There are very few singers in the history of music that can be compared to Al Green. His silken purr, performative styling and note-rattling bravura earmark him as a soul phenom almost in a league of his own. Over the years, he has used his golden talents to produce some of the finest records ever made too. One of the most rightfully celebrated of all these LPs being The Belle Album. And more than most, this record pushes him through the highs and lows of artistry.
While ostensibly an ode to a lover called ‘Belle’ in the typical R&B vein, there is an evident gospel note to production and soon it because clear that The Belle Album is a little more literally celestial than you are first led to believe. This introspective croon to the almighty and salvation in a more generalised sense clambers from the depths of utter despair to exultant heights in a way that mirrors the tortured soul of the silken voice singer.
While Lou Reed might have touted it amongst his twelve favourite albums of all time and many other people with functional ears have joined him, the story behind the brilliant record is less well known. Tragically, in October 1974, Green brought two women he had been seeing back to the same apartment. Therein his on-off girlfriend Mary Woodson became hysterical with the tortuous love triangle unfurling before her eyes and poured boiling hot grits over the soul singing legend. She had left her old life behind to be with Green and she couldn’t stand to see him become romantically involved with the air steward Carlotta Williams.
While Carlotta Williams frantically attended to the third-degree burns that the boiling grits had inflicted upon Green, Woodson bolted upstairs. The panic was permeated when a shot was soon heard, and when Green and Williams opened the bedroom door, they found that Woodson had tragically committed suicide.
Later while reflecting on the aftermath in his autobiography, Take Me to the River, Green wrote: “I loved those women, loved their softness and sweetness and the way they gave themselves away for the chance to be lost and found in love.” Adding, “But those days – and those ways – were past me now. God had called me to a higher place, turned me away from earthly to heavenly love, and while it hurt to say it, I had to leave the sensual for the spiritual.”
This incident led to ardent spiritualism that was not only reflected in his music but also, evidently, in his own life. Al Green later became known as ‘The Reverend Al Green’ after he was ordained a pastor. When he had fully recovered from his burns he bought a church in his native Memphis and set about delivering services at the Full Gospel Tabernacle.
The salvation that Green sought from the harrows in deepening his religious involvement is wrung out on a record that tries to reconcile the darkness entwined with the past with a chance of an illuminated future. It was no doubt a record that took great courage for Green to produce, but the way it tackles tragedy has certainly brought comfort to millions.