Al Green and Belle and Me

I was at a meeting in Hollywood one day, when the CEO of Cream Records, the legendary Al Bennett (Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks was named after him), called me into his office. I had just met Willie Mitchell, producer of Al Green’s hits amongst other accomplishments, and Mr. Bennett wanted to talk to me about him alone.

“Sundeen, we’ve just acquired HI Records in Memphis and I have an assignment for you.” Turns out that Al Green did not want to record with Willie, or anybody else making secular music. I won’t go into the story of why Rev. Green had found religion, it’s out there if you’re interested; but suddenly it was my problem. Bennett went on to explain that Green owed us an album, had for a long time, and he wanted me to get Al to deliver one, not gospel, but something hot and sexy like Rev. Al’s former work.

A couple of weeks later, I flew into Memphis, rented a car and headed for Willie’s famous Royal Studios, home of Al’s and many others hits. I found myself in a pretty tough part of town, the studio was an old Movie Theater surrounded by a tall fence topped with barbed wire, the gate was open and I drove in. I told the receptionist I had an appointment with Willie, and she pointed to a stairway and said he was up there. On the way I passed a beautiful black woman standing on her head with her feet against the wall. I went up stairs, and entered the control room that looked down to the floor below with baffles, microphones, and the usual equipment. Willie was seated at the Board with his back to me, turned and said, “Hi Don, Welcome to Memphis.” His warm smile predicted the beginning of several years of working together and friendship.

“Willie, I said, There’s a woman out in the hall standing on her head.” He laughed and said that was, Ann Peebles, and she was clearing her sinus’s before cutting the new tune, ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain.’ I asked Willie if he knew why Mr. Bennett had sent me over to Memphis, and he replied, yes he knew, but it wasn’t going to work. He said Al was determined not to cut any more of the ‘Devil’s Music.’ He gave me use of an office, and I called my boss, Don Graham, in LA. I told Don that Willie had said it was no use trying to get Green to deliver the album he owed us, because he had become the Rev. Al Green with his own church, and didn’t want to do that kind of music anymore. Graham told me that wasn’t an option, and to go see Green and tell him he had a legal obligation to deliver a new LP or Bennett would sue and maybe withhold residuals.

The Rev. Al Green had built his own Studio out near the airport, so I called over there and tried to make an appointment. They were sorry, but the Reverend was out of town and wouldn’t return for about 10 days. I was transferred to his wife, who was also Al’s manager and explained I was representing Al Bennett at Cream Records and would like to make an appointment to discuss the situation with him when he returned. She took my number and said, they’d meet me at their studio in a couple of weeks. Not wanting to waste the trip I spent the next day visiting local radio stations and our distributor, Al Bennett had grown up nearby in Joiner, Arkansas, and was well known in the record community. Because of his background in Memphis he owned publishing rights on virtually every hit produced there, both on STAX and HI records. I told them that I was trying to get Al Green to cut a pop album for us, and they said they didn’t think it was in the cards, but wished me luck.

After a couple of weeks I returned to Memphis to meet Al in person; like many big stars when Al entered the room he had presence and carried himself confidently. He said, “Hello, Donsundeen,” and from that moment on that was how he addressed me, in one word.

Don Sundeen & Al Green

The good news was that he had cut a new album that he produced himself. He told me we’d have a test-pressing as soon as he’d finished the mix, and then excused himself and left. I returned to Royal Studios and told Willie who rolled his eyes, and then called Hollywood where I was put on speaker with Mr. Bennett and his staff, who were ecstatic. Before long I received a Fedex with the album and a mock-up of the cover, the title of the album would be, “Belle.” I dropped the needle and listened thinking the songs were really good and the production excellent, there was no doubt it was an Al Green record, but some of the lyrics seemed a little strange.

As we prepared for release, Mr. Bennett directed me to get Al on an airplane and take him around the south to the black music stations. We sat in First Class, and Al signed autographs and posed for pictures with the flight attendants. Then he closed his eyes and went somewhere else, praying, or meditating. In New Orleans I rented a green Lincoln and drove him around, which he thought was funny.

In each city, I invited about a dozen folks from radio to dinners at elegant restaurants, where Al would sit at the head of the table and hold court. The trip was a great success and very expensive, but when we left each town, “Belle,” was on the radio, and a deejay would be saying, “I had dinner with Al Green last night and…” “Belle,” did very well, someone even mixed a disco version of one cut, and I delivered the Rev. Al Green back home good as new. He shook my hand and said, “Thank you, Donsundeen, I enjoyed our trip, you’re welcome to my church any Sunday.”

I never made it to his Church, but I did begin spending more time in Memphis with Willie, and we had a great time. 20 years later, Willie Mitchell and Al Green once again made a record together, but I was long gone and out of the game.

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