Al Green and Sonny Rollins, now and then

Al Green, age 62, won two Grammy awards last week  — Best R&B Performance by a Duo for “Stay with Me (By the Sea)” and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for “You’ve Got The Love I Need” — and of course out-classed Justin Timberlake on the televised award program singing his 1972 classic “Let’s Stay Together.” 

Sonny Rollins, 78, won Record of the Year in the VIllage Voice’s 3rd annual jazz critics’ poll, with Road Shows Vol. 1  (which made my 2008 10-best list) and resumes touring in April with concerts in Arkansas, Miami and California.  
Picture of: Road Shows, Vol. 1  Both Green and Rollins are captured at the earlier career peaks by documentarian Robert Mugge — who I spoke to recently — in his movies The Gospel According to Al Green and Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus, from 1984 and 1986 respectively, newly available on DVD by Acorn Media. 

Mugge, an independent director and producer who not long ago ended two years as filmmaker-in-residence at Mississippi Public Broadcasting, specializes in American vernacular music, having creating fascinating films about Sun RaRobert Johnson’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Reggae Sunsplash 1983, among other topics. His films are deceptively casual — he spent 13 months just getting Green to face him, back in the day, and went to Japan to document Rollins’ little- known “Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra”– and engagingly journalistic. 

Mugge typically weaves interviews and candid moments with musicians and their close associates together with performance footage that is always clearly shot, without distracting edits or voiceovers and selected to exemplify the real arts of the people in front of his camera. Both Al Green and Sonny Rollins reveal themselves dramatically in The Gospel According To . . . and Saxophone Colossus, which were originally funded in the ’80s by the BBC’s culturally focused Channel 4. In the process Green and Rollins give Mugge and we viewers the greatest gift: the outpourings of their immediate, fully-committed inspirations.
Green, 36 at the time of Mugge’s filming, tells the story at meandering and flirtatious length of his conversion from explicitly sensual soul singing to righteous raising voice for the Lord. He shrugs and grins and charms, sitting and standing, stroking a guitar and directly addressing the filmmaker, who remains offscreen but occasional prompts with a question. Green also performs with the choir of his church. He’s spirited in both settings. His former drummer and co-producer Willie Mitchell adds wistful comments about his one-time protégé’s decision to foresake secular entertainment. Green reunited with Mitchell for I Can’t Stop, his 2003 comeback on Blue Note Records that embraces the worldly without obviously discounting the sacred.
“Al’s a nice guy but also a bit of a nut case,” Mugge said from his home office in Philadelphia. “It took me two trips to Memphis, one to New Orleans and one to New York to get him to do that interview, and he only agreed after negotiation and re-negotiation. I had to sort of trick him to do ‘Let’s Stay Together’,” a sterling moment when the singer explains the song’s origin and breaks into it from what seems like casual strumming.
“I tried to put together a 25th anniversary sequel to The Gospel, ” Mugge continued, “and amazingly raised the money, got Morgan Freeman to agree to act as host, and we were going to do it in his club in Clarksdale, but at the last minute Al told his booking agent he didn’t want to do it anymore, he was too busy this year to make a film. So I don’t know if it will ever happen, but it would be so much fun to check in with him now, as he’s finally rationalized doing both sacred and secular music with these Blue Note releases.” Lay It Down, his second Blue Note album, is the source of both Green’s Grammy wins. 

“Sonny is rather shy and reserved,” Mugge recalled, “and only did the movie because Lucille [his late wife] pushed so hard for him to go along as a way to get people paying more attention to what
he was doing in that period. He’s just the sweetest guy
in the world and so easy to work with — except for his reservations about doing
things. I was in touch with Sonny recently about using a complete version of the
concerto audio as a historical artifact.” Mugge had left two of the concerto’s movements out of the film.

“Well, he mulled it over and finally told me there were too many
mistakes in that version, because it was the first time it had ever been
played, and he’d rather we not put it out. He told me that years later the concerto was performed it in Italy, and he liked that version better, but
unfortunately nobody recorded it. He and Lucille talked for years
about doing it right, reviewing the score and mounting it again. But I wonder if
anybody today would be ready to pay what it would cost to record him with a symphony orchestra.”  

