THE HOUSE THE R’N’B STAR BUILT
By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.
Monday, January 11, 2010.
There are many reasons to note the passing of Memphis-based trumpeter and producer Willie Mitchell, who has died aged 81, from cardiac arrest. This included his solid career as a Rhythm & Blues performer in the 1960s and his ownership of Royal Studios in Memphis. Mitchell, though, will forever be remembered as the architect of the sound of Hi Records. In its heyday in the mid-1970s, Hi-Records was home to musicians like Ann Peebles (“I Can’t Stand the Rain”), Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay and most famously Al Green.
Willie Mitchell was born in Ashland, Mississippi in 1928 and began playing music during high school . In his formative years in the 1950s, when he settled in Memphis after a stint in the Armed Services, Mitchell played with or behind a who’s who of Memphis based musicians including Al Jackson, Jr. (future drummer for the groundbreaking Booker T. and the MGs) and young jazz giants like Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Charles Lloyd. By the end of the 1950s, Mitchell was a well respected session musician, though he harbored a desire to be a leader in his own right.
In the early 1960s, Mitchell released a few instrumental singles on the fledgling Hi Records, but also began to produce artists for the label. At the time Mitchell, whose musical sensibilities were geared to Jazz, began, like most of the nation, to become enthralled with the burgeoning Soul sound that was exploding in places like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and of course Memphis, where the Stax label was a singular force.
In 1966, Don Robey, head of Duke and Peacock Records asked Mitchell to produce O.V. Wright. The session produced Wright’s great “Eight Men, Four Women” (”Eight men and four women, lord, they found me guilty of loving you”). The success of that single led Robey to ask Mitchell to work with Bobby Blue Bland, who recorded portions of A Touch of the Blues (1967) at Royal Recording Studios. The Touch of the Blues sessions produced one of Bland’s great ballads, “Chains of Love.” According to Peter Guralnick in his classic Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream for Freedom (1986), this period is when Mitchell’s “vision of R&B really began to crystallize.”
As Mitchell told Guralnick, “I wanted to cut a record that would sell black and white, combine the two, you know, in a pleasant kind of music. With O.V. Wright and Bobby Bland, their style was too strong in one direction, it was too rough. I wanted to add more class to it” (302). It would a be a few years before Mitchell would find that singer in the form of Al Green.
Mitchell was touring in support his highest charting single, “Soul Serenade," a cover of the King Curtis track, when he first heard Al Green in Midland, TX. Green was the opening act and still living off his one hit single at the time “Back Up Train.” As Mitchell recalls upon hearing Green that first time, “This guy has got the style, he’s got the sound to really be something.” Mitchell brought Green into the fold and though it was an initial struggle to get the singer on board with the style that Mitchell envisioned, they eventually hit with Green’s idiosyncratic cover of the Temptation’s “I Can’t” Get Next to You” (1970). With the follow-up “Tired of Being Alone” and then the classic “Let’s Stay Together” the Hi Soul sound was fully developed.
With singer’s like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and James Brown serving as a template for a particular kind of hard-driving Soul, Mitchell was looking for in Green, something that was softer and more nuanced, reflecting his desire to wed certain jazz sensibilities with the aesthetics of Soul music. The Hi rhythm section, with musicians like Hodges Brothers (Teenie, Charles and Leroy), Howard Grimes and Al Jackson gave Mitchell the Soul bottom that he needed. As Green recalls in his memoir Take Me to The River (2000), “‘Slow it down’ [Mitchell] would tell me during those sessions around the piano, leaning uphill on that crazy tilted floor at the Royal Studios. ‘Soften it up. Feel what you’re singing’…Let [the rhythm section] be gritty. You be smooth. Remember Al, It’s silky on top. Rough on the bottom” (239).
As Guralnick explains the collaboration, “Willie Mitchell and Al Green came up with an old idea phrased in a new way, the last eccentric refinement of Sam Cooke’s lyrical, gospel-edged style as filtered through the fractured vocal approach of Otis Redding and the peculiarly fragmented vision of Al Green himself” (304). Mitchell and Green rode their collaboration to significant heights, as Green established himself as one of the most important singers of his generation, notching more than a dozen top-ten pop singles in the 1970s.
Though Green’s well detailed turning away from secular music ended their collaboration until the mid 1980s, Mitchell pressed on at Hi Records with acts like Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, and Otis Clay holding up the blood-stained banner for Southern Soul as national taste gravitated towards the more polished corporate sound of the Mighty Three (Thom Bell, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff) , the Funk of the Midwest and Disco.
Green always trusted Mitchell’s instincts, so it was natural that he sought out his former mentor in 1985 to bring some of the old Hi sound to his Gospel enterprise with He is the Light. When Green decided to return fully to the secular world in 2003 with I Can’t Stop and Everything is OK (2005), he did so with Mitchell behind the boards. Even when Lay it Down, Green’s most recent—and most successful recording in three decades—was released in 2008, producers Ahmir Guestlove Thompson and James Poyser essentially created a soundscape that paid tribute to Mitchell and Green’s many collaborations.
For Green, as Michael Awkward suggest in Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Integrity, “from the beginning of his association with Mitchell, Green’s sense of his own artistic maturation was tied, not only to perfecting a specific sort of vocal delivery, but also to his becoming a song writer.”
Mitchell did, what few contemporary producers continue to do; he took a novice singer and produced a fully-developed artist—arguably one of the greatest of the late 20th Century. Mitchell deserves every accolade for what was a significant career in his own right, but in the end it will be those sides he cut with Al Green that will make him immortal.
Mitchell is survived by two grandsons, Lawrence and Archie, whom he adopted as sons; a stepson Archie Turner; two daughters, Yvonne and Lorrain Mitchell; and a granddaughter.
Willie Mitchell, producer, arranger, songwriter, trumpeter, keyboard player, bandleader: born Ashland, Mississippi 23 March 1928; married Anna Margaret Buckley (died 2001, two daughters, one stepson); died Memphis, Tennessee 5 January 2010.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books and a Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. A frequent commentator for America’s National Public Radio’s News and Notes with Farai Chideya, Neal also contributes to several on-line media outlets, including NewsOne.com.