HarperCollins, 343 pp., $25
"I could tell you how to mix any kind of hard liquor you might have to make it go down smooth or how to brew up your own batch from a sack of potatoes. I could tell you the going price for a bag of weed just by smelling it or how your cocaine had been cut with a taste on the tip of my pinkie. I knew the best techniques for snorting, skin-popping, and mainlining, could show you how to raise a vein and keep your kit clean. And if you couldn't afford the good stuff, I knew every cheap high under the sun, from rug lacquer to airplane glue, nutmeg to cigarettes soaked in formaldehyde." Not exactly what one expects to hear from the Reverend Al Green these days, but as he admits often in Take Me to the River, his disarming, rags-to-riches autobiography, "Did I sin and then sin again? ... Of course I did. You would too."
If you were skinny little Albert Greene from the toothpick town of Jacknash, Ark., you just might. Poverty, hunger, having desperate parents steal you and your nine brothers and sisters away in the dead of night in order to escape modern-day slavery; that's what being a sharecropper's son in the South of the Forties and Fifties meant. Grand Rapids, Mich., on the other hand, up north around Detroit, was said to be booming with postwar industry.
Those were cold, mean streets for Albert, a "sensitive" boy who got kicked out of the family's tiny apartment by his daddy for listening to Jackie Wilson. Laughed at for wanting to be a singer in grade school, 18-year-old Al dropped out of high school, fell in love with a prostitute, and began his own vocal group, the Creations. Those were the days, 1965, when you could hop the train to Detroit and see Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and Four Tops -- the whole Motown stable -- along with world-class jazz. Al Green's first live gig -- fronting Jr. Walker's All-stars: "He lowered his shades to get a better look at me. I'd never seen anybody so cool, so sure of themselves and what they were doing, and I guess some of Jr. Walker's attitude must have rubbed off on me, because when I stepped up to the mike, all the nervous flutters in my stomach had disappeared. I knew who I was and I knew exactly what I was doing."
Amen, Reverend. "Back Up Train," nine encores at the Apollo, meeting Willie Mitchell in a Midland, Texas, roadhouse one down-and-out Christmas: Take Me to the River is the classic tale of a gospel singer gone secular ("Like Sam Cooke. Like Marvin Gaye"). Rather than winding up shot, however, Green gets badly burned with a pot of boiling grits and instead buys the farm -- the farm and the flock next door, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis where he still preaches every Sunday.
"Folks have called me the Last Great Soul Man," writes Green, his prose short on dish, smooth with sermon. And if the 2-CD Take Me to the River musical companion that was released simultaneously with the publication of Green's autobiography delivers any one message, it's that us sinners will forever miss Al Green here in the secular world.
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