Just two years after the release of this song, Al Green fully embraced his Baptist roots and became an ordained minister at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, Tennessee. Growing up in a strict religious household, Green was encouraged to sing - as long as it was gospel music. But that didn't keep Al from sneaking in forbidden records from worldly R&B singers like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke (who started out as a gospel singer). The combination of these influences is what defined Green's career and came to a head in this song, where the singer struggles between his desire for physical and spiritual love. The verses tell us he's smitten with a girl who's more interested in stealing his money and his cigarettes than stealing his heart. He begs:Hold me, love me, please me, tease me
Till I can't, till I can't take no more
But in the chorus, he's back at the old church altar: Take me to the river
And wash me down
Won't you cleanse my soul
Put my feet on the ground
Baptism is always a hotly debated topic among Christian denominations - is it necessary for salvation? Is adult baptism superior to infant baptism? Is full immersion necessary? And the list goes on. As for Green, he's singing about the full immersion style practiced by John the Baptist (who also baptized Jesus) in the early days of Christianity where the subject was completely submerged in the water and their sins were washed away.
Green explained that the baptism isn't just about cleansing from sin but about fulfilling a need that transcends romantic love: "Well, how is a person gonna cleanse your soul and put my feet on the ground? That's like I'm talking to somebody that's gonna be higher than somebody who just simply says, 'I love you and I'll see you after dinner.'"
The sentiment is echoed in his 1977 The Belle Album
, the beginning of his transition to a gospel music career. "It's you that I want but it's Him that I need," he sings in the title song