had of celebrity and hit songs?

AL GREEN: Yes. Yes.

But I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know how I did it. I wouldn’t want to do it again, because it’s difficult. You know, you’re in a — Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you’re doing like a revival-type Christian set right here, and you’re in a theater, and the door is open, and people are coming by the door.

And it says Al Green at the top, and then they says, how much is it to get in? And they says nothing, it’s free, don’t nobody will come. If it’s free, nobody wants to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

AL GREEN: If it’s $600 a ticket, oh, give me four of those.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

AL GREEN: But if it’s free, nobody wants it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

AL GREEN: So, that was mind-boggling for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you describe in your autobiography here a kind of wrestling, split personality, and the different Al Greens that you have been wrestling with all your life. And you say — you even say here, “Most of the time, they can’t even stand living in the same skin, you know?”

AL GREEN: It’s the same personality, but it’s a different personality to see him on an R&B stage, and then to see him in the tabernacle.

JEFFREY BROWN: You — even just talking to me now, you refer to him.

AL GREEN: Yes, him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Al Green in the third person.

AL GREEN: Well, it’s just the character that you have to put with each individual instance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you — you know, we’re sitting here at the Kennedy Center.

AL GREEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re being honored for this lifetime achievement.

AL GREEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you look back…

AL GREEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … do you kind of see a clean path, or do you see a lot of twists and turns, where things could have gone different ways and…

AL GREEN: Hills and valleys, and everything else, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

AL GREEN: I had some low points, high points, all that, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

AL GREEN: I needed the low points to appreciate the high points, and I needed the high points to pull me out of the low points.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you surprised to be getting this honor?

AL GREEN: Yes.

I have been doing this 40 years. Nobody gave me a — nobody gave me much of anything. I had to work for everything I got.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

AL GREEN: Yes.

I had to, you know, knuckle down and work for it, yes. You know, that is the way they made me do it, yes. So to be getting this after singing for 40 years, you know, I’m happy and amazed about it. It’s just — I guess it’s good.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Al Green, thanks so much, and congratulations.

AL GREEN: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: I guess it’s good.

You can find our profiles of two of the night’s other honorees, Patricia McBride and Sting, online.

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