Rev. Al Green's return to secular soul music

It doesn't take much to get Al Green - the Rev. Al Green, that is - up on his pulpit. Especially when the subject is love.

The most acclaimed soul singer since Ray Charles has seen love, experienced it and sung about it from many perspectives: as an R&B; sex symbol in the 1970s, as a reborn gospel singer and preacher in the '80s and '90s, and lately as a man who has struck a balance between the secular and the spiritual.


When Green decided last year to reunite with his longtime songwriting partner and producer Willie Mitchell - with whom he created some of the most enticing, sensual soul records ever in Let's Stay Together, Tired of Being Alone and You Ought to Be With Me - his first stop was his mother's house. Then he took their first secular album in 27 years, I Can't Stop, to his congregation.

"I played my album for them first, to see if there was any disapproval of it," Green, 58, says from his home in Memphis, Tenn. "They said, 'Al, you're singing about love,' and I said, 'Yeah, I'm singing about love between a man and a woman, a husband and wife, a girlfriend and boyfriend.' "


That starts the 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee on a roll, one that joins his inner preacher to his outer singer, the one who excels at bringing a song up, down and back up again emotionally through a masterful combination of instinct, craft and exceptional vocal dexterity.

For many years after a remarkable string of pop and R&B; hits in the '70s, he rejected secular music as part of a hedonistic past that led him to devote himself to his church. But he has since tempered that view in a way that allows him to explore themes of love.

"I've been a minister and preacher for 28 years, so it's not that I don't know how to be faithful to my calling," he says. "But I understand that people got to love life and love also, therefore it's all right to live, and it's all right to love, if you're doing it with the right intention. And the intention is to make something of your love, make it genuine, make it real, make it a covenant.

"Every day can't be Sunday," he says, his chuckle giving way to a buildup of emotional intensity and tempo as he continues. "There's Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday too. You've got to sing about life, and life has its ups and downs. I see couples who've been together for a couple of years and one of them starts thinking 'I can walk away; I ain't got much time invested in this.'

"So I'll sing 'Let's stay together, through times good or bad,' " he says. "Just because you burned the pancake doesn't mean I have to get in the Mustang, spin the tires and peel away. We're singing about all that."

I Can't Stop is up for two Grammy Awards - R&B; album and traditional R&B; vocal performance (for the title track) - and seems to have let loose the floodwaters for Green and Mitchell. Their next album, Everything's OK, is finished, although it won't be released until March 15.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.