Book Review - “Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green” (by Jimmy McDonough)

Book Review
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“Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green” (by Jimmy McDonough) 

Few artists in the history of popular recorded music can lay claim to as unique and lasting of a legacy as Al Green. From a humble childhood in a remote farm area of Arkansas, he rose to become an internationally acclaimed performer and revered minister commanding stages over the course of more than four decades. Generation-defining records such as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “Love and Happiness,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” and “I’m Still in Love with You” have forever cemented his smoldering, subtly powerful voice and aching, yearning lyrics in the trenches of pop culture.

“Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green” (by Jimmy McDonough) 

Few artists in the history of popular recorded music can lay claim to as unique and lasting of a legacy as Al Green. From a humble childhood in a remote farm area of Arkansas, he rose to become an internationally acclaimed performer and revered minister commanding stages over the course of more than four decades. Generation-defining records such as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Tired of Being Alone,” “Love and Happiness,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” and “I’m Still in Love with You” have forever cemented his smoldering, subtly powerful voice and aching, yearning lyrics in the trenches of pop culture.

Jimmy McDonough’s new biography of Green, Soul Survivor, plunges far into the many colorful dimensions of the legend’s musical and personal life. Alongside thorough coverage of the recording sessions for his classic 1970s albums (including a wealth of quotes from the Hi players who instrumentally defined the sound of the hits) and the many collisions that accompanied his transition from R&B crooner to purveyor of the gospel, McDonough paints a detailed portrait of the history of chief Green collaborator Willie Mitchell while also offering fascinating glimpses into the volatile history of Green’s touring life and multiple marriages.

Young readers who are familiar with Green simply on the basis of his mega-hits and classic album covers will likely find Soul Survivor a thrilling rollercoaster of good and evil, passion and indifference. More mature audience members who know Al’s catalog in and out (and likely, are familiar with the controversies which swirled around his popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s) may well find themselves torn between strong feelings of admiration and despise. For, the dichotomy of the glowing discussions of Al’s masterful, almost mythical live performance magic and studio mastery and his apparently rampant disregard and contempt for his employees and loved ones makes for a furiously swinging pendulum of startling stories.

As a youngster, Green’s mom told him, “You gonna be a little different from the rest of the children.” His dad warned him, “You’re not gonna be worth a dime.” These strikingly contrasting sentiments imparted through his bloodline set the stage for an unpredictable series of professional and romantic contradictions that seem to permeate his essence to this day. Former Green bandleader Johnny Brown states that Al’s early career experiences left him feeling profoundly vulnerable—leading to a strong desire for payback. In the mid-‘70s, on the cusp of his conversion from soul to spiritual, Green would reveal that he had at one point expressed to God his desire for superstardom and was promised “everything I ever wanted, but that someday I’d have to pay for it.”

Shedding light on some of Green’s bewildering business practices, former band member Buddy Jarrett recounts an occasion when Al wanted his musicians to arrive four days early for a gig while paying for their own accommodations. Meanwhile, Brown recalls when he declined to give his band a slight pay raise after many years. When the players striked in response, he replaced them with the Bar-Kays—whom he payed double the rate. As for his religious philosophies, the complexity is equally deep. During the ‘80s, he lamented being “a prophet without honor in his own hometown.” Shortly before, he had told his congregation that God had informed him he would receive one-hundred dollars from one-hundred people. Bass player Reuben Fairfax recollects, “That didn’t go over so well…Then he said, ‘The Lord say two-hundred people gonna give me twenty dollars’.”

Considering the massive appeal of Green’s prime recordings to the female population at large, his relationships with women are of particular significance to McDonough’s examination of the man behind Al Green, the performer. His marriage in 1977 to Shirley Kyles is discussed in various stages, as is the ominous chain of circumstances concerning his adulterous relationship with Mary Woodson (whose apparent suicide caused Al to stop “bein’ popular for a long time with black people,” according to a former Hi Records promoter), and the various arrest warrants and criminal charges of alleged assault and battery of his wives and non-marital female companions.

As enthralling as Soul Survivor is, to categorize the book with other biographies of entertainers that qualify as leisure reading material would be deceiving. This is, from beginning to end, a detail-oriented, extremely ambitious in range historical account of a musical icon who has thrived on remaining mysterious from the beginning—albeit, not as bluntly as, say, Prince. The volume consistently shifts between thorough critical assessments of Al’s album cuts (the best and the worst, as McDonough is no-holds-barred in both his praise and condemnation) and primary- and third-party-sourced conversations about his work methods, internal struggles, and conflicting statements to both the press and those close to him. Indeed, McDonough makes clear in the beginning that much of the motivation for the book came from the patchy-at-best Green autobiography (2000’s Take Me to the River), which proved to offer paltry insight into his world. (River co-writer, Davin Seay, is quoted in chapter one on some of the problems which plagued the so-called “autobiography”).

Just as the “third-person Al” which Green personally refers to himself in and has discussions with is—to put it mildly—capricious, so is the content of Soul Survivor quick to veer within a page from editorial to chronicle, from references to obscure events and documents to extensive recollections of professional comrades. Given the elusive stance of both Green and so many of the players in his life story, there’d likely be no other way to cover his career and history without cutting corners. Just be prepared to reference the index a lot; then strap yourself in for a jolting ride of love, happiness, betrayal, cruelty, musical enrichment, and ultimately, loneliness. Recommended.

by Justin Kantor

 
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