Soul Survivor: Al Green’s Tragic Troubled Journey

Al Green has blessed listeners with some great tunes over the years. With songs like Take Me to the River, Let’s Get Married, and I’m Tired of Being Alone, Green has an unparalleled body of work that has everyone calling him one of the greatest soul artists of all time. On the outside, Green seems happy, and why wouldn’t he?

Al Green posing with his finger on his ear / Al Green with his arms spread about to greet someone excitedly / Al Green performing in 1973 / Al Green with his three daughters on stage in 2010 / Al Green and Eric Clapton posing backstage / Al Green holding roses on stage in 2010
Photo by GAB Archive, Redferns, Getty Images / Jeff Kravitz, FilmMagic Inc, Getty Images / Michael Putland, Getty Images / Don Arnold, WireImage, Getty Images / KMazur, WireImage, Getty Images / Lisa Maree Williams, Getty Images

The music icon has sold over 20 million albums worldwide, and numerous rappers and singers have sampled his songs. But underneath the surface is a man that few people understand. From his broken relationship with his father to what really happened that fateful night in 1974, we take a look at Reverend Al Green’s tumultuous life.

Humble Beginnings

Before he was known as Al Green, the singer went by his biological name, Albert Greene. He was born in April 1946 in Forrest City, Arkansas. The future crooner was the sixth of ten children! Not only were his siblings like his built-in best friends growing up, but they provided the push that Green needed to launch his music career.

A portrait of Al Green smiling / A portrait of Al Green in 1969
Al Green 1969. Photo by Gilles Petard, Redferns, Getty Images / RB, Redferns, Getty Images

When Green was around ten years old, he and his siblings created a gospel music group called the Greene Brothers. They began performing all around Arkansas on the gospel music circuit. Although he sang in a gospel group, Green had a love for both gospel and secular music, which would help him in the future.

Moving On Up

Even at a young age, Green knew that passion, not a specific genre, was the secret ingredient for making great music. “Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson—I didn’t make distinctions between spiritual and secular music to any great extent back then,” Green told author Arnold Shaw. “If they sang with feeling, from their hearts, I loved the music.”

Al Green playing the guitar circa 1970
Photo by GAB Archive / Redferns / Getty Images

When the musician was 12 years old, his family packed up their things and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan—a city that sits about 180 miles from Detroit. It was there that Green’s career began to take off. When he was 16 years old, he and several friends from high school formed a pop group called The Creations.

Problems at Home

But this move to pop music did not sit too well with Green’s deeply religious father. Unfortunately, the singer was kicked out of his house after being caught listening to Jackie Wilson one too many times. “[I listened to] Mahalia Jackson, all the great gospel singers.”

Al Green posing for a portrait
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

“But the most important music to me was those hip-shakin’ boys: Wilson Pickett and Elvis Presley,” Green told New York Magazine in 2005. “When I was 13, I just loved Elvis Presley. Whatever he got, I went out and bought.” With nowhere else to go, Green moved in with a lady of the night and began hustling to make some extra cash, according to Vibe magazine.

Doing What He Does Best

Being kicked out of his family’s home gave Green even more motivation to pursue his music career. A few years later, the musician’s pop group, now named Al Green and the Soulmates, recorded the pop hit Back Up Train. The song was a huge hit with audiences, peaking at number five on the R&B charts and number 41 on the Billboard charts.

Al Green performing on stage holding a rose
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Despite their success, the group was unable to release another hit song and eventually disbanded. It was clear to everyone, however, that Green had a gift. He just wasn’t sure about which direction to go next. All he knew was that he wanted to keep singing. Then, in 1968, Green finally got his big break.

Meeting His Match

It all began when Green performed at a nightclub in Midland, Texas. Luckily, that night he was backed by bandleader and trumpeter Willie Mitchell, who was blown away by Green’s talent. “I was playing a gig out there, and he said I had a pretty voice,” Green told reporters from The Houston Chronicle.

Al Green posing for a portrait in front of an old building / Willie Mitchell posing with his trumpet
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images / Gilles Petard, Redferns, Getty Images

“I said, ‘OK, alright.’ I came back the next night and did a show with him.” Besides performing, Mitchell also worked as a part-time talent scout and producer for Hi Records in Memphis, Tennessee.

