Willie Mitchell 1928 - 2010 By Rob Moss
A report on the recently held public memorial celebration and a look at the career of this recently departed legend.
WILLIE MITCHELL 1928 - 2010 by Rob Moss
To describe a person as a 'Legend', in any field of endeavour, is the highest accolade our society can bestow. In the case of Willie Mitchell, it is an epithet thoroughly deserved and honestly earned. His contribution to American popular music,generally, and Memphis music,specifically, was immense. From his early days playing trumpet in various local bands around Memphis in the 1940s, to forming and leading his own ensemble in the 1950s, Mitchell accumulated the collective experience needed to become one of the most distinctive, original and innovative producers of the modern era. Yet, it was a chance encounter with an obscure singer in Detroit in 1969 that would eventually lead to global success and professional acclaim. He happened to be in the Motor City on unrelated business when Albert Greene, from Grand Rapids, Michigan came to audition for Holland/Dozier/Holland, who had recently left Motown and were in the process of setting up their own record label(s). Mitchell accepted their invitation to attend. When it emerged that H/D/H did not intend to sign him, he uttered the words that would change music forever ... "I'll take him." Initially Greene was reticent to sign with Hi Records. Having asked Mitchell how long he thought it would take him to make him a star, and being told between a year and eighteen months, he refused to commit at all, believing the time period too long. Four months later he recanted, dropped the third 'e' in his surname, journeyed to Memphis and embarked on one of the most successful partnerships in music history.
Willie Mitchell first met Joe Cuoghi (it is the last two letters of his surname that gave the HI label it's imprint) in 1959 when he was playing with his band at Danny's Club in West Memphis. "He liked our sound. We got to talking and I started running sessions at his studio on Lauderdale with people like Bobby 'Blue' Bland and O.V. Wright. It had been a movie theatre (Royal) but we transformed it into a studio. I was also doing my own stuff back then, instrumentals like 'Sunrise Serenade' and '20-75', stuff like that." Mitchell's band achieved R&B chart success and toured college campuses throughout the country. One of the first vocalists to accompany the band on the road was a very young David Porter who fondly recalled the experience. " 'Poppa' gave me a chance and I went out with him a lot in the early 60s. He even recorded me on Hi. They named me Kenny Cain. The record was 'Practice makes perfect' but it bombed. I didn't care. We were having so much fun. He was a great inspiration to me and taught me a lot." Mitchell's ear for the distinctive sound that would come to epitomize and identify Hi Records' productions germinated in the room itself. "When I first came in, I listened and listened to that room. The sound was running all over the place. I wanted to make it stop somewhere. I wanted the air to be dead, and I put shit up every night until I got it right. I swear I can't tell you what I used ...although I will tell you it was mainly burlap and house insulation. Man, that stuff stuck to me and was itching me for six months afterwards. But it worked." He also ensured that the studio band retained the same personnel to create a consistency and fluidity that made their sound instantly recognizable. Hi Rhythm, featuring Leroy, Charles and Teenie Hodges on guitars and Howard Grimes on drums, became a recording entity unto itself in the 1970s. "We used a lot of the same horn guys who played over at Stax. Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, 'Bowlegs' Miller, guys like that, and my brother James. He played on a lot of sessions. Later on we added strings too."
Hi studio's growing reputation, combined with Mitchell's skill at the mixing board, attracted much 'outside' interest, including the Beatles, who rehearsed at Royal before their 1964 U.S. tour. "They knew about the studio, because they were carrying Bill Black out on tour. Man, we had a big party that day! They went around the corner to Brady and Lil's restaurant and bought up all the barbecue." Elvis Presley hired the Willie Mitchell band for several private parties over the years, and artists like Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, Denise Lasalle, Detroit Emeralds, Bobby Womack and many others beat a path to his door. Hi Records founder, Joe Cuoghi, died in 1970 leaving Mitchell in charge of the label. What followed was a period of unprecedented commercial and artistic success for the roster of artists that included Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, Don Bryant and O.V. Wright. Once asked how he produced the unique Hi 'sound' Mitchell's response was characteristically simple yet profound. " It's nothing too technical." he drawled "if I can feel it in my heart and my feet it's done." In the ensuing decades he produced hits for a range of artists that included Rod Stewart, Keith Richard, Elvis Costello, Wet Wet Wet, Robert Cray, Otis Rush, Boz Scaggs, Buddy Guy and Solomon Burke, set up his own Waylo label and recorded two more successful albums on Reverend Al Green. The city of Memphis recognised his contribution to the city's culture by re naming Lauderdale Street, the site of the Hi studio, 'Willie Mitchell Boulevard' in 2004. - an unprecedented action when the recipient was still alive. In September 2007 he received the Blues Ball Lifetime Achievement Award in Memphis,TN (one of only three ever awarded) and at the 50th Grammy Awards in 2008 ceremony was honoured with a Trustee's Award recognizing a lifetime of achievements in the music industry.
