Behind the Green Door
The last great unknown blues hero, Sonny Green, opens up
By Peter Gilstrap
Reading time 36 Minutes
The microphone is the first thing you notice
The microphone is the first thing you notice. It stands erect at the front of the small stage bathed in violet blue light, entwined with a generous string of glittering diamonds like some mighty, royal phallus awaiting marching orders from its master. Okay, the diamonds may not be real, but their statement is, and then some: This is not the microphone of just any singer. Sonny Green is not just any singer.
He is perhaps the greatest R&B talent you’ve never heard of, a practitioner of the blues and soul vocal arts since the 1950s. At 77 years old, he’s lost none of his fire, none of his passion, none of his sheer majestic ability. He can roar about the darkest heartbreak like a mortally wounded soldier of love and then coax out a velvet-smooth line of last call seduction. Wielding that glorious microphone as he works the crowd—part midway barker, part preacher in heat—he still casts a powerful spell on the ladies out there in the dark, the ones sipping their Chablis and tonguing the salty rims of their peach margaritas.
Green shares the stylistic DNA of singers like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Al Green, Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, Sam Cook and James Brown, mixing it all in with the vital, sacred ingredients of the church. While Green shares his southern gospel roots with so many of the greats who also came up below the Mason-Dixon line, he’s not just a gifted imitator. He has honed his own sound through decades of countless one-nighters, residencies and recording dates. Bars, lounges and roadhouses, county fairs, juke joints and funerals. He’s played them all.
But if he’s so good, why have you never heard of him? Why hasn’t he made it with a capital M?
That’s the crux of it all with Sonny Green, who, for better or worse, is such a natural master of “The Power of Now” he’d give Eckhart Tolle a run for his money. Long as Green’s got a gig, some female attention and cash in hand at the end of the night, he ismaking it, as far as he’s concerned.
“Oh man, I don't know if he really wanted to make it big, but he's huge to me, huge,” says gifted guitarist Lester Lands. For years at dates around Los Angeles, he’s led the band for Green. Both men hail from Louisiana.
“I think he's probably one of the best and the last of the real, raw blues singers. I look at this man as a—I don't want to just call him a legend because so many people throw that word around so easy—but he's a real one, man. He pushes the show and does things you just don’t see anymore. And you know, he recorded some very nice stuff, records that should have crossed him over.” Lands pauses, stops making eye contact and shakes his head. “But I don't really know what the reasons were, why that didn't take place.”
“I have never met an artist that has impressed me as much as Sonny,” says producer, pianist and songwriter Miles Grayson, who co-wrote and recorded some of Sonny’s best singles back in the 1970s. “He has that ‘it’ factor. As an entertainer, you cannot come on behind Sonny, the man can’t be followed. He's so gifted, but he underestimates his world, limiting his world. Sonny could have been Marvin Gaye, but for some reason, you know…he has a distraction.”
It’s a Monday night at La Louisanne, a “plush and continental” establishment in the Crenshaw district of South Los Angeles that advertises “Fine Dining, Creole Cuisine, Entertainment, Cocktails.” It may well be the only blues bar with a web site that brags about a “banquet room” featuring “CEO-model office chairs.”
Sonny has been playing here for years. It’s one of his regular gigs. The mostly African-American crowd in the place this evening leans toward, if not deeply into, middle age, and everybody looks quite sharp. It’s a nice room, a classy joint. An adult situation. Though Monday is usually not the hottest night of the week, folks turn out to see Sonny, and get some red beans, rice and southern fried chicken offered during happy hour --- all for just a buck, along with your cocktail.
It’s still early at La Lou, as the regulars call it, and Sonny has yet to arrive.
Scheduling a sit down with Sonny Green is not an easy task. Not that he’s anti-press, not that he doesn’t like to talk, far from it. It’s just not something that occurs to him to do, not a game he’s used to playing. He’s not given to introspection, or deep analysis of his art and actions. Digging into the past is of little use to him.
