‘Pure Agony': Al Green Scalded by Hot Grits 40 Years Ago
The music world was shocked on Oct. 18, 1974 when Al Green was doused with a boiling pot of grits by girlfriend Mary Woodson. Green was about to shower at his Memphis home when Woodson scalded him, causing third-degree burns on his back. After the attack, Woodson retreated to a bedroom and shot herself dead with Green’s gun.
At the time of the tragedy, Green ruled the pop and R&B charts with hits like ‘Tired of Being Alone,’ ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and ‘I’m Still in Love With You.’ In his 2000 autobiography 'Take Me to the River,' Green explained that he met Woodson at a prison concert, one of the charitable works he liked to do on free days. Green had no idea that this “radiant and ravishing woman,” who said she was visiting a friend at the facility, was really a married mother of two children living in New Jersey.
Their relationship blossomed after Green invited Woodson to a performance in San Francisco. A few days after he returned to Memphis, Woodson called to say she was in town. Green later admitted that his infatuation with Woodson made him ignore the “spooky feeling” he had when she talked with conviction about things to come in the future.
Green was in a Memphis recording studio on Oct. 18 when he got a call from a sheriff who said Woodson had been arrested at the Peabody Hotel for smoking marijuana. Green smoothed things over by going to the police station and Woodson was released. The two returned to the studio where Green hoped to calm Woodson with his music. It apparently worked.
Flight attendant Carlotta Williams later dropped in unannounced and greeted Green with a big hug. Though Green was concerned given Woodson’s state of mind, the two women seemed to hit it off and they both returned to Green’s home after the session. Green wrote that he made clear to the women that his home had many spare bedrooms and he had not planned “some kind of kinky encounter.”
Perhaps sensing trouble, Williams asked to be shown to her guest bedroom soon after they arrived; she said she had an early flight in the morning. Green found Woodson in the kitchen at the stove, where she was stirring a simmering pot of water. Green was caught off guard when Woodson asked, “Al, honey, have you ever thought of getting married?”
“Married?” Green replied. “Maybe we should talk about this in the morning, baby.”
They kissed and Woodson whispered, “You know, Al, I would never do anything to hurt you.” Green, puzzled but convinced by Woodson that everything was fine, went upstairs to shower. Green stripped down to his underwear and was brushing his teeth when he heard a sound behind him.
“I looked up just in time to see Mary’s reflection in the mirror. She had the steaming pot in both hands.
“In the next second, my world exploded into a thousand splatters of pure agony. Mary had added grits to the water, making a thick, boiling hot paste. With all her strength, she hurled it at me, splashing the bathroom walls and scorching my naked back. The pain was so intense that I wasn’t sure what was happening for a moment.”
Green’s screams of agony alerted Williams, who opened her bedroom door. Green pushed past her and ran into her bathroom. Williams helped Green into the bathtub and turned on the cold water of the shower, full strength.
“I screamed again, bent over, and started to black out when I suddenly heard, over the thundering spray of the shower, the sound of a loud bang.
“I looked at Carlotta and she looked at me. It was as if we both knew that something terrible was unfolding around us and all we could do was stand in horrible, helpless witness. Then another bang, and the sickening, unmistakable sound of something heavy hitting the floor.”
Woodson had retreated to a bedroom after scalding Green. Grabbing Green’s gun, she fired one shot into a wall before killing herself with the second bullet. A suicide note was found in her purse. It later emerged that Woodson had tried to kill herself a few days before by taking sleeping pills and slitting her wrists.
Green was taken to Baptist Hospital where he received a series of skin grafts. Eight months of convalescence followed before Green would resume his career. Green, who became a born-again Christian a year before the incident, spent much of his recovery reading the Bible and praying.
“I was able to finally put my career into some kind of perspective, placing my music on one side of the scale and my peace of mind and spiritual well-being on the other.”
Over the years, hip hop artists including Usher ('Truth Hurts') and R. Kelly ('Down Low Double Life') have referenced the incident in their music. In ‘Everything,” Method Man raps, “Trust me, I'm hot as they get, like Al Green getting hit by a pot of them grits.”
But the seriousness of the incident was not lost on Green. By 1976, Green became an ordained minister and bought the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, where he continues to preach when not on tour. Green devoted himself to gospel music in 1979, after he fell off the stage at a Cincinnati concert -- a message, he said, from above. “I had fallen off the stage, out of the spotlight, and into the hands of the living God.”
Green produced a decade of Grammy-winning gospel albums in the ‘80s. But loyal R&B fans were elated in 1993, when Green released ‘Don’t Look Back,’ an LP that marked a return to the silky Memphis soul of the ‘70s.