Al Green warns me to be careful when I go over to Royal Studios, the Memphis headquarters for Hi Records, where Green and his producer, Willie Mitchell, crafted such immortal '70s R&B classics as ''Tired of Being Alone,'' ''Let's Stay Together,'' and ''Call Me.''
''Willie won't let anything be moved,'' says Green. ''Last week, he told me not to touch a cobweb over the recording board, because he said it contributed to the music!'' The 57-year-old Reverend Al Green (he is sitting in his small, bare office behind the Full Gospel Tabernacle, the nondenominational church he bought and became pastor of in 1976) is smiling when he says this, but there is seriousness in his voice.
Sure enough, hours later, when the 75-year-old Mitchell gives me a tour of the nearby studio, a '70s time capsule complete with soundproofing burlap peeling off the walls and dusty stacks of records by the likes of Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright on the floor, I notice a spiderweb above the dented, scratched control board. ''Al said you don't even like it if...'' -- I raise my arm to brush away the cobweb and Mitchell explodes: ''Don't touch it! Don't touch nothin'! It's all part of the sound!''
The sound: It's the low-key, funky groove of guitars, drums, and a horn section flowing over, under, and around all Hi Records vocalists, the most original of them being Green. In the early '70s, his first eight albums with Mitchell sold more than 20 million copies and turned Green into a new kind of soul sex symbol. His combination of vulnerability and virile sexiness, the way his singing feigned confusion in the throes of passion while maintaining impeccable rhythmic control, remains unique. ''He's the greatest singer I've ever heard,'' says Mitchell. ''I've cut Wilson Pickett; I've cut Ike and Tina Turner; I've cut Tom Jones, but Al will do anything. He got no sense; he'll go in any direction.''
For the past 27 years, however, Green's direction has been sensible above all else, and pointed primarily at gospel music. A convert to the ministry shortly after the notorious 1974 incident in which a girlfriend burned him with a pot of hot grits and then killed herself, the singer put aside his ''secular'' hits, instead devoting his life to preaching and producing his own gospel albums. Mitchell, having tried the genre with lackluster results on Green's ''He Is the Light'' (1985), was interested to hear that Green wanted to ''spread the love again.'' They agreed to team up and try to recapture some of the old glory.
Mitchell puts it bluntly: ''I said, 'Al, if you wanna cut some gospel stuff, I don't want that. I wanna cut some real good music.''' Green agreed: ''I'm trying now to use [secular] words to get more listeners,'' he says. ''Because if I tell them, 'Jesus died on the cross, rose again, yadadadada, Day of Pentecost, yadadada,' people say, 'Okay, I can get that myself, in church.' But if you use language like 'We don't have no money, but we got love,' they get a positive message.''