The City of Memphis will honor the great producer, bandleader, musician, and 73-year resident of Memphis, Willie Mitchell, by changing the name of Lauderdale Street between McLemore Avenue and South Parkway to Willie Mitchell Boulevard On Monday, September 20, 2004.
Though such figures as Atlantic Records mogul Jerry Wexler and the French prime minister (who, in the 1980s, offered Mitchell a $1M a year salary as Music Minister of France), have tried to lure Mitchell away, he has been content to keep his office at Royal Studios (Royal Studios, 1320 South Lauderdale Street, Memphis TN) in the heart of Soulsville in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 2003 the Memphis chapter of NARAS honored Mitchell by celebrating the legacy of Hi Records at the Premier Player Awards. Late last year Mitchell reunited with Al Green to record a very fine return to soulful secular form, I Can’t Stop, released by Blue Note Records.
Blue Note and EMI/Capitol Records – home to the Hi Records catalog – will be
on hand, along with local politicians, family and friends from around the world to celebrate Mitchell. The RIAA will present Willie Mitchell and Al Green with commemorative awards, followed by a special performance by Green.
Here is an excellent bio and interview with Mitchell from the late-’90s by my co-editor Carlo Wolff from The Encyclopedia of Record Producers:
- Willie Mitchell talks like he produces: smoothly, mysteriously. “I look for getting the best we can,” says the veteran Memphis producer, who steered Hi Records through 15 glory years in the ’60s and ’70s. “How do I do that? I talk to the people, tell them what I feel, see how they feel and see can’t we get the best out of them. It’s communication.”
Best-known for his work with Al Green, Mitchell (born March 1, 1928 in Ashland, Mississippi) began producing at the dawn of the ’60s, working with such instrumentalists and groups as Ace Cannon and the Bill Black Combo. He also plays trumpet and keyboards – “If I have to play on a session, I play” – and progressed from producing instrumentals to working with such vocalists as O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles, and, finally, Green. He also produced an album, on Duke, for Bobby “Blue” Bland, in the mid-’60s.
“It wasn’t a vision thing,” Mitchell says of his productions. “I’m looking to get the best music out of musicians to come through the radio that people can feel. Feeling is my biggest aspect.” Rhythm, too, is important, “so when you sing, you got to be rhythmic, you got to sing with a real rhythm feel.”
Syl Johnson, who, like Green, recorded “Take Me to the River,” certainly sang with a rhythmic feel: check out “Back for a Taste of Your Love” or “I Want To Take You Home (To See Mama).” So did Peebles, using melisma to trace a painfully persuasive emotional portrait on her biggest hit, “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” And, of course, there was Green, a sanctified soulman who delivered such classics as “Call Me (Come Back Home),” “I’m Still in Love With You,” and the ineffable “Love and Happiness.” “It was wonderful working with Al Green,” Mitchell says. “I got him as a young kid. We worked together, wrote songs together, made things happen.”
During the ’60s, Hi Records shared musicians with Stax/Volt, the other Memphis powerhouse. “I did a lot of stuff with Stax,” says Mitchell. “We were, like, partners in music. There was no competition. Stax basically had my rhythm section – Al Jackson Jr. and all those people. We did what we had to do.”
Mitchell says he learned a lot about producing from Onzie Horn, a Memphis legend who played keyboards and xylophone and studied with Billy Strayhorn and Quincy Jones. It was Horn who helped Isaac Hayes “put together” Shaft, Mitchell says.
“I wasn’t influenced,” Mitchell says. “I just heard music in my head, went into the studio and tried to put it down.” He grew up in Memphis to the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington. “I just had an idea of my own and I tried to put it into shape,” he says.
“I use different chords from what a lot of people use,” Mitchell says. “What I hear, I get musicians to accomplish. It’s challenging, but I try to use the best musicians, and they understand what I’m trying to accomplish. We go for sounds. If I hear something I want to hear, we’ll work on it.
“I use Memphis musicians because I know what they’re going to do and I know how it’s going to come out,” Mitchell says. “I’m very comfortable here.” An independent producer since 1980, Mitchell works out of Royal Studios in Memphis, where he laid down his most famous tracks. He recently produced sessions for Tom Jones and loaned the Willie Mitchell Horns to Come on Home, a blues tribute album by Boz Scaggs. He also produced an album by bluesman Jimmy King.
He doesn’t rely on technology, Mitchell says. “I come from the hip: real organ, real piano, real saxophones, real guitar. Synthesizers? Maybe a line or something, but nothing dominant. I believe in real music.”
Any favorites? “When I do a record, I don’t look back on it,” Mitchell says. “I don’t cry over spilt milk. I have had records that didn’t happen. I had a bunch of records that did happen. I never look back. I don’t think about it. A record be on your head so long. When a record’s over, it’s over.”
Did he sense how many of the records he produced would be classics? “You can feel it, man, you can feel a good record,” Mitchell says. “There is no favorite one. Records are good or bad, one of the two.”