Diese ebenso schöne wie angemessene Würdigung erreichte uns aus dem Daptone-Headquarter:Willie Mitchell 1928-2010
On Tuesday morning, January 5th, producer, musician, arranger Willie Mitchell died of a heart attack. He was 81 years old. For everybody here at Daptone, myself in particular, Willie Mitchell is a legend and an inspiration in our daily work.
Born in Ashland, Mississippi, Mitchell began playing trumpet at age eight and later studied music at Rust College in Holly Springs. After a stint in the army, he moved to Memphis in 1954 where he found employment as a bandleader for the Manhattan Club and a producer for the Home of Blues label. In 1961 he joined Hi Records as a producer and artist, and throughout the sixties released a number of R&B instrumentals in his own name alongside countless records he arranged and produced for other artists.
In 1970, Mitchell stopped touring as a bandleader and took the reins of Hi Records as executive vice-president. He met and signed Al Green in 1971, and began an era of prolific hit-making. He put together a historic rhythm section by matching the Hodges brothers (Charles on organ, Teenie on guitar, and Leroy on bass) with drummers Howard Grimes and Al Jackson Jr. (when the latter was not busy cutting sides with the MG’s down the way at Stax.) As a songwriter, arranger, producer, and engineer, it was Mitchell who truly crafted the “Hi Sound” in his humble little studio at 1320 South Lauderdale. When you listen to great Hi recordings – not only Al Green, but Ann Peebles, OV Wright, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson – the distinct sound of Mitchell’s productions is unmistakable: sweet and warm, tough and dry, beautifully simple, and divinely soulful.
In 2007, friend and journalist Matt Rogers accompanied fellow Daptone producer Michael Reilly and myself on a trip down to Como, Mississippi to record some local gospel. On the way down, we made a brief detour in Memphis to drop in on what was by then renamed 1320 Willie Mitchell Boulevard. Not only did we find Royal Studios up and running in a state nearly unchanged since it’s early-seventies heyday, but we were fortunate enough to meet Willie Mitchell there, still making records, albeit with a little support from his godson Boo and his cane. With his thin moustache, his wiry hair, his walnut complexion, and his penchant for profanity, he reminded me very much of my own grandfather. His eyes and his smile, however, assured me that he was in fact the genuine article, shining at me mischievously just the way they had from the cover of his Solid Soul album. Though I don’t normally tend to be much of a fanatic, it was all I could do to keep from gushing. Here stood the man who had produced I Can’t Stand the Rain, A Nickel and A Nail, Any Way the Wind Blows, and Let’s Stay Together (the last of which he co-wrote). As I began to bury him in a flurry of mundane questions about how he had mic’ed drums, whether Syl Johnson had influenced Al Green or the other way round, how he had modified his mixing console, what had inspired his horn charts and what mic he used on them, he interrupted me. He looked me in the eyes and told me, “The only thing you need to make a record are these… and this.” He pointed to his ears and to his heart. With that one sentence he taught me more about making records than I could have learned from any engineering or arranging school in the world. To this day, whenever I find myself frustrated or thwarted by the challenges I meet at the mixing board or at the piano, I remember his words, and though I can’t always find the answers, I always know where to look.
When someone dies, people always say, “He’ll live on in our hearts”. Willie Mitchell, however, will live on not only in our hearts, but also in our ears, because we plan to listen to his records for a long, long, long time. Rest in Peace Papa Willie.
-Gabriel Roth, aka Bosco Mann