It’s usually safe to call bullshit when a critic uses the phrase “late-career masterpiece,” so let’s just say that Lay It Down, Al Green’s latest effort for Blue Note Records, is comparable to the music that the Reverend recorded in his prime. It features guest spots from John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton, and production from the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. Some quarters chided Green for sounding too much like classic 1970s Al Green — as though that were a bad thing. Admit it: This is what you wanted. Swelling strings, sturdy brass and Green’s knee-buckling voice. He’s playing Saturday night at the Greek. Rest assured, the man still knows how to preach.
L.A. WEEKLY: Lay It Down has received your best reviews in decades and had the highest chart debut of your career. How did it feel to get such a positive response so late in the game, and what do you attribute it to?
AL GREEN: The big man upstairs, then all the people at Blue Note, from the chairman on down. We all sat down together and figured out the concept. A lot of folks worked on it, and you usually never get what you want, but the big man upstairs sent us Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend. Sometimes, when you get a bunch of big-name people together it can turn out so snobbish, but everyone was giving their all. Sheets of paper scattered all over the floor, trying to write eight songs in one night.
We had Spanky Alford there, who recently passed. He was such a great guitar player from Huntsville, Alabama. James Poyser played keyboards and John Legend was great. [Green breaks into song.] “Stay with me ... la-la-la stay with me.”
We’ve never had an album debut so high. Not even Let’s Stay Together or I’m Still in Love With You. It’s validating, because we’ve been working out here for 35 years, and you put something together and find out the people like it. It’s the people, man — we’ve been singing all these years and they get this stuff. They’ve been with it since “Tired of Being Alone,” and that was 1971. I had a guy come up to me today on the street and say, “I met my wife in law school, and we were listening to your music then and we still love it now.” So I can’t be nothing but humble and thankful.
Everybody said that I’d never be nothing. But the big man upstairs said, “Let me have him for a year or two and oh, man, you be as wise as you think you are.” My whole life was changed in 1972. I was lost for seven months. I was going to see people, preachers in the middle of the night. I was trying to get some footing, but the only thing I could find was the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the bomb. They get down, that choir. I was watching them Sunday and thinking they’re as good as ever.
You’re still preaching every Sunday?
Is it difficult to preach on Sundays and then go out and perform and live in a completely secular world? How do you find a balance between the two?
You have to keep sacred things as sacred things and the world/work things as work things. One night we might go to Orlando, Florida; the next, we might go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and hop on a 7 a.m. plane. You got to get up at 5:30. Everyone’s got to be downstairs in the bus, and it’s crazy on the road. We have 21 people traveling to perform Lay It Down. We do the new single, “Stay With Me”; we going to do “Standing in the Rain,” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” by the Bee Gees. Then I start fooling around, giving out the roses, and we start into “Let’s Get Married,” then it explodes into “Let’s Stay Together,” and then we do our thing with Otis Redding and then Sam Cooke, and then back into “Love and Happiness,” and then the gospel thing. Just two songs, but the audience goes wild. I guess everyone kind of knows the inclination of the direction we’re going. That’s why you really have to be inspired. We went into the studio at first just to meet one another, not to record; just to see if the chemistry was there. We went to meet at Electric Ladyland Studios, the old Jimi Hendrix studio, and during the meeting, one of these people got on the guitar and Ahmir [?uestlove] got on the drums and [Poyser] gets on the organ, and it was like when Moses came down and said, “What are you people doing, and why are you making a golden calf?” Then he threw the gold in the fire, and out came the calf.
What made you want to work with ?uestlove? Were you a Roots fan?
I met the Roots band in Trinidad, and we talked backstage about getting together in the studio and doing things. We left it at “Have your people call my people.” I had to go to a family reunion down in Orlando, Florida, business as usual. I’m always doing two things — both elements work for a while, then I’ve got to start something else. Anyway, we end up making the album, and then they took this single, and then the single goes up and here we are, riding Top 10 with a bullet. And our fans are, like, hooray, and meanwhile, I’m at the grocery store saying [sings] “La-la-la,” and people are, like, “Don’t touch the tomatoes.”
Was the chemistry naturally there between you guys?
It was really fresh. I’d never did anything with them and the first thing they said is, “You sing like Al Green, and let us do the music.” The more they tried to do the music, the more it sounded like 1973-74 Al Green; the more it sounded like the Willie Mitchell extension for Al Green in 2008. We cut it in February and it was like fresh cream. It feels like I just wrote the songs the other day in my mind.
Do you listen to any hip-hop? You’re one of the more frequently sampled artists in the genre.
There’s more to hip-hop than just trying to make everything rhyme, and you find out in life that everything don’t rhyme. The music they’re cutting is musically fantastic. I’ve seen and watched the hip-hop era, the R&B era, the jazz and soul-music era. Jazz was created in the U.S. Soul was created here. Gospel was created in the church. It all comes from this concept of Jimmy Smith, Eddie the saxophone player, Satchmo, the people who opened the door for all of us. Ray Charles. Aretha. Ella. Sarah Vaughan. Sly Stone, he’s up there. All the people on Stax and then Motown and all their groups, and Oakland and Chicago and then Philadelphia, and look what you’ve got, a history of health. We’ve created a gold mine.
It’s an election year. Have you been following politics?
I am, but it’s about more than registering to vote; I’ve been following the candidates. I figured that if we had to choose the woman president, she’d be the first woman president, and if we had the kid from Honolulu and the Harvard graduate, we’d have the first black president. They were both lawyers and they knew the law, and I saw Obama and said that he’s got some vision and that’s what a lot of people are latching on to. The guy’s got some vision. We can’t continue to spend 12 billion a month in Iraq just because someone wants to stick their nose in the barrel of a tank.
Looking back, are there any records you’ve cut that stand out as your favorites?
I think Let’s Stay Together is good. Al Green Explores Your Mind is really kind of a very personal record for me. I feel like the Greatest Hits is a homegrown remedy for love. I was on the plane the other day and a stewardess pulled out a picture of her blond-haired little girl and said, “Look what you made me do.” So I said, “I’m sorry, but you have a beautiful little daughter,” and she said, “Yes, she is,” and she put it right back in her purse and kept on serving people.
Al Green performs with Gladys Knight at the Greek Theatre on Saturday, September 20.