There are other things far higher on Green’s list of interests, like friendly women, loud suits and long cars with smooth suspensions. Though he just sold his limo and his Lincoln Town Car, leaving him driving a PT Cruiser. But it gets him to the gigs, carries him to the few places he needs to go, and the radius of his natural habitat around South L.A. is small. Green is a creature of the night, always has been, and usually doesn’t get up until well into the afternoon. All part of the job.
But there he is, making his La Lou entrance, dressed to the nines in a natty plaid overcoat—it’s about 57 degrees outside, frigid for L.A.—and a tight black trilby hat tilted just right. It’s a combo Sinatra would have worn in 1967. Beneath the coat is an astonishing suit of brocade fabric in turquoise on black. His shirt, too, is black, and his tie is cut from the same fabric as the suit. Not many 77-year-olds could pull off such an outfit.
Sonny greets people and people greet Sonny as he slowly eases his way across the room like a veteran candidate running for office, pumping flesh and bumping fists. He leans his head in close to someone, then rears back shooting laughter toward the ceiling and moves on. He tosses ‘hi babies’ at the waitresses and hugs a number of the mature, attractive ladies in attendance, depositing a chaste but flirtatious peck on certain cheeks here and there.
And then he’s at a back booth, settling in. Up close, Green is a sight to behold. He seems to have stepped out of a different era, out of the early ‘70s – but not as some sort of tired relic or sad throwback monger. The man is vibrant, beaming, an authentic piece of living history. Beneath the tinted glasses and the well-trimmed mustache, his wide easy smile reveals a gleaming golden grill (purchased for him by a female friend). Thick rings of stupendous bling sparkle on every finger of his left hand.
He accepts an offer of a glass of wine. Rose. He sips, swallows, exhales and smiles. The previous night for him was long and late and allegedly involved female companionship.
“Oh, it was so beautiful! I wish you'd been there. A-HAHAHAHA!” Green unleashes a cackle that infers all manner of devilment. “I did a big birthday party last night. These twins came in from Kansas City and oh, it was a beautiful show.”
That’s right. Twins from Kansas City. But what about the after-party?
“Oh yeah, I just went and kicked back. Just had a lot of fun.” Another coy, suggestive cackle. Then without missing a beat he grows serious. He does a swift and judicious change of subject. “I've been in LA, this year will be 55 years. God has really blessed me. Been good to me. And Los Angeles been good to me. It's been beautiful. So beautiful.”
He delves deeper into the beauty of this heavenly blessing.
“Well, I'm not bragging, but I know I puts on a good show, a hell of a show, and I have a beautiful spirit all the time. And personality is great. And that's the main thing, you know? And I deal with all my fans. Hug, kiss, everything, you know, the whole nine yards. And that's the most important thing.”
If you were a kid in Monroe, Louisiana in the 1950s
If you were a kid in Monroe, Louisiana in the 1950’s, on Saturday mornings you were likely glued to channel 8, local station KNOE. They were beaming in some good stuff. At 10:30 there was The Roy Rogers Show. At 11 it was time for Buffalo Bill Jr. At noon came Mr. Wizard. All network programming out of Chicago or Hollywood, but in between was a children’s variety show produced right there in Monroe called The Happiness Exchange, which debuted in 1953.
And, if you were watching on the right Saturday, you would have seen young Robert Green make his show biz debut.
“I was the first black in Monroe on TV,” claims Green. “Channel 8, Mr. Jimmy Noe. He owned the station. Every Saturday I was on there performing. I didn't have no record out or nothing, but I was doing the talent shows around the schools. I'd win first prize, and they'd say, no more. No more! Let me tell you something about singing. I didn’t go to school or nothin’. I was born doing this.”
Whether he was born singing, screaming or staring wide-eyed at a hospital ceiling awaiting that first slap on the ass, no one can say. But Sonny Green entered the world in Monroe on October 29, 1941. He never met his father. His mother died when he was 11.
