Suave and dapper, impeccably attired and sporting a stiletto‑sharp pencil‑thin moustache, Mitchell was the courtly King of Sophisticated Funk, cutting a striking figure in the Mid‑South music scene from the 1950s until his death in 2010. Most famous for producing Green’s stunning string of sweet‑and‑funky soul classics, Mitchell had already had several successful musical careers and was a star of the Memphis scene long before their paths met.
Born in Ashland, Mississippi, Mitchell was a toddler when his family moved to Memphis. By 8, he’d started playing trumpet, and by his teens was a featured player in local bands led by such local luminaries as Al Jackson Sr. and Tuff Green.
Those qualifications made Mitchell an ideal session leader for Joe Cuoghi’s fledgling Hi Records. Hi got its start as a rockabilly label in 1957, caught up in the irresistible gravitational pull of Elvis. By the early ‘60s, instrumental records were the big thing, fueling teenagers’ Twist parties, and filling jukeboxes in restaurants and taverns. Cuoghi, who supplied many of those Midsouth jukeboxes and whose Poplar Tunes record stores were also “one-stop” wholesalers serving the region’s mom-and-pop record dealers, knew there was money in those quickly - and cheaply - produced records. He hit paydirt with the Bill Black Combo’s string of hits and, starting in 1962 with “Sunrise Serenade,” the Mitchell band became another Hi franchise.
No wonder the rumor began that Hi stood for “Hit Instrumentals.”
For much of the ‘60s, Mitchell kept a hectic schedule as a bandleader in clubs and as a session leader/musician/arranger at Hi. He reached No. 31 on the national pop charts in 1964, the year the Beatles hit America, with “20-75.” In 1968, Willie Mitchell’s multiple musical personalities - arranger, bandleader and engineer - were in perfect harmony for the crossover hit “Soul Serenade” (#10 R&B, #23 pop).
That put the Willie Mitchell Band on the road playing one-nighters. At a club in Midland, Texas, the opening act was a young man named Albert Greene. Born in Forrest City, Ark., he’d left his family gospel group The Greene Brothers and had a minor solo regional hit with “Back Up Train.” But sounding like just another Otis Redding wannabe with a little Sam Cooke thrown in, his career stalled. Mitchell saw past that, and immediately called Cuoghi in Memphis and invited the singer to drive back with them.
Signed to Hi and given a minor name change, Al Green teamed with Willie Mitchell in one of the great partnerships of American music. At the end of a session, Green talked Mitchell into letting him record one of his own songs, which became his first major hit, “Tired of Being Alone.”
Green had kept Redding’s passion and Cooke’s smoothness, but he’d absorbed them into part of his own sound, one that called on his gospel roots. Mitchell framed that voice with choir-style backup singing, punching horns, a slippery guitar part and a relentless groove. That would be the model, not only for Green’s string of Hi classics, but for the other Hi artists Mitchell would produce, turning the label into one of the great hit factories of ‘70s soul.
Mitchell had a great house band in the Hodges brothers (including young guitarist-songwriter Teenie, whom Mitchell had raised as a son) and drummers Al Jackson Jr. and Howard Grimes. But to that classic Memphis sound, Mitchell brought a more complex sound palette, adding touches like choral backup, string sections and a different horn sound.
“I came up playing jazz,” Mitchell would say, explaining his unique version of southern soul.”My chords were always different. They got a little more melody or harmony but still had that laid-back rhythm underneath it.”
Mitchell called it “sophisticated funk,” and it allowed Hi to compete with the pop-sounding soul coming out of Philadelphia and Motown as well as that new-fangled disco. Along with Green, Mitchell built a lineup that turned Hi into the premier Southern soul label, with Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. Cuoghi made Mitchell a VP of the company and when the label owner died in 1970, Mitchell took over, handling business operations as well as the creative side of the label.
As busy as he was at Hi, Mitchell found time for outside productions, working with Bobby Blue Bland, Ike & Tina Turner and Denise LaSalle. But by the end of the ‘70s, the hits had stopped coming, and Mitchell left town. His updated Memphis soul sound found favor with a new generation of roots-rock artists and Mitchell was hired by Bearsville Records, producing ex-Memphian Jesse Winchester and harmonica master Paul Butterfield.
A few years later he came home to stay, and by the ‘90s, he briefly ran a namesake nightclub in the early Beale revival. Best of all, he returned to his old Hi hit factory, Royal Studios in South Memphis. His unique twist on Memphis soul was coming back in vogue and he worked there with John Mayer and other young artists in search of the Mitchell mojo. He also reunited with his biggest success story, producing Rev. Al Green’s 2003 secular soul comeback, I Can’t Stop. Mitchell was producing Solomon Burke’s final album, Nothing’s Impossible, when he died of a heart attack in 2010.
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