Al Green’s Soul-Filled Gospel
The choir has sung, a five-member band has played, and the preacher has risen from his high-backed leather chair. And now, after the organist delivers a single, gut-quaking chord, the Reverend Al Green, 63, enters and approaches the pulpit. He wears a red-trimmed black bishop’s robe and flashes the electric, toothy smile that once caused female fans to swoon at his steamy soul concerts.
He screams into the microphone before turning to his seat at the front of the choir. The crowd is jolted to its collective feet. This may be church, but Rev. Green is still a masterful showman, and this is one of his last appearances before the dreaded slow-cook of summer arrives.
The man who left the top of the soul and pop music charts more than three decades ago after being badly scalded by a bitter and love-sick girlfriend still has every bit of voice he had during his superstar years. And today, 32 years since he founded his own church in south Memphis, Green still flaunts the charisma he had during his heyday.
“He’s an excellent speaker,” says Earline Reynolds, an elderly longtime church member. “But above all, his singing keeps me coming around.”
The band ratchets up the intensity. Green gets up and screams soulfully. He does it again. People in the pews start swaying, clapping and dancing. Congregants shout “amen” and “praise the Lord” with each surge of music and emotion. A woman in the front row convulses in a rapture bordering on hysteria, tears streaming down her face.
The organist blasts another chord and holds it as the guitar and drums riff rhythmically. Green jumps back to the pulpit, pounding his fist to the beat.
“Go ahead sister. Let God have his way,” he screams. “Forget about what’s in the church program. I feel something in this house today. I feel the Lord in this house.”
Green plays. He toys. He teases. He preaches the word of God. He sings “I Saw the Light” by country great Hank Williams, but not straight through. Every few bars he interrupts himself by incongruously belting out, “Yee-haw.”
“You’re in the South now,” he says in a sing-song voice. “This is the only church in America where you’ll hear yee-haw. You see, we can do whatever God wants. When you own your own church, you can do what you want.”
The Full Gospel Tabernacle Church stands about mile down Hale Road in a neighborhood just five minutes from Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion. The magnolias on Hale are in full bloom and the aroma of Sunday barbeque fills the air. Jesus is waiting.
Part church service, part gospel concert, Green turns over the stage to his rousing choir and a succession of female soloists. He gives a nod to his band as they kick up the energy. “Give them a hand. I know they’re expensive, but God deserves the best.”
Just as the room seems ready to explode, Green turns down the temperature and introduces Sister Edith Wilkins, who reads the announcements: Vanetra Macklin will graduate from Whitehaven High School. Anyone wishing to donate to the food bank can contact Sister Josephine. The juvenile court ministry meets every third Saturday except for May. It’s a reminder that the Full Gospel Tabernacle—despite being led by a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member—is a neighborhood church.
The service is Evangelical, but leans toward Pentecostal. Church elders place golden collection plates on a wooden platform in front of the pulpit and greet those who make offerings. There is a laying of hands as a young man in a white t-shirt is baptized and his mom is blessed. But there are plenty of casual touches, too. Green asks guests in the pews where they’re from. Today, there are visitors from Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans.
Green’s one-hour sermon veers from untethered emotion, to humor, to an intense stage whisper. He intermittently breaks into song, and the church band launches into melody at the first sign of Green’s characteristic, honey-dipped falsetto. But it’s more of a tease than a true display of the pipes that created chart-toppers such as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me,” and “Take Me To The River.” Still, his voice tickles the soul like a feather. The entire sensory and spiritual effect is over the top.
Earline Reynolds, the longtime church member who comes mainly for the singing, dances throughout the entire service.
Steve Heath is a recent graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans. This is his second story for NewsPlink. His first was on juke joints of the Mississippi Delta.
Photography by Michael Perlstein except where noted otherwise.