Finding His Voice

Mitchell believed that Green would be a perfect addition to the label. So, he invited the singer down to Memphis, Tennessee, to record an album, with the promise that Green would be a star in a year from now. About six months after their first encounter, Green followed up on Mitchell’s offer.

Al Greene posing for a portrait sitting in an office
Photo by Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

The producer noticed that Green was trying too hard to sing like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. So, Mitchell became Green’s vocal mentor and is often credited for helping the singer find his own voice. What came next was a completely new sound.

A New Sound

In the studio, Mitchell put together a stellar lineup of musicians to perform back-up music and vocals. Mitchell and Green’s goal was to create something new, and boy did they succeed.

Al Green posing for a photograph
Photo by Ginny Winn / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

“Together, Green and Mitchell sought to forge a style that combined the pop-soul of Detroit’s Motown with the down-home soul of Memphis’ Stax [label], aiming for a black-white synthesis that blended black soul with white pop,” Shaw explained in the book Black Popular Music. This edgy, new sound proved to be exactly what audiences wanted to hear.

The One to Watch

In 1968, the Green-Mitchell collaboration released a cover of the Beatles’ I want to Hold Your Hand and their own version of Hayes-Porter’s song, One Woman. It was clear to everyone that these guys were on to something.

Al Green posing for a portrait
Photo by Charlie Gillett Collection / Redferns / Getty Images

However, it wasn’t until Green recorded his rendition of The Temptations’ I Can’t Get Next to You that the musician established himself as “the one to watch” in pop. For Green’s next single, Mitchell tried a different approach. “We started working, trying to get him to sing softer,” the producer explained to The Chicago Tribune.

Tired of Being Alone

But when the two began coming up with jazz chords, everything clicked. “[It was] pretty music on top and heavy on the bottom,” Mitchell continued. Tired of Being Alone, his next single became Green’s first smash hit as a pop star.

Al Green performing on a TV show
Photo by Tony Russell / Redferns / Getty Images

This track was included on Green’s 1971 album, Green Gets Next to You, which also included the singer’s gritty track, I Am Ram, as well as his cover of Driving Wheel by Roosevelt Sykes. While this album was great, most of the tracks were written or originally performed by established artists like Sykes, The Doors, and Bert Burns.

Cracking the Code

It wasn’t until Green’s third album, Let’s Stay Together, that he and Mitchell finally cracked the code. “We just tried stuff, just me singing stuff, and him getting a feel for my voice,” Green told reporters in 2019. “It started pretty simple. Stand at that mic there, and let’s see how it sounds.”

Patti LaBelle, Ruby Keeler, and Al Green posing during a performance / Patti LaBelle, Al Green, and Ali MacGraw posing together
Patti LaBelle, Ruby Keeler, and Al Green (left). Patti LaBelle, Al Green, and Ali MacGraw (right). Photo by Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty Images

“That’s how it started, really.” When asked about the specifics of his success, Green prefers to keep them secret. But whatever it was, it worked. After the release of Tired of Being Alone (which became Green’s first track to be certified gold), the musician released seven more gold singles within the span of three years.

Turning Into Gold

As time went on, Green began to explore the hidden nooks and crannies of his voice. He soon discovered that he could reach high notes and sing them with just as much passion as a low murmur. Green’s voice had always been there, but with Mitchell’s help, he finally learned how to use it.

Al Green posing for a portrait
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The album’s title track was Green’s biggest hit to date, reaching number one on both the R&B charts and the Billboard Hot 100. By now, it seemed like whatever Green touched turned to gold. He released hit after hit, including Take Me to the River (which was famously covered by The Talking Heads).

That Fateful Day

Green’s momentum continued through 1973 and into 1974. Everything seemed to be going well on the outside, but behind the scenes, Green’s life was unraveling by the day. Then, in 1974, events in his personal life completely derailed his career.

Al Green posing in an armchair circa 1975
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

In love, there’s payback and back pay. Payback is temporary, like a spilled drink in the face after a horrible fight. Back pay is worse. It is an act of violence so bad that its ramifications are felt forever. On October 18, 1974, Green’s life was changed forever when his girlfriend, Mary Woodson, did the unthinkable.