I was fortunate to have met Willie Mitchell at the Hi studio during my first ever visit to Memphis several years ago. It was an experience I will never forget. Having parked right outside the main entrance, I proceeded to knock on the front door. Within seconds a smiling face appeared and announced "Hi I'm Willie Brown. I used to sing with a group called the Mad Lads, come on in. Where are you from? Would you like to meet Willie Mitchell? He's right here - hey Willie come and meet this guy from England." The man himself emerged and immediately offered to show me round the studio, which he did, before introducing me to the musicians and technicians that were gathered therein. The studio itself is darkly lit and is comprised of a series of recesses and nooks of different sizes which are connected to the central performance area. These include a drum set bay and an isolation room for vocals. The high ceiling has large triangular appendages jutting downward. One had split open to reveal large wads of thick, pink insulation material. Overlooking everything is a huge glass window that protects the mixing board and other associated recording and production devices. An access corridor to this room stores rows of original master tapes in boxes clearly marked with artist and session details - a kind of potted history of the music made in this incredible place. Willie was impeccably dressed and spoke relatively quietly with a pronounced Southern drawl. He was witty, erudite, informative and gracious, and, unlike the vast majority of performers and producers I have met, seemed genuinely interested in my own situation and not simply talking about himself . My attempts to infiltrate the true nucleus of his creativity produced a simple yet stark response. "All I do" he said "is make the records." A true gent.
Public Memorial Celebration of the life of Willie Lawrence Mitchell.
Wednesday January 13th, 2010. 2PM commencement.
Hope Presbyterian Church
8500 Walnut Grove Road
Memphis, TN 38018
The building that housed this event looked more like a convention centre than a church. There were five separate entrances and parking facilities more suited to a sporting arena. The auditorium had four sets of double doors at its entrance and seating for 5,500 souls inside, while the massive foyer area immediately beside it resembled a huge bar (the square serving area turned out to be a huge religious information booth). Had me fooled for a second.
'Hi Rhythm performing 'Soul Serenade' with original sax player Charles Chalmers'
The tiered seating inside led down to the widest stage area I've ever seen. A giant photograph of Willie Mitchell sat on an easel on the right side surrounded by plants, and two enormous television monitors were elevated on both sides of the backdrop. In the centre, also on high, was a distinctive black crucifix. As we entered, rehearsals were still underway. What a sight to behold. On the left side sat seven string players (four violins,two violas and a double bass). Next to them, in a straight line, sat eight horn players (five saxophones and three trumpets).Then a grand piano (played by Lester Snell), keyboards and a congas/bongo combo player. On the other side was the full, original line up of the Hi Rhythm section - Howard Grimes, Archie Turner, Mabon 'Teenie' Hodges, Charles Hodges and Leroy Hodges accompanied by four white backing singers that included Sandra and Donna Rhodes.
Dr Al Bell
The proceedings began with reflections from friends, former colleagues and political admirers who all described a generous, caring and compassionate man who will be dearly missed. The most poignant speech came at the finale from Doctor Al Bell, former President of Stax Records, who shared a memory of Willie Mitchell he had previously kept to himself. He explained how difficult things had become when Stax finally went bankrupt. How his phone stopped ringing and how everyone avoided him. Wiping tears from his eyes, he shared a very special moment with us all. "At a time when everyone pushed me away and people shunned me Willie Mitchell did not push me away or shun me. Willie Mitchell sought me out. Willie Mitchell put food on my table and helped to keep a roof over my family's heads. God bless Willie Mitchell."
Don Bryant and Ann Peebles
When the Musical Tribute began, the full might and majesty of the ensemble exploded into action. Don Bryant kicked things off with one of Mitchell's signature tunes, 'That driving beat', which sounded better than the record. Hi Rhythm performed a spine tingling rendition of 'Soul Serenade' replete with original session sax player Charles Chalmers' solo and Kevin Page provided a credible version of 'Let's stay together'. It transpired that Al Green was on tour in Australia. His spirit was in Memphis at that moment. 'Take to the river' came next from Preston Shannon and oh how the band did Willie proud. Surely one of the best tunes to ever come out of Hi studios. When J. Blackfoot ambled onto the stage no one was prepared for what was to come. His rendition of 'That's how strong my love is' was simply stunning. The epitome of heart rending, gut wrenching, soul searching emotion in song. The highlight of the event and an experience indelibly etched into my psyche forever. Willie Clayton followed with Al Green's 'Simply beautiful' and Otis Clay belted out 'Trying to live my life without you' before Solomon Burke was escorted onto the stage in his wheelchair to conclude the event. He performed the last song Willie Mitchell ever produced - 'Nothing is impossible'. An unbelievable collective tribute to an extraordinary individual talent.
Fortunately the day did not conclude at the church as we were invited to a get together at a downtown hotel for what David Porter called 'Drinking beer and talking shit'. Sharing the company of Carla and Marvel Thomas, Mack Rice, Eddie Floyd, J. Blackfoot, David Porter and Dr. Al Bell for an entire evening and listening to their recollections, anecdotes, memories and opinions was a priceless experience and a perfect climax to an unbelievable adventure.