Willie Mitchell: Memphis-based producer, arranger and songwriter for Al Green, Ann Peebles and Wet Wet Wet
Friday 08 January 2010
The Memphis-based producer, arranger and songwriter Willie Mitchell made some of the most memorable and soulful records of the late Sixties and early Seventies, most notably with his protégé, the silky-voiced singer Al Green, but also with Denise LaSalle, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson and O. V. Wright. Mitchell turned a run-down cinema in South Memphis, the Royal, into a studio with a unique sound, which attracted the curiosity of his competitors at Stax, Motown and Atlantic, but he remained a stalwart of Hi Records, the Memphis company he had signed to in 1960, for two decades, effectively running the label for 10 years after the death of its founder Joe Cuoghi.
Mitchell went for "feel" rather than perfection and created an instantly recognisable sound based on strong rhythm tracks sweetened by horns, keyboards or strings. He scored huge international hits, including "Tired of Being Alone", "Let's Stay Together" – a US No 1 in 1971 – "I'm Still in Love With You", "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)" and "L.O.V.E. (Love)" with Green, and "I Can't Stand the Rain" with Peebles in 1974. He succeeded in convincing LaSalle and Armen Boladian, her boss at Westbound Records, to release her composition "Trapped By a Thing Called Love", which went on to top the R&B charts in 1971, while his pioneering productions of Peebles' "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" and "Take Me to the River", by both Green and Johnson, inspired successful covers by Paul Young and Talking Heads respectively.
With the advent of disco in the mid-Seventies, the popularity of the Southern soul genre Mitchell excelled in declined, but he remained in demand and collaborated with many pop, rock and soul artists, including Solomon Burke, Buddy Guy, Tom Jones, John Mayer, Keith Richards, Pops Staples and Ike Turner as well as Rod Stewart, not only on Atlantic Crossing in 1975, but also on Soulbook, his recent album of covers. Mitchell also worked with the Scottish band Wet Wet Wet, who spent several weeks on The Memphis Sessions, a Top 3 album recorded before their 1987 debut but issued the following year, and was something of a mentor to their lead vocalist, Marti Pellow, who returned to make Moonlight over Memphis in 2006. He eventually revived his partnership with Green on the albums I Can't Stop (2003) and Everything's OK (2005).
Born in 1928 in Ashland, Mississippi, he moved to Memphis with his family two years later. He learned the trumpet while attending Melrose High School and enjoyed the jazz of the big bands led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. In the late 1940s, he studied music at Rust College in Holly Spring, Mississippi, and made his recording debut with B. B. King. He formed a big band of his own, performing at functions and accompanying the likes of Howlin' Wolf.
Drafted into the Army in 1950, he served as radio operator before backing the singer Vic Damone as he entertained the troops. When he was demobbed in 1952, he returned to Memphis and resumed his career as band leader, attracting the crème de la crème of local musicians, including the drummer Al Jackson Jr, later of Booker T. and the MGs and a mainstay of the Hi Rhythm Section he would later employ. In 1955, he recorded a single entitled "That Driving Beat" and started doing sessions for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. In 1959, he cut "Smokie, Part 2", an instrumental side, and began producing the 5 Royales and Roy Brown for the Memphis label Home of the Blues.
Green first became involved with Hi as a recording artist, and he scored the instrumental hits "Sunrise Serenade" in 1962, "20-75" in 1964 and a remake of "Soul Serenade" in 1968. But, from the mid-Sixties onwards, he developed his ability as a producer with Bobby "Blue" Bland, Wright, and Peebles. Wright's "Eight Men, Four Women" and Peebles' "Walk Away" made the R&B charts in the late Sixties, but Mitchell had grander designs. "I wanted to cut a record that would sell black and white, combine the two in a pleasant kind of music," he told Peter Guralnick, the author of Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.
In 1968, while playing a gig in Midland, Texas, he met Albert Greene, the support act whose only claim to fame was a regional hit called "Back Up Train" issued the previous year. "He was singing soft and I said, 'This guy has got the style, the sound to really be something'," recalled Mitchell, who talked him into coming to Memphis, promising he could turn him into a star in 18 months. The singer borrowed $1,500 from him to pay bills back home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then vanished for two months before returning. Mitchell shortened Green's name and told him to smarten up his act and cut his afro in order to appeal to mainstream audiences. In his search for the ideal crossover material, he had him cover Beatles and Motown tunes before allowing him to sing his own composition "Tired of Being Alone" and perfecting the successful formula which resulted in the vocalist selling 30 million albums worldwide by 1976.
"I always said that if I got a guy who had a really silky voice, we could make the rhythm section really strong and let that be the roughness of the take," the producer explained. "I didn't want to use chords that everyone else used. I used a lot of jazz chords and that was the difference for him. It created a style of being silky on top and rough on the bottom. That's why his records went pop. I would tell Al to sing softer. Once I got that sound I wanted, I said, 'We're going to stick with this'."
Dripping with longing and yearning and making the most of Green's soaring falsetto, "Tired of Being Alone" charted on both sides of the Atlantic in 1971 and created the template for most of the singer's follow-up singles, in particular "Let's Stay Together", "I'm Still in Love With You" and "You Ought To Be With Me", co-written by Green, Jackson and Mitchell in 1972, "Livin' For You", composed by Green and Mitchell in 1974, as well as "L-O-V-E (Love)" and "Full of Fire", written in 1975 by the pair with the guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, another session regular at Royal. Those six singles all topped the R&B charts and crossed into the pop market, fulfilling Mitchell's vision and prediction to the letter and turning the vocalist into a sex symbol on a par with Barry White.
When an ex-girlfriend poured boiling grits over Green, then killed herself, the singer abandoned secular music and eventually became a minister. Mitchell admitted he was, "Very disappointed. I just gave him my blessing and said 'go make some gospel records'." The two did work together on the album He Is the Light in 1985, and made two non-gospel albums this century. Talking about his relationship with Mitchell in 2003, Green said: "I'm his discovery, in his heart he discovered me. He heard things that I didn't hear. I was trying to sing like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett. He said 'Sing like Al Green'. That's what a producer is for, to bring the best out of you that you can be."
Nicknamed "Poppa" Willie, Mitchell loved Memphis and the city repaid his love, renaming the street outside the Royal studio after him. He remained an elegant man, and relished telling stories while kicking back in his office, happy to reveal to interviewers that the studio owed its distinctive sound to a sloping floor. But, whether writing out arrangements or in the control room, he was the consummate professional. "I have had records that didn't happen. I had a bunch of records that did happen. I never look back," he said. "You can feel a good record. Records are good or bad, one of the two."
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.
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