I met Florence and Don, a black couple, at a bar in Memphis. We got talking as you do and at some stage in the course of the conversation and evening, Florence said, "The reason our church services are so long is that once the spirit comes, we just want to keep on and live it. For many hundreds of years, religion was the only thing that gave us any hope." I was so focused on the thought of how despairing, how dreadful it must be to live without hope and how of course religion would be the only sanctuary and promise that kept one alive, that I completely missed the bit about `our church services are so long'.
I arrived at the Full Gospel Tabernacle at 11.45am on a hot Memphis Sunday morning. The taxi driver didn't even know Al Green, the great soul singer, had a church. I hoped, beyond hope that Al would be there. I had been a fan of his for many years and he was one of the reasons I was in Memphis. I had seen him in concert in Auckland in early 2010, and at that time, I felt I could die happy.
Walking into the foyer of the building, I noticed an older woman dressed in her Sunday best, trying to sellotape some notices on the wall. I asked if I could help her and we stuck up several together. Then I asked her if the Reverend Al Green would be in church that day. "Oh yes, he'll be along a little later." I was so excited.
By this time, I figured that the 11.00am church service wasn't going to start at 11.00am. I asked if there was anything else I could help with. "You just come with me, honey." No-one could resist an invitation issued like that. We entered into a room where the children would come to have something to eat after Sunday School. I was introduced to everyone; elderly men and women, younger people. They were folks who were poor, but today were dressed in the finest clothes they owned. I was pleased that I had packed a smart dress to wear as a show of respect to these lovely, friendly people. I ended up manning the donut table, handing out a huge variety of donuts to very polite and very shy children. Then it was church time.
As Sister Wanda led me out into the foyer again, I noticed a white guy who looked a little unsure and when I heard him speak, I knew he was either from Australia or New Zealand. It turned out to be Australia, so in true Anzac fashion, Rob and I joined forces and sat together in the church. As I looked around there one or two other small groups of tourists present. I found the whole set up fascinating. There were male Church elders looking very sleek and comfortable and who sat up on a slightly raised area in the front of the Tabernacle. They either dozed or whispered to one another, rings flashing. There was no altar; but there was a smoking hot band. It suddenly became crystal clear to me how soul, Memphis blues and R & B had their roots in the church. This band was extraordinary. The organist was incredibly talented and had got married only the day before. The choir, of about twenty, were just as fantastic.
Then the Reverend Al Green walked in. No one, except me and the other tourists, showed any sign of excitement. But there he stood in his white vestments, his face in a huge, almost childlike smile. This gentle, charismatic man was only twenty metres from me!
As in every church service, there is a time when announcements are made; information sharing of what is going on in the community. Sister Edith stood up and said `Now where's Helen? Helen stand up.' I got to my feet wondering where this was going to lead. Sister Edith told her congregation that that I had traveled all the way from New Zealand to help in their church. A little untrue, but when I saw Al Green smiling, waving and clapping me, I didn't care. I stood there as long as I could basking in his friendship and warmth. I was in Heaven.
So why do I like him so much? His singing, right from the start in the 70s, conveys a sexuality that is ever present, and as he says himself, even today, "I hear all the love notes." Everything goes into his singing, all the frustrations of everyday life and each song is a journey. His music as Nick Coleman wrote on one of Green's CD sleeve notes: "[Al Green's music is]…not only a testament to one man's genius but also.. a perfect diagram of soul's fundamental structure: that saucy double helix in which body and spirit are held in perpetual, aggravated tension; sex and spirituality in thorny embrace, to the root."
Al Green walked away from secular music in the late seventies- early eighties ( although he has recorded some soul albums since then) to concentrate on religion and spirituality. He has ministered at his Tabernacle since the early 80s. It's for that conflict between sexuality and religion and his own struggle with these warring factors, that I love his singing. Marvin Gaye is another soul singer that struggled with this dichotomy leading unfortunately, to his drug use. However, Al Green also deserves to be celebrated because he is almost the last of the great male soul singers of the 60s and 70s. Marvin Gaye, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Teddy Prendergast, many members of groups that came from Motown, Luther Vandross, Sam Cooke, Barry White, James Carr, Donny Hathaway to name a few have all passed on.
Three hours later, I whispered to Rob, did he want to leave? We glanced around and saw that all the other tourists had gone. We hesitated, and I said that I felt it would be rude to leave, so we stayed for another half an hour and then the service was over. The Reverend exited out a door and that was it. He never sang at all, but he is just as charismatic preaching as he is singing.
Rob had a car and was actually on his way to New Orleans, so he dropped me back in downtown Memphis and we went our separate ways, each of us so pleased we had stayed the three and a half hours and seen one of the greatest soul singers of our time. As Al himself would say `Love and Happiness.'