Tuesday, January 05, 2010

God Rest Your Soul, Willie Mitchell

Today, Memphis soul music lost one of its giants. Willie Mitchell was not only a performer of wonderful r&b instrumentals, but the producer of some of soul music's finest tunes. In the mid-60s, Mitchell signed with Hi Records, where he recorded such top-10 r&b hit songs as "Soul Serenade" and "30-60-90". At Hi Records, he grew in power to not only A&R duties but more importantly, producing the artists he signed, including the massive Al Green. He eventually had ownership of Hi Records itself.

If the only thing that Willie Mitchell had done was produce Al Green's richest songs ("Let's StayTogether", "Can't Get Next To You", and "Tired Of Being Alone", to name but three), his place in history would have been forever cast. But that was only the tip of the iceberg; he also signed and produced Ann Peebles (the sublime "I Can't Stand The Rain"), Chicago's very own Syl Johnson (the original hit version of "Take Me To The River"), and Otis Clay ("Trying To Live My Life Without You"). Hallmarks of Mitchell's production style were very light jazz touches, tasteful and masterful arrangements, some of the fattest drum sounds you've ever heard, and gentle restraint followed by gradual surges of emotion, creating such lovely tension and relieving it all in the same masterpiece. It goes without saying that the artists and musicians that Willie Mitchell produced were wonderful in and of themselves, and probably could have made good music without Willie Mitchell. It should also go without saying that these same artists would not have created the wonderful soul masterpieces that they did under his guidance had he not been the master behind the board, pulling the strings, orchestrating the arrangements, and meshing them together into three-minute diamonds.
Al Green and Willie Mitchell
I would honestly say that the passing of Willie Mitchell (who lived to the age of 81 after passing today of cardiac arrest) has been the most significant soul music death since Isaac Hayes. Willie Mitchell was the man most responsible for the glorious music that came out of Hi Records, the genius behind that wonderful Al Green sound, and from all accounts (his musicians called him "Poppa"), a hell of a nice guy. His passing leaves a void in soul music, and his legacy of recordings will live on forever. God bless you, Willie Mitchell; thank you for all the happiness you've brought to all of us soul fans. Say hi to Otis, Isaac, and Al Jackson, Jr. for us when you get up there.

Pictured here is Willie Mitchell (seated) and the classic Hi Rhythm Section. From left to right: Leroy Hodges, Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, Archie Turner Mitchell, Rev. Charles Hodges and Howard Grimes (photo courtesy of Memphis Commercial Appeal)

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