Al Green's nightmare began with a pot of grits, ended with two gunshots, and helped push the greatest soul singer of the early '70s away from the music that had made him a star. On Oct. 18, 1974, for reasons that still remain unclear, Green's girlfriend, Mary Woodson, then 29, burst in on the singer as he prepared to take a shower in his Memphis home. Heaving scalding grits at his back, Woodson burned the singer so badly he would spend several months in the hospital. Woodson then fled to a bedroom, where she shot and killed herself with the singer's registered .38-caliber pistol.
Green who had achieved huge artistic and commercial success with songs like ''Let's Stay Together,'' ''Take Me to the River,'' and ''Tired of Being Alone'' had met Woodson at a concert in upstate New York several months earlier. A few days after Green returned from a concert in San Francisco, Woodson showed up at his Memphis home. She claimed to be single but actually had left her husband and children behind in New Jersey. A deeply troubled woman, she latched onto the charismatic Green and his pop-star lifestyle, and the two became close. ''I've never met a man with more of a basic animal appeal to women,'' says Davin Seay, who collaborated with Green on his recent autobiography, Take Me to the River. ''This one came back at him with a vengeance. I think it was a wake-up call.''
And an awakening. ''I think it was a catalyst that resulted in him turning from secular music to gospel music,'' says Seay of Green, who'd become a born-again Christian nearly a year before Woodson's suicide. ''It does him an injustice to assume his religious conversion was a matter of convenience based on this traumatic experience, and he likes to distance the facts of his conversion from the terrible events of that night. 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.''
By the late '70s, Green had devoted himself almost entirely to religious music. In 1976 he became a Baptist minister, buying the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, where he continues to preach today. As horrific as Mary Woodson's suicide was, it helped the man who once sang ''Call Me'' to find what he believed to be his true calling.
Time Capsule: October 18, 1974
At the movies, Airport 1975, with Charlton Heston and George Kennedy, continues one of the decade's most popular disaster-flick franchises. In music, Billy Preston's ''Nothing From Nothing'' is No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart. In bookstores, Cornelius Ryan's A Bridge Too Far, about the 1944 Allied defeat at Arnhem, wows readers. And in the news, as the Watergate cover-up trial continues, jurors are played tapes in which President Nixon is heard ordering his legal counsel, John Dean, to ''cut'' the scandal ''off at the pass.''