“Things got a little tough because I mostly raised myself,” says Green. “And my grandmother, she raised me too, but I had to get out there and start trying to bring things to the table because there's me and my grandmother and my brother.”
He began singing at church services at the tender age of 6. As the years passed, he honed his vocal and sartorial skills in the House of the Lord.
“Well, I was doing gospel and when I reached the age of 14 or 15, I had one blue suit. My grandmother, she would wash it and iron it. I had a pair of blue suede shoes. When I got a hole in them she'd put cardboard in the bottom. I never kicked my foot up, but they'd be shining! I just got it all from there, you know? My grandmother kept me together.”
The blues took him away from the sacred songbook. At 16, shoe cardboard firmly intact, he stepped out as a backup singer for local bandleader Marvin Underwood. “It was really hard when I got into the blues field,” he says. “I was in gospel.”
You may be thinking, what was so hard about making that change? Sonny’s about to tell you.
“I was working at this club in downtown Monroe, Abbott's Hotel, and you know, the girls started screaming and hollering, and the manager came up and say, ‘Cut it out!’ And he called the guy that I was working for, the bandleader, called him in the office and told him to tell me, ‘Don’t look out there in that audience. Look up in the ceiling. Don't look at them girls!’”
You heard right. According to Sonny, he got in trouble for making the women too crazy. Is such a crime even possible? In Sonny’s world, apparently it is. And for these ladies, what was his deep, undeniable attraction?
“Just my voice!” says Sonny, almost pleading—it wasn’t his fault. “Just my voice, and making everybody feel good.” He pauses, solemn with the memory of it. “Yeah, it was tough.”
Green’s producer Miles Grayson recalls witnessing Sonny’s power.
“I was at a nightclub and he was performing, and all of a sudden he just tore the house up—just singing,” says Grayson. “And here was a woman just throwing her American Express up there on stage saying, 'Please just use it. Just call me!'
Ask Sonny Green if his weakness is women. “You hit the nail on the head!” he says, extending that ring-covered fist for a punctuating bump.
“The ladies enjoy him because he has that spiritual background and he knows how to work a room,” continues Grayson. “He knows what he is doing and he feeds off the room. Trust me. I've never been disappointed in his performance. Never. He's got the chops.”
As his popularity around the Monroe area grew, Sonny went solo. In fact, at a promoter’s urging, he adopted the name “Sonny” in an effort to pass himself off as blues crooner Sonny Warner for a few dates. It stuck. He started touring in wider circles with the Sonny Green Revue, singing blues and soul hits of the day by folks like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor and Little Milton.
“And one night I left Monroe going to Rayville, Louisiana, 29 miles from Monroe,” says Green. “In Rayville, they had like four clubs and oh man, it was beautiful, man. It was really beautiful.”
Where the audiences integrated?
“Well, sometimes – but sometime the police would come around, come in, you know, and want to know, ‘What's the white guy doing in here?’ So we was going to Rayville and man, we seen all this fire, we thought something was on fire. It was the Ku Klux Klan. They was having a meeting.”
Sonny pauses. “But they knew us.”
How did they know about you?
“Well, I was with Ivory Joe Hunter. Remember him?” Sonny starts to sing the first line to Hunter’s 1956 hit: “‘Since I met you baby, my whole life has changed…’ We played in Longview, Texas and the Klansmen came and threw some kind of gas or something in the club. Tear gas, I think. I was singing, I was opening up for Ivory Joe.
“I think I got up in the bass drum! Shit, I was so scared! It was tough, but the Lord kept me moving. I never been in no serious trouble, you know, anything like that, because I come up in the church. Younger people, they don't know what things were like back then. No, they don't. You see, these kids nowadays, they on Easy Street. And most of them now, they are out of control. They're really out of control. And it's really sad.”
From a warm memory of R&B legend Ivory Joe Hunter to a Texas gas attack by the KKK to the Lord’s guidance to a harsh critique of today’s youth. When Sonny starts a story, it can go anywhere.