Cooking Up Some Grits

As 28-year-old Green was getting ready to go to bed, Woodson was downstairs in the kitchen, where she began to cook up a pot of grits. To get them to the right consistency, grits have to be stirred for at least ten minutes.

Al Green posing for a portrait in an outdoor chair / A portrait of Mary Woodson
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images / Source: Twitter

It was well after midnight, and the dinner dishes had already been cleaned. It was clear that these grits were not going to be served on a plate. Still boiling and sticky, Woodson walked to the upstairs level of her lover’s 21-room mansion on the outskirts of Memphis.

Doing the Unthinkable

Before coming home, Woodson had been at the recording studio with Green and his friend, Carlotta Williams. For one reason or another, Green decided to shut the recording session down early and invited both Williams and Woodson back to his home as his guests for the night.

Al Green sitting in his office behind a desk
Photo by Ebet Roberts / Redferns / Getty Images

While Woodson got ready for bed in one of Green’s spare bedrooms, the musician was unwinding in his bathtub after a stressful day, completely oblivious to what Woodson had in store for him. Before he knew what’s coming, Woodson walked into the bathroom and threw the pot of boiling grits at Green.

Only Half the Story

The porridge stuck to Green’s back, stomach, and arms, and he let out a scream that could be heard around the house. He ran out of the bathroom and jumped into a different shower, where Williams tried to wipe the grits off his back. But this violent act was only half the story.

Al Green posing for a portrait
Photo by Echoes / Redferns / Getty Images

Soon after, Woodson took her own life. According to her autopsy report, three shots were fired at around 1:50 a.m., but more than two hours passed before the police were called. The medical examiner was summoned at 4:50 a.m. and promptly declared Woodson dead.

She Did What?

Decades later, Al Green’s story of boiling grits has become a lyrical tradition in the music world. Wu-tang Clan, R. Kelly, and Usher have all referenced the incident in their music while people around Memphis make jokes about Green getting his back pay. However, most people only know half the story.

Al Green sitting behind a desk signing autographs
Photo by Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

“She died?” a Memphis-native asks when questioned about the incident. “I never heard that part of the story in my life. I gotta ask my mama about that.” Woodson’s oldest son, Barry Rogers, often hears people making jokes about his mother, not knowing that he is sitting right there.

So Many Questions

One time, one of Roger’s co-workers began talking about “the b**ch who threw grits on Al Green” right in front of him. Rogers didn’t have the energy to tell her that that woman was his own mother. Rogers was just eleven years old at the time of Woodson’s death.

Al Green on stage smiling, reading a note during a performance
Photo by David Corio / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

As he grew older, he realized that he was just as uninformed as everyone else was about his mother’s life. As Rogers and the rest of his family began to question everything, they were certain about one detail of Green’s story: She had doused Green with boiling grits.

“That Was Her Character”

“She definitely did that. That was her character,” Woodson’s sister Jo James told Vibe magazine. By all accounts, Woodson was personable, attractive, and aggressive. She always dressed to kill and had no problem changing her hair color every week.

Al Green posing with another man laughing
Photo by Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

“I always think that she was ahead of her time,” Woodson’s brother, Jerry Evans, told reporters in 2004. “She was on top of the latest everything. Once anybody met her, they fell in love with her.” According to her family, Woodson used this to her advantage and began partying with the decade’s top musicians.

Catching Green’s Eye

It seems that Woodson’s love for partying stemmed from her need to escape the confines of home life and young motherhood. Before her second marriage to electrician Raymond Woodson, the mother of three had had a string of bad relationships, marked with infidelity.

Al Green and Ali McGraw on the red carpet together
Al Green and Ali McGraw. Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd / Ron Galella Collection / Getty Images

How Woodson and Green began dating isn’t exactly clear. In Green’s 2000 autobiography, he says that he first met Woodson while performing at a benefit concert at a New York prison. Woodson, who was visiting a friend at the prison, immediately caught Green’s eye.

