To make up for the long radio silence, I have a special treat for Rocinante readers today – a guest post by John Clarke, former writer and editor for The Times, now working at the Independent.
From the late 1990s onward, I managed to combine a production post at The Times with a dual career as a travel writer. I also managed to combine my two great loves, music and travel, with a series of trips, mainly to the States, but later elsewhere, too. I visited Cleveland for the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; Chicago to find the blues; New Orleans for the annual jazz festival; Seattle to discover the roots of Jimi Hendrix (and visit Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s amazing Experience Music Project) and twice to Memphis, once to provide some background pieces for a series of concerts to be held at The Barbican and secondly to interview Wet Wet Wet singer Marti Pellow, who had wisely made the city his home. Further trips to Dubai for an unlikely rock festival and Finland for eye-opening accordion festival followed. My writing and travelling career ended, gloriously, with a visit to Jamaica that covered the Montego Bay Jazz and Blues festival, Bob Marley and, strange as it may seem, the songwriting career of Noël Coward.
I’d like, if I may, to take you back to my first visit to Memphis, perhaps my favourite American city. My driver and companion for the day (and most of the trip) was Tad Pierson, a graduate from the University of New Mexico, who drove me around in his 1955 Cadillac. But that, as they say, is another story. . .
It was a Sunday morning, getting close to 11.30, and I was going to church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, as it happened, at 787 Hale Road, Memphis. It wasn’t far, down Highway 51 South, past the graffiti-scrawled walls of Presley’s mansion at Graceland and then a right turn. It was a warm day and the car park outside the modern, white-painted church with its grey, sloping roof was filling up. Everyone had dressed up, too. Standards may have slipped elsewhere, but here it was Sunday best – pressed suits, ties, smart dresses, even the odd hat or two. We moved inside and sat a few benches from the front. If we were lucky, the church’s founder and pastor might be present. As it happened, we were. A side door opened and in he came with his assistant and two other church workers. The Reverend Al Green, the finest soul singer of his generation, and now church leader and pastoral father, was in the House.
He welcomed us warmly and then the choir began to sing. Imagine a gospel singer who had a strong enough voice to reach the back row of a concert hall with ease. Then take twelve of them, mainly women, and imagine the noise, the joyful thunder of praise and thanksgiving, they were able to create. It was an aural avalanche greeted by a congregation who weren’t prepared to sit there, meekly, and nod in approval. They joined in, they shouted, “Praise the Lord” and, “Great God almighty,” as the music swelled and rocked around them. One choir member, overcome with exultation and too large a dose of the Holy Spirit staggered back and had to be helped to her seat. The others carried on, seeking salvation in a wall of sound.
Then it was over and we were back in our wooden benches listening to the Rev Green. This was no tourist showcase. This was a proper, working church. Wearing his glasses, he read the notices, mentioned choir practice and Bible classes. Then there were prayers and readings, before he smiled and slowly took centre stage, except that this was no theatre. . .
He takes off his glasses. “Deep down in my heart I know that my God is real,” he says. Then he sings it. This is the voice that has sold millions of records worldwide, but there he is, three rows from you, giving a performance that is as heartfelt as any he’s given in the secular world. There’s a backup band to his left – guitar, drums, keyboards and his son on congas. They join in as the Rev Green reminisces about his rural upbringing. “We’re all so. . .”, he pauses, searching for a word, “instant today.” We all shout “hallelujah”. “We don’t know a real cake when we taste it.” More hallelujahs, some more singing and then the pastor spies a family of latecomers who have moved into the seats to the left of us. The mother is wearing a beige, Egyptian-style headdress. Her four daughters, including a set of identical twins, are all clad in dresses with large, zebra-like black and white stripes. “Look at Miller family,” he shouts. “Don’t they look good?” The last word is pronounced with such relish, it’s as if God’s favour has been specially granted to them. “Let’s have a big hand for the Miller family,” he says. We applaud them and praise the Lord.
He sings another line or two and then begin to preach in earnest, except that this is no solo effort. It’s a duologue between the preacher and his congregation. It’s the “call and response” ritual that moved from black churches into black music and went on to provide the soulful backbone of countless pieces of memorable music. “God came to me last night about 10.30,” he says (“God be praised”, “Tell it, father,” we hear). “He said: ‘I got the Word for you,’” (“Hallelujah”, “Great God Almighty”). “He told me to speak to you, and tell you that you can be saved” (“Thank the Lord”). The sermon continues. It’s like a piece of jazz improvisation, where a theme is suddenly taken up – “I’m fifty-eight and I’m God’s child, I’ve been in this business thirty-eight years” – before that topic is exhausted and we move on to pastures new. The words tumble out, inspirational, guiding and comforting.
Then at the climax, the very zenith of the sermon, he pauses. “Will the circle be unbroken,” he sings with a fervour and feel that I’ve never heard in any of his records. It’s a great American gospel song written in 1907 and recorded by everyone from the Staple Singers to the Dubliners, but I’ve never heard a version like this before. The choir and band join in, “By and by, by and by,” he continues in a God-given soulful croon. Then there’s a glorious upbeat and heart-lifting surge as he sings, “Is a better home awaiting, in the sky, in the sky.”
It’s Psalm 100 that tells us to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” With the help of his choir, band and congregation, the Rev Al Green was fulfilling that command, faithfully and majestically.
It was a church service like no other I’ve ever been to. As we filtered out into the Memphis sunlight I managed to shake hands with the Rev Green. I smiled and could think of nothing to say but, “Thank you.” He smiled warmly back, “Be sure to come again.”
I haven’t yet. But one of these days.