But despite violent encounters with racism in a Klan hotbed—according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Longview is still home to an active KKK chapter—Green says it never changed his feelings toward white folks.
“Oh, no! [The Klan] was just some crazy people. You understand what I'm saying? I've never been prejudiced, you know, nothing like that in my life. I'm 77 years-old now and never have been. I get along with white, black, Spanish, you know, Jews, Chinamens, everybody. This is my job!”
And part of “everybody” includes women. After nearly eight decades of experience, one might assume Green knows a lot about this demographic.
“I do,” he says. “I like to treat women like a queen. That's what they are. And I believe a man, if he's a man, he's supposed to treat a lady like a queen. Married or not. Like today, I had to spend a little money on my car, so I got broke today. And then I had a lady friend of mine call me, I just sold her a town car. The axle broke about three 3:30 this evening. And it hurt me so bad, but I couldn't help her.”
You sold her the town car and the axle broke?
“I sold it to her last week. A Lincoln town car, ’06. I've been having the car about seven years. It was just time to replace the axle I guess.”
And Sonny prefers his women as he prefers his cars.
“I like big girls,” says the man. “I love big girls. I like some meat on my bones.”
A waitress brings Sonny the house happy hour special, a plate of southern fried chicken with red beans and rice. Thank you, baby! About two minutes later he’s talking about buying suits in downtown L.A.—“they all know me!”— when a truly statuesque woman sidles up to the table, leans down to Sonny and says, “Bye, baby.” This, it turns out, is Gwen. She’s wearing a tight, black and silver striped dress cut low and high that hugs her like a second skin. A tiny, brave golden cross hangs from her neck, traversing her staggering cleavage. It’s a tableau that sends ponderously mixed messages.
Gwen is about to split for the night, but is happy to answer a couple questions.
So, have you seen Sonny perform?
“Yes. Over and over again. He’s fantastic. I mean, there's nothing like a good show. So when you come into a bar like this and you see a good show, there's nothing like it. That's why I keep coming back. He's my baby.”
Sonny likes this. He lets loose a throaty laugh that ends with, “I love you, baby!”
Gwen offers the inside scoop on Sonny’s appeal to women.
“He just knows how to make you...get involved,” she says thoughtfully. Again, Sonny loves this. And again, Sonny laughs.
“And it's fun,” Gwen continues. “You come and have fun. When you see him on Monday, you know you're going to have a good time.”
Then, out of nowhere, there is the sound of a flute playing a mystical, vaguely Asian arpeggio that suggests an impending statement of deep wisdom, or the signal to adopt a Kung Fu pose. It’s Sonny’s ringtone. He answers.
“Hello? Come on in here the back. Over in the corner.”
Through some sixth sense, or maybe just experience, Gwen picks up on who might be on the other end of the line. She gets ready to make her exit, but leans in, whispering in her silky tones.
“I don't want his woman to hit me upside the head, a-hahahaha! I don't wanna get cut!”
It’s all in fun, of course. Sonny hangs up in time to catch this, and laughs as Gwen kisses him on the cheek.
“All right, baby. So nice of you to come back and holler at us.” He watches in admiration as she walks away.
“Man, she's sofine.”
You're 77 years old. That doesn't scare you?
“Yeah, that one does! A HAHAHAHA!”
Sonny takes a bite of chicken leg and grows serious. “Man, I hate to eat 'fore I go onstage.”
The late ‘50s and early ‘60s found Sonny Green touring
The late ‘50s and early ‘60s found Sonny Green touring around the south and southwest. He had no game plan, no grand goal for success, but he took gigs as they came, keeping the hustle going. Back then, he says he “didn’t even know where California was on the map!”
But his talent always prevailed. He could get a room going in a way that was and is a gift, and he could always find work singing the blues, soul and R&B hits of the day, giving the people what they wanted to hear. He opened for artists like Jimmy McGriff, Etta James, BB King, Little Junior Parker, Johnnie Taylor and perhaps his greatest stylistic influence, Bobby “Blue” Bland. To this day, Green often employs Bland’s “love throat” vocal lick, a deep, raw blast of emotional accent.
