..around 4 a.m., October 17, 1974, when the last, great, sweet falsetto soul singer of the South eased into a bath after a long night of recording, he got a pan of boiling-hot grits poured on him by a spurned lover. The woman who chose grits as her revenge was 29-year-old Mary Woodson, just another notch in a long line of ladies, and not even the one who occupied the greater portion of Al Green's erotic imagination (that would have been Juanita, a whore he'd proudly pimped to white businessmen), nor the one who troubled him most at the time (that would have been Linda Wells, a former "secretary," who had charged him that summer of assaulting her with a bottle). In 1974 Al Green had behind him 20 million records sold and five consecutive hits. He had crooned and moaned the soundtrack the previous two years of American romance, with a voice later described as the "lovingest" ever to turn to the tradition of Southern soul.
So? Mary Woodson snuck into his Memphis split-level and found some grits boiling or boiled them herself while he washed and she came up on him just as he was getting out of the tub and dumped the whole pan on his skinny bones, that slinky S of biceps and pects and stomach later pictured on the "Greatest Hits" album beneath his strange, beautiful mug, the hangdog eyes and the missing chin and the teenage boy's beard and the earnest, love-me smile so at odds with the seduction of his bare-chested glory. She scalded it all. Shoulders, back, belly. Burning grits probably dripped down into every crevice. He must have bellowed, raw and deep, no falsetto when your skin is sizzling off of you. Mary Woodson had done what she'd come to Memphis do and so she went into the bedroom and retrieved Al Green's .38, and tried to shoot herself. She missed twice and got lucky the third time. The police found in her purse a note declaring her intentions and her reasons. "The more I trust you," she'd written, "the more you let me down."
Pretty much anyone who's ever heard "Love and Happiness" in a bar or in some cheesy movie or in an elevator knows some basic outline of this story. They know, too, about how Al Green understood the grits and the burns all over his body and the suicide of one of his conquests not so much as a sign that he had sinned, grievously, against a whole lot of females, but rather that God wanted him to raise up a church, which he did, the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis, which church he then filled with sacred music instead of sex music.
Not such a stretch as it might have seemed; Al Green grew up on gospel, started singing it at age nine in the tiny town of Jacknash, Arkansas, toured with his brothers until as a teenager he discovered Jackie Wilson, and his father discovered that he'd discovered Jackie Wilson, and kicked him out of the combo for listening to music that did not honor the Lord. A man inclined to read worldly events as divine portents might look at that expulsion from Godly music, into what became a spectacularly successful career of singing about fucking and loving and staying together and making it simmer a long time, as fated.
Al Green did not. Even as success thickened around him he lived a life of the blues and sang soul and somewhere deep in his heart, or in the back of his mind, or maybe down there in his crotch, saved up some piece of himself for his return to the gospel.
In greater or lesser detail, every Al Green fan knows this legend. They probably know, too, that Al Green is what is called, on therapeutic television, a "survivor." Consider his peers: Sam Cooke, shot to death by a motel clerk in 1964 after he'd barged into her office, half naked, searching for the girl he may or may not have raped minutes before; Marvin Gaye, shot to death at age 41 by his own father on April Fool's day, 1984; Otis Redding and his band gone down in a plane; the long, awful dwindling of Curtis Mayfield. Michael Jackson, who bears mentioning in the company of Al Green for the sake of his falsetto, has his own damn problems.
But Al Green -- the Reverend Al Green -- he survived. Everything, in fact, has worked out just splendidly. He lives modestly, in both the spiritual and sexual sense, in a house behind his church, which stands at 787 Reverend Al Green Road, just off Elvis Presley Boulevard. He still dances. "He wears out Bibles like he does shoes," one of his flock told a Memphis stringer for the A.P., on the occasion of his silver anniversary in the pulpit. After eight years in the gospel desert, his back turned on his hits, God has even given him leave to sing his early, sexy songs again. Al Green has lived to see himself ossified in Cleveland's Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, to cameo on Ally McBeal, to duet with Lyle Lovett. Starbucks canonization cannot be long in coming.
This is all as it should be, the artist as a comfortable older man. Maybe the best thing that ever happened to Al Green's career was that panful of boiling grits that burned him. The story has become a folktale. The grits are Al Green's crossroads, only instead of selling his soul to the devil, he gave his to God. Al Green did not gain knowledge of the world and its weaknesses, he abandoned it, left it behind when he checked out of the hospital, raw-skinned and born-again.