Willie Mitchell; 81; producer launched career of Al Green

Willie Mitchell set in motion the careers of many soul performers and had worked with Rod Stewart and John Mayer.
Willie Mitchell set in motion the careers of many soul performers and had worked with Rod Stewart and John Mayer. (Mike Brown/associated Press)
By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Willie Mitchell, 81, a celebrated trumpeter, arranger and producer for Hi Records who launched the careers of Al Green and other leading soul performers of the 1970s, died of cardiac arrest Jan. 5 at a hospital in Memphis.

In a career spanning six decades, Mr. Mitchell proved a hitmaker as a producer for singers such as Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson and Denise LaSalle. He also worked with a wide range of rock performers including Rod Stewart and John Mayer.

Mr. Mitchell first made an impression as an instrumentalist. His 10-piece rhythm and blues group signed with Hi Records in 1959 and recorded a string of successful soul instrumentals, including the funk groove "20-75" (1964) and a remake of King Curtis's ballad "Soul Serenade" (1968).

Mr. Mitchell took over as the label's staff producer in 1970. With the Hodges brothers -- guitarist Mabon (known as "Teenie"), bassist Leroy Jr. and keyboardist Charles -- and drummer Howard Grimes, Mr. Mitchell had a crack recording unit that gave the label an instantly identifiable sound. Through his efforts, Hi Records competed with Stax Records as the main purveyor of the driving, funky Memphis soul style.

With Green, his greatest accomplishment was to blend the gritty sound of Stax with the sweeter, polished delivery of Motown Records in Detroit. It took six months to break Green's first hit record, "Tired of Being Alone" (1971). Some disc jockeys thought the singer's style was too smooth for the bluesy Memphis style.

Green and Mr. Mitchell placed six songs -- "Let's Stay Together," "Look What You Done for Me," "I'm Still in Love With You," "You Ought to Be With Me," "Call Me" and "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" -- in the pop and rhythm and blues top 10 in 1972 and 1973.

"Let's Stay Together," later covered by Tina Turner, and "I'm Still in Love With You," both co-written by Green with Mr. Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson, had a life of their own in later years as wedding requests for disc jockeys.

"Love and Happiness" (1973), although too long a track for a single release, received much airplay and proved that Green and Mr. Mitchell were equally adept at slow-burning funk.

Mr. Mitchell, ever the perfectionist, numbered his microphones to keep track of them. He recalled that number nine -- the microphone used with Green -- had a particularly warm, breathy quality. Through the three decades they worked together, it was reserved for Green.

"When I first got Al to come to the studio," Mr. Mitchell told the New Yorker, "I knew he was special and I knew I had to be perfect to capture it. So I tried to use all kinds of mikes for his voice. And when I heard him on number 9, I said, 'Oh my God, this is the real thing.' "

The Grammy trustees gave Mr. Mitchell a special merit award in 2008 for his achievements.

Mr. Mitchell was born March 1, 1928, in Ashland, Miss., into a sharecropping family that soon relocated to Memphis. He took up trumpet at 8 and received a music degree from Rust College, a historically black school in Holly Springs, Miss. His wife, Anna Margaret Buckley, died in 2001. Survivors included four children and a stepson.

While working at Hi as an arranger and producer, he helped make "I Can't Stand the Rain" (1974), a hit for Ann Peebles, in part by crafting a memorable introduction with electronic percussion simulating the sound of rain. The insistent, rolling groove of "Take Me to the River" (1975), recorded by Syl Johnson, inspired a later cover version by the Talking Heads. "Trying to Live My Life Without You" (1972), a hit for Otis Clay, became a pop hit for Bob Seger in an almost note-for-note arrangement.

Cream, a British company only interested in repackaging the earlier records, purchased Hi Records in 1977, but Mr. Mitchell was able to retain ownership of the recording studio. He started the label Waylo in 1980 with many of the same musicians, but it met with less commercial success.

In the last decade, Mr. Mitchell stayed busy as the arranger for Mayer's "Continuum" (2006) and a 2005 reunion with Green (now the Reverend Al Green), "Everything's OK." This year, he did arrangements for Stewart's album "Soulbook" and had recently produced an album by soul singer Soloman Burke.

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