Most of my earliest memories, good and bad, have music in them somewhere. Music has always been my clearest channel to God, my way of touching the hem of His garment and feeling the strength of His love. I don't mean to say that when I hear a song, I'm hearing the voice of God, telling me this or that, answering my questions or setting me straight. That kind of divine encounter only comes through praise and prayer. But in music, I do hear His heartbeat and the breath of His presence. God gave me music as a special way to reach Him and, because God is everywhere, it seems that everywhere I turn, I hear music.
And not the kind of music that they pipe in elevators and supermarkets and airports, either. The music that surrounds me, way out where I live in the country, is the music of creation. I've been asked before what my earliest influences were; whether I liked Elvis or Otis, Jackie Wilson or Wilson Pickett. My answer is that I like them all, but if you really want to know what my earliest influences were, you'd have to go back to the rain on the window, the wind in the corn crop, or the water lapping on the banks of the river. That is music to my ears.
I can still remember childhood days when I'd wake up early to the sound of the birds singing in the trees and throw open the window just to catch their whistles and chirps. It made no difference to me that it was the dead of winter or that my brothers were yelling at me from the bed we shared to shut the window and stop acting like a fool. They just didn't hear what I heard. And it would be a long time before I understood in my mind what I always knew was true in my heart: God speaks through His creation and the language He uses is music to those with ears to hear.
It seems like my whole life has had a soundtrack to it, and the clearest scenes in my memory always have songs playing behind them. I remember the morning we laid my grandmother to rest as we all gathered around the fresh-dug grave, singing her off with harmonies so clear and perfect it was like the angels had come to carry her away.
I remember being on the road with the family gospel group, the Greene Brothers (I wouldn't drop that final "e" on the family name until I began my solo career). I was too young to sing, but my daddy had me along for company, riding up front with him in our old blue GMC truck. "Now, don't tell your mama," he'd say as he pulled over to some lonely juke joint by the side of the road and left me to drift off to sleep, listening to down-and-dirty blues throbbing through the warm Southern night.
It's the sound of gospel music that mixes with other sensations in my memory, like the scent of fresh-cut sawdust hanging in the revival tents as my brothers sang soft and low, or the sight of my daddy, staring straight ahead, tears rolling down his cheeks and falling onto the open Bible in his hand. I swear, even now, I can hear them plopping onto the page.
Of course, memory is an unreliable sort of thing. There's no way tears on a page could have carried over tambourines banging and voices rising higher and higher until the people jumped clear out of their seats, shouting and signifying. Or maybe it's just that you hear things differently when you're a child. To my mind, there wasn't much difference between those folks carousing in the roadhouse and the ones raising the roof at the revival.
I remember huddling under the covers, tuning in the radio, down low and late at night, while my brothers slept beside me, trying to pick up those hot and heavy sounds out of Memphis, the forbidden fruit my mama said would rob me of my soul. I remember gathering around the old upright piano with my high school glee club, chalk dust hanging in the music room air. I remember Saturday nights in the El Grotto Club in Detroit, singing five sets a night with Jr. Walker and the All Stars back behind me like a runaway freight train. But mostly, I remember just walking along by myself down a country road, singing a song with no words, just "sha-la-la," and making up the melody as I went along.
It can take us a lifetime to learn what little we understand about God and His creation, but sometimes it seems that in the things we know as children, those things we just accept without having to ask why or how God reveals His true nature. Little Al Greene never had any doubt that God loved him, that He knew his name from the foundation of the universe, and that he was precious in the Master's sight. It was from joy that he sang those simple songs, and when he did, he could feel God's pleasure as sure as the sun on his back and the wind in his face.
The truth was, however, that there wasn't much else in my life to make me feel very special or set apart. Poverty has a way of robbing a child of his identity and self-worth, making him nothing more than just another mouth to feed, and, along with all the music of my childhood, I also remember a dark cloud of hardship hanging over those early days.