Local Current Blog

Why I admire Al Green, by Sonny Knight

Al Green, as seen on the cover of his Greatest Hits collection; Sonny Knight, photographed in The Current studios by Nate Ryan for MPR

This February, The Current is celebrating Black History Month by celebrating four artists chosen by our listeners: Al Green, Nina Simone, Tina Turner, and John Coltrane. We’ll be playing their music on the radio, and we’re asking local artists to share their thoughts on these great African-American musicians. Today, Sonny Knight writes about Al Green.

Back when I was a kid in Mississippi during the 1950s, gospel music was my favorite music. I’ll never forget when the Five Blind Boys of Alabama would come to town. My little partners and I would get together after the show and try to sing like them. None of us really knew how to sing, but I think we were just trying to get that feeling. When I got a little older I moved far away from the churches that gave me that music.

By 1972, I was living in Oakland, California. That’s when Al Green put out his I’m Still In Love With You album. After many years away, it brought that feeling back to me. For those who haven’t spent any time in church, it might be a little hard to understand how powerful that music is. But Al Green…he gets it. He started singing gospel music when he was just a little kid—but he also got into mainstream artists like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, who both started as gospel singers. You can hear all of that in Green’s music.

The same year I’m Still In Love With You came out, movies like Superfly were getting popular. Lots of black folks tried to act like what they saw in those movies. It was like all of the sudden I saw cats wearing lots of flashy clothes and jewelry. That was cool, but a lot of people took it too far by picking up on the bad stuff from those movies…dealing drugs and all that sort of thing.

Then, here comes Al Green with Still In Love. He had that cool style—the rings, bracelets, suits, and all that—but he was bringing a positive message. The songs weren’t gospel songs, but they were very uplifting and had that feeling to them. I think it was something black folks at the time really needed.

After I’m Still In Love With You, Green continued to put out mainstream music until 1980, when he began exclusively recording gospel music (a decision said to be influenced by a traumatic event involving his ex-girlfriend in ‘74). In the 90s he returned to secular R&B. Unlike most musicians his age, he recorded some of his best material 40 years after his first album (check out 2008’s Lay It Down, produced by ?uestlove). This is something I found very inspiring when Eric [Foss, co-owner of Secret Stash Records] asked me to record my first album ever at the age of 65.

Like a lot of musicians, when I hear something I like, I try and mix a bit of it into my style—but the first time I heard Al Green’s falsetto, I said to myself, “Man, this is cool, but I’ll never be able to sing like that. I’m gonna have to stay in my lane and just admire that one from a distance.”

In addition to being one of the baddest singers in the world, Green is also a brilliant songwriter. He wrote or co-wrote several songs (“Love and Happiness,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Tired Of Being Alone,” and many more) that have come to define soul music.

Live, he’s a powerhouse. He has this cool way of sort of leaving the song. He’ll go off into some talking thing and his band just keeps chugging along. Then…BAM! He’s right back in the tune. It’s exactly like watching the preacher back home when I was a kid. He’s completely in charge on stage. It’s very powerful to watch.

Today Al Green is the pastor of a church in Memphis and I hear that he still gives sermons, and of course sings. I’m getting ready to record my next album with the Lakers and have been thinking a lot lately about sort of reconnecting with my roots before getting deep into the writing process. I’m planning a trip back down to Mississippi—and after writing this, I’ve decided to try and tack a visit to Mr. Green’s church in Memphis on to that trip. I think I’m a little past due for that old-time feeling.

Last year Sonny Knight released his debut album, I’m Still Here, to critical and popular acclaim. Hear Sonny Knight and his band the Lakers perform a set in The Current’s studios.