Though Rollins’ concerto was a unique event, the most gripping moments in Saxophone Colossus come during a concert of his regular band at an outdoor venue called Opus 40. Sonny blows his horn during an unaccompanied cadenza with all the vigor, humor and continuous variation his fans crave, concluding by leaping off the stage into a moat-like ditch sep. There’s a moment of stunned silence among the musicians — then the camera locates the Colossus lying on his back. In that position puts his horn back into his mouth and resumes playing. He’d broken his heel in his jump. 

“I felt incredibly fortunate Sonny created such a tremendous work
for us that day,” Mugge said, specifically referring to “G-Man,” a 15-minute tour-de-force, “and it was quite bizarre that he jumped and broke his heel. It gave an additional level to the film, to capture something like
that. It was so interesting to me, too, what that said about his sense of

“I learned he’d recently had the sax laquered, and apparently that can change
the tone of an instrument. When he was playing at Opus 40, his horn would sometimes just
squawk a note — he told Lucille it was like playing a vowel and out comes a
consonant. Being a great artist, Sonny can’t play a wrong note, he builds on what comes. But he was getting
more and more enraged by it, and finally jumped because he felt he was having a

“When I saw him do that I told the cameras to keep shooting but ran
around the structure to ask him if he was ok. When I got to where he was he started
playing ‘Autumn Nocturne,’ lying there. I wanted to use the whole
song, but they didn’t want me to because the other musicians were so
traumatized . . . “

Rollins’ leap seems to flow from musical logic, not a breakdown, though you’ve got to hear and see it to judge for yourself. Which is one reason motion pictures were invented. Thanks to Robert Mugge, we have that scene —  as well as Al Green in Memphis, Sun Ra navigating the spaceways, a host of blues people including Robert Jr. Lockwood, Roy Rogers, Rory Block and Honeyboy Edwards interpreting Robert Johnson’s music, portraits of Gil Scott HeronRuben Blades, New Orleans’ Music in Exile and several films that have not been issued in any form.

Look at what Mugge’s done. Is there a better way to thank him?
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  1. says

    Many thanks for your piece. None of this is vital, but I thought you might want to know a few things.
    First, the film is called GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN. There’s no “THE” in front of it. I’ve actually spent 25 years trying to correct that mistake whenever it’s made, because it signals that the film’s focus is more on Al’s theological leanings than on his turn towards gospel music.
    Second, I don’t believe that Willie Mitchell played drums for Al Green. His instrument is the trumpet. Al Jackson, who previously played drums with lots of the Stax acts, played drums with Al Green and collaborated with Willie Mitchell and Al Green on the songwriting during that classic period until his own untimely death. As to Willie, he was producer and songwriter for Al Green and the other acts (Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, etc.) at Hi Records in Memphis.
    Third, Al Green has actually won lots of Grammys. During the years that he only recorded gospel music, it seemed like he won a Soul Gospel Grammy with virtually every new album.
    HM: Thanks for these corrections. I don’t know where I got the idea that Willie Mitchell is a drummer and blame me for not fact-checking myself. Also, I didn’t mean to imply that Al Green has gone Grammy-less all these years, only that Lay It Down is the source of both his Grammy awards in 2009.

  2. Susan Peters says

    Hi There,
    Just read your article on the grammy performance of Al Green and Justin Timberlake. I’m in my 50’s so I’m not exactly Mr. Timberlakes fanbase but I totally disagree with you. I thought his voice was much smoother then Al Greens. I found Al to be sounding a little rough around the edges. From everything I’ve read also that performance and Al Green would not even have happened if Justin Timberlake hadn’t suggested him to the grammys for a last minute fill in for Rihanna. It was my favorite performance of the night and I was highly impressed with Mr. Timberlake and his later hip hop performance he participated in.
    HM:All I’m going to say about it is that Al’s voice may be rough around the edges but that high note he hit and held was as gripping as any sung that night.
    Susan: I also love Al Green. Always have. I just think Justin Timberlake sounded very smooth and hit the high notes also. I don’t think comments some people, although very few, have been making that he should not have been part of the performance are wrong. Especially considering Al Green would not have been performing that night had Mr. Timberlake not suggested him to the Grammy’s when they asked him for their help.