A Sense of Mystery

Woodson’s family, however, insists that the two first met backstage at a concert in New York City. Regardless of how and where the two were first introduced, one thing was for sure: Green was smitten. “She was the kind of woman that when you first saw her, you’d take a look, then a second, and then a third.”

Al Green performing and reaching out to greet fans in the audience in 1981
Photo by Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

“And then, after a while, your eyes would just become accustomed to turning her way,” Green wrote in his autobiography, Take Me to the River. But it wasn’t just Woodson’s looks that attracted Green—it was the sense of mystery surrounding her.

Their Long-Distance Affair

Her mood swings were something that Green had never experienced before. “To me, that just added to the mystery,” the musician wrote. The two began a full-fledged, long-distance love affair right after that first encounter.

Al Green in a pinstripe suit
Photo by Fotos International / Getty Images

The mother of three reportedly spent hours on the phone with Green while her husband Raymond was away at work. The singer even sent flowers and champagne to the Woodson family home, not knowing that she was a married woman with kids. Along with her other life, there was something else that Green was unaware of.

Woodson’s Troubled Life

Woodson had been battling some major demons her entire life. She frequently spoke with her family about taking her own life and was being treated by a psychiatrist at the time of the incident. Woodson had been in Memphis for a week before taking her own life.

Jo James, Darnell Evans, Irene Evans (Mary’s mother), Ed Evans, Mary Woodson, Jerry Evans, and Kat Miles posing together for a photograph
(Left to right) James, Darnell Evans, Irene Evans (Mary’s mother), Ed Evans, Mary Woodson, Jerry Evans, and Kat Miles. Source: Twitter

It had become clear to her family that she was unraveling and fast. She apparently swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and had to get her stomach pumped just days after assaulting Green. Then, the night before, Woodson was arrested for smoking marijuana.

Will You Marry Me?

According to Green, Woodson had brought up the idea of marriage just hours before her death, but he was not interested in spending the rest of his life with her. The autopsy report, as well as Woodson’s suicide note, made for what seemed like an open-shut case.

Al Green posing for a portrait as if he is singing into his fist
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

However, there are some aspects of the story that still raise questions for Woodson’s family. According to the medical examiner, Green and his houseguest Carlotta Williams heard three shots but waited a full two hours before calling the police. Why? Well, it does make sense that Green was too preoccupied with his own serious injuries.

More Unanswered Questions

It also makes sense that after hearing gunshots, Green was scared and locked himself in a room. However, three bullets were found at the scene from two different guns. Green later claimed that the third bullet was from an incident that happened a week before.

Al Green performing in 1999
Photo by Frans Schellekens / Redferns / Getty Images

He was cleaning a different gun of his when it accidentally went off. Before the police arrived at Green’s home, he was already in an ambulance on his way to the hospital. The sheriff’s department later tested Green’s hands for gunpowder residue, but the test returned negative.

Making a Full Recovery

One of the first people to see him after the incident was Willie Mitchell. “He saw me and grabbed my hand,” Mitchell said of Green. “I said, ‘Man, did you kill that girl?'” Green was adamant that he did not. The singer remained in the hospital for weeks.

Al Green signing autographs in 1974
Al Green signing autographs for LA County Sheriffs 1974. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

After receiving skin grafts on his back, Green was finally on his way to making a full recovery, physically speaking. Mentally, it was a completely different story. “It was catastrophic to endure because I really, really loved her,” Green told Vibe magazine in 2004.

Changing His Ways

In the years following Woodson’s death, it became clear to Green that he needed to change his way of life. “He likes to distance the facts of his [religious] conversion from the terrible events of that night,” author Davin Seay later said.

Al Green performing in 1973
Photo by Michael Putland / Getty Images

“But I think the Woodson incident kind of crystallized his need to move on, to sort of shut down one part of his life and open up another.” Green interpreted the incident as a sign that he should return to his religious roots. By 1976, less than two years after that fateful night, Green was an ordained paster with his own church in Memphis.

Not Giving Up Pop

Although Green began to pursue religion, he hadn’t completely given up pop music—yet. He released three new albums between 1975 and 1976, but they were all a commercial flop. Disco was now taking over, and there seemed to be no room for Green’s soul sound.

