Al Green celebrated his 75th birthday Tuesday, and ever since, I’ve been tearing up my office in search of audio from an interview I did with the great Reverend and producer Willie Mitchell in 2003. They were talking up the Blue Note release I Can’t Stop, which was the first time they’d collaborated on secular music in 27 years.
I didn’t remember every detail about the interview, which took place in Mitchell’s wood-paneled office at Royal Studios in Memphis, except that it was crazy fun. We started with a tour; Mitchell explained that he configured the studio as it had been when Green and Mitchell made an indelible brand of soul in the 1970s, right down to the burlap bag covering Green’s microphone.
Finally found the minidisc (!) yesterday, and I still haven’t gone through it to hear the full conversation. That’s because I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of Al Green laughing. This clip below is the very beginning of the interview. I’ve just met the two, and am nervous, certainly. I’ve got pages of questions in front of me, and as I’m adjusting the levels (which, as you’ll hear, was a futile exercise), Green shares a bit of advice from his father that he’s carried throughout his life. Then Mitchell notices that I’m left handed. He tells me I’m writing with the wrong hand. I tell him it’ll be a long day if I have to write with my other hand. Green finds mirth in this and begins to riff. Pretty soon we’re all laughing. I love how Green, ever the veteran, then smoothly steers things into a discussion of the record, asking Mitchell the first question.
You expect a few minutes of (pleasant/innocuous) small talk at the start of interviews. After that, the conversation usually settles into a rhythm of volleys, thoughtful answers and (hopefully) interesting digressions. Green can’t resist upending that orderly ritual; he’s chuckling and laughing through the whole thing, his spirit so infectious it spreads to the rest of us. Responding to a question about the initial inspiration for one of the tunes, Mitchell says he doesn’t think endless jamming in the studio is a productive way to develop song ideas. Green takes that and runs with it.
Not going to lie: It has been a while since I heard someone laugh like that, with glee and abandon and wildcat energy. Thank you Mr. Al Green, musical titan, for that on top of the decades of inspiration. And Happy Birthday.
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