Sharps & Flats

From "Ha!" to "Hallelujah," the Rev. Al Green's gospel hits held onto the earthly sound of sweet salvation.

By Andy Battaglia
Published April 13, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Believe what you will about matters of faith, but when the Rev. Al Green sings, there simply must be a God. A voice so divine could not exist otherwise.

Green's power as a gospel singer, heard again and again on "Greatest Gospel Hits," begins with his history as one of the consummate soul men of the 1970s. As he poked around R&B's G spot, his holy trinity had more to do with sex, love and desire than fathers, sons and holy spirits. His quintessential soul hit, "Let's Stay Together" (1972), was an earthy opera delivered at an overwhelmingly sensual pitch. But even when his libretto was heavy on libido, his voice sounded as if it was searching for resolution well beyond mere earthly delights.

Green's relationship with gospel has always been a stormy one. At 18, he was thrown out of his own family's gospel group when his God-fearing father caught him listening to a Jackie Wilson record. (So secular!) Years later, after his remarkable success on the soul circuit and much wrangling over conflicted allegiances to both Saturday night and Sunday morning, he turned back to his religious roots.

The conversion came in the wake of a troubling incident in 1974, when a woman threw boiling grits at him and then committed suicide. The bizarre moment of transformation was about as Southern Gothic as they come. A hint of that darkness creeps its way into Green's gospel voice, which traces maps for shadows even when it's focused most directly on divine light.

In "Sweet Soul Music," a recently republished landmark book about '60s soul, author Peter Guralnick writes: "In gospel music ... a singer is often described as 'worrying' the audience, teasing it, working the crowd until it is on the verge of exploding, until strong men faint and women start speaking in tongues. This is commonly referred to as 'house wrecking.'" Green achieves this same kind of ecstatic effect on "Greatest Gospel Hits," but he doesn't wreck the house so much as dress it down by seducing each and every nail out of its framework. It can be a subtle, slow-rolling process, but one that could transform even the cagiest skeptic's world-weary "Ha!" to something much closer to "Hallelujah."

"Greatest Gospel Hits" compiles Green's varying degrees of godliness between 1974 and 1995. It grabs some especially shining songs from Green's own catalog as well as gospel standards like "Amazing Grace" and covers of "Lean on Me" and Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." Whether he's singing about a halo hovering over his baby on the early "God Blessed Our Love" or swearing that "no life is wasted when you're reborn" on "Straighten Out Your Life," he's in the business of making a believer out of anybody with even a sliver of soul. "You've got to be ready for the peace, love and happiness," he sings on "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," and even in his most repentant moments, he works to make sure you're right there with him.

The boundless wisdom of Green's God wasn't enough to steer him away from some unfortunate musical missteps in the '80s -- even Billy Ocean would blush over some of the synthesizer sounds and slap-happy bass here -- but Green's heavenly voice more than makes good on the promise of salvation. He begs and pleads, writhing between winged falsetto and urgent growls that stop just short of shaking your shoulders until you've heard his message. Buy it or not, Green doesn't leave a lot of room for doubt.

Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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