By the mid-‘60s he was living in Amarillo, Texas. Why exactly? His memory is vague on such details. He does recall this: “There was nothing going on in that town, Amarillo.”
He had yet to record—his set was nothing but covers, he never had any desire to write—so Green stayed on the road. Where, unlike Amarillo, things were going on.
For one brief, shining moment in Tennessee, he came face to face with the world’s best-dressed white man. Guess who that was.
“You want to really know the truth? Elvis dressed the best,” Green reveals. “He was a great guy, man. I met him once in Memphis. I just shook his hand and boom, he was gone. I was working on Beale Street, Club Handy, upstairs. All-blind band. It was a seven-piece, oh they was bad. Elvis, he was on Beale Street. He came upstairs, we was rehearsing. He had one of them Coupe de Villes, convertible. With the long taillights. I'll never forget. Yeah, it was bad convertible.”
He witnessed the legendary Little Willie John in action, the booze-swilling, incendiary singer of “Fever” who stabbed a man at his record label in ’64 and died in prison. Green took a page from John’s act.
“That's where I got standing up on the chairs!” To this day, Green will rise up on chairs and tables, belting out a number to great effect. “Little Willie John would stand up in a chair, ‘Never know how much I love you...’ and everybody go crazy. He was bad. He was bad. He was a hell of an entertainer too.”
And Sonny says he watched the brilliant comedian Rudy Ray Moore, aka Dolemite, go someplace onstage even Green himself would never venture.
“Man, when they said, ‘Rudy Ray Moore!’ he come out with nothing on but his birthday suit! I said ‘What is this?! It was at a black club, but there was a lot of whites there. They loved it!”
By 1969, Green had figured out where California was. In fact, after a go-west-young-soul-man recommendation from a southern lady friend, he moved to Los Angeles. But unlike countless entertainers, he didn’t come to the City of Angels desperate to work his way into the ultra-competitive slipstream of top-level show business.
“I didn't do anything for about a year,” he says. “I didn't do nothin’ but eat and sleep. Kick back and relax. People asked me if I want to work, I’d say, no, not ready yet. Just checking it out.”
Green finally got ready, and wandered into a nightspot called the Tiki Club on Western Ave. It was a Monday, open mic night.
“I did one song. They say, ‘You want to work? You hired.’”
Just like in Monroe and Texas and every place else, that’s all it took. Sonny soon was making a living singing locally. The gigs were easy pickings for him, and the South L.A. club scene was a thriving world back then.
“This was a time in Los Angeles, especially here in the ‘70s, when guys could play bars and clubs and small little lounges and make a really good living,” says Allen Larman. He’s a long time blues and roots fiend, a huge Sonny fan, and host of the Folk Scene radio show on KPFK in L.A., a spot he inherited from his parents, Howard and Roz Larman, who began the respected, influential roots music program in 1970.
“Remember, this was pre-Internet and cable TV,” Larman continues. “People went out all the time. There were things going on every night, every little bar had live music, and there were a lot more performers.”
Green fit right into that world.
“Sonny didn't have to worry about anything,” Larman says. “He could make his money and that's it. So he never branched out.” And that’s pretty much where Green has stayed. “The guy's in his own world. It's just funny, it's like it’s still 1970 or something, but he’s better now than ever. I’m just amazed that for the last 40 years Sonny has probably had a weekly gig somewhere in South L.A., but he is an unknown attraction anywhere in this city outside of the ‘hood.”
While Green was developing his local live presence, he finally started recording. “It’s a Game,” his debut single, came out in 1969 on the small Fuller label; the edgy blues ballad shows Sonny could deliver a scorching vocal as high and tight as anyone. Another standout is the Rhodes piano driven, Aretha-esque groover “If You want Me to Keep on Loving You, Baby” from 1971, though the b-side, “Jody’s On the Run,” (arranged and co-written by Miles Grayson) is a funked up piece of work that shows how much sheer, threatening vocal power Green can muster up.
