Willie Mitchell, the house producer at Hi Records in Memphis credited with creating the unique soul sounds of Al Green, O. V. Wright and Ann Peebles, among others, died last week at the age of 81.
Born in Ashland, Mississippi, Willie Mitchell (pictured on the right, above, in the studio with Al Green) began his career as a trumpeter in touring bands. After a short stint in the army, he established himself as a bandleader in Memphis in the 1950s. Mitchell would record a number of popular instrumental records on Joe Coughi's Hi Records at Royal Studios, a converted movie theater on Lauderdale Street in Memphis. His band also backed up notable local artists recording at Royal, including Charlie Rich and Bill Black.
After the untimely death of label owner Coughi in 1970, Mitchell ascended to the head man at Hi Records. He would soon begin to make an indelible mark on soul music. Like city rival Stax Records - and Motown to a much larger extent - the secret to the unique sonic landscape created by producer Willie Mitchell was a tight band of studio musicians. "Hi Rhythm" was built around the Hodges Brothers (guitarist "Teenie," bassist Leroy and organist Charles), keyboardist Archie Turner (Mitchell's stepson) and drummer Howard Grimes, the hits started coming: "Take Me To The River" by Syl Johnson; "I Can't Stand The Rain" by Ann Peebles; and "A Nickel and A Nail" by O. V. Wright.
The sound itself was recognizable by a sweet organ, pleading horns and a steady, straightforward beat. When asked about its appeal, Mitchell told author Peter Guralnick: "Its the laziness of the rhythm. You hear those old lazy horns half a beat behind the music, and you think they're gonna miss it, and all of a sudden, just so lazy, they come in and start to sway with it. It's like kind of shucking you, putting you on."
His greatest success as a producer would come with a singer from Michigan who performed on the undercard for Mitchell's band in 1968: Albert Greene. Mitchell invited him to Memphis to record. In 2003, the rechristened Al Green reminisced that he owed much of his career success to Mitchell due to his mentoring in the early years: "I was trying to sing like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett. He said, 'Sing like Al Green.'"
The result of their collaboration was a #1 single on the pop charts by 1972 - "Let's Stay Together." Within the next two years, the pair would produce another six singles, all of which sold over a million copies. At a time when the influence of Motown and Stax had seriously waned, the familiar cry in music circles was that Green and Mitchell had "kept soul music alive."
After Green swore off secular music in 1976, Royal Studios stayed busy with Mitchell productions. Artists such as Keith Richards (Talk Is Cheap), Rod Stewart (Atlantic Crossing), Buddy Guy (I Got Dreams) and John Mayer (Continuum) all made records there.
And Al Green would return to make more records with Willie Mitchell. Green, knowing that Mitchell had endured the personal heartbreak of the deaths of his wife and brother from cancer, called his old boss and said "Let's cut some rock 'n roll!" The results were more than solid: I Can't Stop (2003) and Everything's OK (2005).
Next time you are in Memphis, make the pilgrimage not only to the site of Sun Records, Graceland and Stax Records, but to Royal Studios as well. The location is easy to find: it's on Willie Mitchell Boulevard.
FURTHER READING, LISTENING & VIEWING
The Memphis Commercial-Appeal memorializes Willie Mitchell.
Jim Carroll of The Irish Times interviews Al Green back in 2005, while touring and promoting the Mitchell produced Everything's OK.
The one and only Reverend Al Green sings "Let's Stay Together" live back in the day. And "Sha La La (Make Me Happy)" on Soul Train with Hi Rhythm in 1975.
Ann Peebles sings "I Can't Stand The Rain" and co-writer Don Bryant discusses the song's genesis. That's Willie Mitchell in the background as well.