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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.