Al Green Takes a Stand: Live at Full Gospel Tabernacle, Memphis, TN, 1 June 1997 (mp3)
Sunday morning in Memphis and I am in my truck heading down Elvis Presley Blvd. I pass Graceland. I always pass Graceland. No need to stop and hang out with a dead guy’s things when not too far down the road lots of life lurks. I get to Hale and take a right. A quarter mile down, past rows of houses, I see Al Green’s church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle. I pull into the parking lot, slick my hair back and get out of my truck.
I’ve been on the road for three weeks, going town to town digging for books and records, and I look like I’ve been on the road for three weeks. I try to straighten my shirt. I wet my fingers and crease my pants. I take a rag out of the truck and give my shoes a quick shine. I am going to church so I need to look presentable. The reflection in the truck window shows a someone who looks tired and in need of a shower & shave. Good enough. I walk toward the church.
In the parking lot, I am greeted by a tall, well dressed Black man. He asks if I am here for the service. I tell him that I am and he directs me toward the front door. A rotund man at the door, greets me, asks me where I am from, and shakes my hand. He tells me everyone is welcome at the Full Gospel Tabernacle. I make my way inside and take a seat in the back with a small number of other visitors.
Al Green’s church is not what one would expect from the 1970s love man soul superstar. My first visit to the Tabernacle, I was shocked to find a very modest building, one that holds no more than 400 people. Nothing is ornate, nothing ostentatious: The Full Gospel Tabernacle is more municipal hall than Crystal Cathedral. The church is about two-thirds full and about a quarter of those present are visitors, folks from out of town or tourists there to see the great Al Green. This is my second time there so I count myself as a visitor.
My first visit to the Reverend Al’s church came two days after his 50th birthday. My friend Kirk and I got to the church at 9 am and didn’t leave until 2 pm. The Reverend had a lot to say that day and we were ready to hear him. Our five hour experience left us so high that we were this close to becoming born again. (Un)fortunately, Knoxville was our next stop and waiting for us there was a friend with a $50 bill and the words “As much Tennessee whiskey you wanna buy.” The Devil won that round.
Today, I have no temptation from either Satan or God. I am here just to hear the man do his thing. This time I brought a tape recorder. I want more than the memories and a handshake from the Reverend. I want to hear him preach in the leisure of my own home.
The front doors close at 9 am and the band starts to ramp up. The band is small - bass, guitar, organ, and drums. The guitarist is the same fellow who greeted me in the parking lot and old enough to be the other musicians father. The kid behind the organ is so young that his feet barely reach the peddles. Up on a small stage is a choir of about 10 women. They are humming and swaying. Every once in a while one of them calls out and the large women in the pews respond with a “Oh yeah.” and a “Mmm hmmm That’s the word.” During the first fifteen minutes the band jams while the choirmaster screams the gospel in a style that makes Tina Turner sound genteel. As the choir quiets, the large gentleman who was greeting people at the door takes the stage and starts to vamp. He is intense. Excited, his speech is rapid fire and I can’t understand a word. After about 15 minutes, the Reverend Green walks on to the stage and waits for the large man to finish his harangue. Done, Al grabs the mike.
Al Green is a professional showman. It doesn’t matter if he is singing love songs or preaching the gospel, the man knows how to work a crowd. He paces himself. He builds tension, breaks it with humor and whips back into a fury, letting the band ease his transition. I’ve seen Al Green in a regular concert setting and he is great. However, the Reverend Al Green at the pulpit is him at his best. But why give you a blow by blow when I have an excerpt of the audio I recorded. The energy of Al Green is well captured there. What is missing, though is the energy of Al’s flock. Words or tape can not explain the sight of people speaking in tongues, of very large women, possessed by the Spirit, flopping around on the floor, of a couple hundred people stamping their feet, clapping their hands, and dancing. And nothing but being there can prep you for Al Green jumping on a table and dancing. A visit to the Full Gospel Tabernacle is an experience I urge everyone to undergo.
This portion of Al Green’s sermon was recorded on a small Realistic
cassette recorder, on June 1, 1997. The excerpt here is 25 minutes of
two hours worth of tape.