Al Green holding an Emmy Award in 1983
Photo by Chris Walter / WireImage / Getty Images

In an attempt to break free from his slump, Green broke off his working relationship with Mitchell and opened up his own recording studio, American Music. Still, Green was unable to win over audiences with his new albums. Watching him perform, you would have never guessed that Green’s career was slipping through his fingers.

What a Sight!

Green often wandered around the stage, sometimes letting the tension slip, and then suddenly, he would erupt into song and dance. Of his most notable performances was in 1978 on the Chicago-based program called Soundstage.

Al Green performing circa 1980
Photo by Mike Prior / Redferns / Getty Images

Throughout the entire set, Green appeared to be afloat, bouncing on his toes to the music’s beat and smiling at the camera. Then, suddenly, he drives his song into a frenzy, takes a long pause, and then revs it up again. Sweat dripping down his face, Green removes his glasses and shakes his head like a rag doll.

Another Sign From God

“I don’t know where that came from,” he said once the song was finished. Fans were probably thinking the same thing. It was clear that Green was inching towards turning his back on secular music and embracing a church career.

Al Green performing while holding a rose
Photo by Frans Schellekens / Redferns / Getty Images

Then during a concert in 1979, Green received what he called another sign from God. During the performance, Green fell off the stage. While he made it out with only a few scrapes and bruises, the singer could have nearly been severely injured. After that night, Green retired from secular music and devoted himself to preaching.

A Troubled Relationship

Three years after Woodson’s death, Green married his first wife, Shirley Green. Originally from Chicago, Shirley was one of the singer’s backing vocalists as well as an employee at his church. Shirley moved into Green’s 21-room mansion in Memphis—the same one where Woodson took her own life just a few years before.

Al Green with celebrities and artists on the red carpet in 1982
Photo by Ebet Roberts / Redferns / Getty Images

The following year, Shirley filed for divorce on the ground of irreconciled differences and cruelty. The couple made up, but it was short-lived. In 1981, Shirley filed again, this time claiming that Green was abusive, even while she was pregnant with the first of the couple’s three children.

More Troubling Incidents

Green initially claimed that he did not lay a hand on Shirley. Then, in 1982, while under oath, Green admitted to striking her “but only once.” By the mid-’90s, Green reportedly remarried but has kept his second wife’s identity under wraps.

Al Green greeting a man and woman circa 1981
Photo by Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

He also still reportedly lives in that same mansion in Memphis. This was not the first or last time that Green was accused of domestic violence. In 1974, Green’s former secretary Linda Wills filed a $25,000 civil suit against the singer for pushing her through a glass door at his office.

Green’s Unchecked Temper

Green was reportedly upset that Wills asked about how much back pay she was entitled to for her work. Then, in 1978, the singer was arrested for hitting a woman named Lovie Smith unconscious with a tree limb. However, the charges were dropped after Smith did not receive a subpoena and missed the court date.

Al Green on his knees and very into his performance in New York
Photo by Linda Vartoogian / Getty Images

While we are unsure if those days are long behind him, there has been nothing in the news about any other disputes involving Green. Even with his personal life troubles, Green continued to release a series of gospel albums throughout the ’80s.

Going Secular, Again

But by the ’90s, the Reverend returned to performing secular music, and, in 1995, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Green hasn’t recorded too many tracks since. He recorded four since the induction, but they failed to become commercial hits.

Al Green performing holding roses in 2010
Photo by Roberta Parkin / Redferns / Getty Images

Since 2008, Green has been on a recording hiatus. Although he isn’t recording, he is still a hit. People flock from all over the country to have their weddings conducted by the hit singer. Still, Green has performed here and there in recent years, playing most of his hits that have been around for half a century.

Looking Towards the Future

Unlike Sam Cooke, who left the church to pursue a pop music career, Green left pop music to devote himself to the church. Many people believe that Green’s flip-flopping between secular and religious music is a tell-tale sign that the singer is restless.

Al Green smiling after receiving his Kennedy Center Honors medallion
Photo by Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

Regardless of how he divides his time, Green remains one of the last of the great soul singers. Today, Green is 74 years old and still lives in Memphis. Not much is known about his personal life or if he plans on releasing any more music. But seeing how public his life once was, Green must want it this way.