“All you white guys love ‘Jody's On the Run,’” says Green. “That's all they talk about. Sonny, do ‘Jody's on the Run!’”
The song was one of a number of sides he recorded for Matt Hill’s Hill label, singles that were picked up and released by United Artists Records through the mid-‘70s. Most were produced and arranged by Miles Grayson, who first met Sonny through Hill.
“With Sonny, I could bring him into the studio, teach him the song and then in front of a microphone, I'd just let him loose and let him be able to interpret in his style,” Grayson recalls. “And it amazed me. He never failed me.
“I recall when he and I were in a church basement rehearsing songs and I was the keyboard player,” continues Grayson. “And I will never forget, we rehearsed about three or four songs and got them designed down to the point where it made sense, all the keys, etc., etc. Now, come time to perform, Sonny just went crazy. The way we rehearsed, he ignored it. And hey, that was my wake-up call. He is an unpredictable human being. But he gets the job done.”
And part of the unpredictability seems to be taking his talent for granted.
“Absolutely,” says Grayson. “When Sonny Green had a big record on United Artists, there was an engagement that he had in Tyler, Texas and the promoter down there booked Sonny for about ten dates, all right? Sonny was making, maybe $2100 a date. So here was a killer opportunity and the nightclub owner at Mr. Woodley’s here in Los Angeles talked Sonny Green into staying and working for $150 a night. He did not see the big picture. He saw $100 a night or $200 a night, and that was it.
“Hey, if somebody said to me, ‘Sonny's gone,’ I’d just have to shed a tear and say, what a waste. What a waste to the point that you and I can say, well, look, this guy is talented, but he was never on an Otis Redding level, never a Marvin Gaye level where he was able to get his props.”
But Grayson admits those props are more than deserved. Remember, according to his former producer, Sonny Green has that transcendent “it” factor.
“Oh yeah. And he knows he has it. Monroe, Louisiana? He knows where he's coming from and he knows he's a star. Hell yeah. The boy can sing—and at his age. He's a hundred years old, all right? And the boy can sing!”
Here at La Lou, it’s almost time for that to happen. Sonny finishes his single glass of wine. He doesn’t party like the old days.
“See, it's all about respect,” he says. “And I was always taught, respect yourself to get respect. I went through the drugs, I went through the alcohol, I drink some wine now, but back then I was on Fool Street. I was on Fool Street! I was making money and having fun. You can go up so high, but you got to come back down. You gotto come back down!”
And that’s about as introspective as Sonny’s going to get. Which may well be his secret. Making it, not making it, that’s other people’s problems. He’s not wasting time on regrets.
“No way,” he says. “I've got to keep it moving, keep it moving, because God has gotten me here for a reason. Now I’m’a walk around.”
He gets up and makes his way toward the stage. The band is waiting. Lester Lands introduces him. Come on and put your hands together for Mr. Sonny Green! The crowd in the bar applaud and hoot as Lands counts the quartet into the smooth, swinging pulse of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You.” Minus the overcoat, the brocade suit catching the light, Sonny steps on stage and grabs that bedazzled mic and comes alive.
“Any blues lovers in the house? Put your hands in the air! Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! I believe we feelin’ all right tonight!” On queue, the band snaps to a halt for a single empty beat as Sonny belts out the first line of the song, then they kick back in behind him.
You build my hopes so high
And then you let me down so low
It makes no difference, darlin'
I just love you more and more
The ladies in the room watch him and smile, the men nod with the rhythm and everybody drinks their drinks as Sonny Green moves effortlessly into another show. He has sixty years of this behind him. In front of him is the youngest night in history.
And in between, as Sonny has known all along, it’s always right now.
Peter Gilstrap is a writer and radio producer in Los Angeles. Before that, he drove a Zamboni.
Special thanks to Allen “Charmin” Larmin.