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Soul Serenade

by PHYLLIS POLLACK

Willie Mitchell, who added more than just a touch of magic to the releases of many recording artists, died this week at age 81. Known as “Papa,” Mitchell’s son Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell reported that his father died at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis. Mitchell leaves a legacy of both music and personal memories.

Boo stated that a funeral service has not yet been arranged, but that there will be a private service held for friends and family, followed by a public memorial the following day.

Although Mitchell had many notable achievements, he is most known for Hi Records, the home of many hits for Al Green.

The Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences (NARAS) gave one of Trustee Awards during the 50th Grammy Awards in February 2008 to the legendary Mitchell.

Mitchell also owned the legendary Royal Recording Studios, where many notable artists including Buddy Guy, John Mayer, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, and Ike and Tina Turner recorded. In addition to running the Royal Recording Studio, Mitchell was a musician who played trumpet, worked as a vocalist, a bandleader, and as a record producer and arranger.

Among his countless credits, Mitchell was responsible for the horn arrangement on Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards’ first solo album, Talk Is Cheap, on the track “Make No Mistake.” Mitchell played on that song with Memphis Horns Ben Cauley, Jack Hale, Jimmi Kinnard, Andrew Love, James Mitchell and Gray E. Topper. The memorable band Richards assembled for the project was called the X-Pensive Winos.

Mitchell also worked with John Mayer’s Grammy winning Continuum album at his Royal Recording Studios. Mitchell contributed the horn arrangement on the album’s track “I’m Gonna Find Another You.”

Prior to working at Hi Records, which was founded in 1957, Mitchell had gained experience playing in his own band, and working at Home Of The Blues, working as a producer at the label. Mitchell became an artist on the Hi label in 1961. His first single for Hi Records was “The Crawl.” Mitchell’s best known single at the Memphis Based hi Records was his 1968 release “Soul Serenade.” He became the arranger for the label. With a deft ear, the drums were recorded using a methodology to get the distinctive sound that Mitchell wanted. Mitchell preferred working with tube amps to get a fuller sound when miking the drums. The majority of Mitchell’s singles during the sixties were instrumentals, with the exception of “Everything Is Gonna Be Alright.” Eventually, Mitchell would be at the helm of Hi Records.

Mitchell began co-producing and engineering soul great Al Green from1969 through 1976. Mitchell worked with numerous other notable artists, including Otis Clay.

In 2004, Lauderdale Street between McLemore Ave & South Parkway East in Memphis was officially renamed Willie Mitchell Boulevard in Mitchell’s honor. Mitchell’s venerated Royal Recording Studios is located at 1320 Willie Mitchell Blvd.

Tom Cartwright, a twenty-five year veteran of Capitol/EMI Records, was in charge of the Hi Records catalogue at EMI, which was licensed to the major label during Cartwright’s tenure at EMI. Not only did Cartwright oversee the catalogue at EMI, but he also helped negotiate that deal with Mitchell’s Hi Records. Cartwright still serves as a consultant to Hi Records, and to other labels, working with rock, rhythm and blues and soul. Cartwright remembers Mitchell with great fondness. This morning, Cartwright stated, “Al Green professed his undying love for Willie on several occasions.” Cartwright added, “I recall visiting his Royal Studios in Memphis on several occasions. It is an unassuming complex, but one that is regarded as hallowed ground by everyone in Memphis.”

Cartwright reminisced, “People would just show up at the door and knock, and they would be stunned to find Willie sitting right there in the reception area, holding court with a few close friends. The man was the epitome of charm.”

Cartwright elaborated, “The first time I was there, Willie gave me a guided tour of the studio. He was not really walking all that well. When I held out an arm, he refused, but said, “You the one betta watch out for those cables. I know my way around.”

Since Cartwright’s departure from Capitol/EMI, Mitchell’s Hi Records catalogue is now, at Fat Possum/Sony/RED. Cartwright helped negotiate that deal for Mitchell, as well.

When it came to Mitchell’s musical legacy, Cartwright told Examiner.com, “There was that famous signature organ, heard on so many Al Green records. It truly belongs in the Smithsonian, except that it is still in use, and it will be for countless years to come.”

Cartwright remembers being at the studio with Mitchell, noting, “I looked up at the ceiling, and saw a bunch of cobwebs. I asked Willie when the last time was that someone had come through and cleaned the place. He laughed, and said, “Oh, man, nobody had better touch those cobwebs. They’re part of the sound.”

At one point, Mitchell played Cartwright the tracks from his and Al Green’s first collaboration in years, songs that would become part of the I Can’t Stop album. Cartwright reminisced that Willie was practically narrating each song as he played them for him. Cartwright said that Mitchell would have an explanation about each song: “I wrote this when I couldn’t sleep one night, and I wrote this one when I fell out of bed, and this one reminded me of…” Cartwright elaborated, “Mitchell had a story for each song. He would just sit there with that twinkle in his eye and smile.”

PHYLLIS POLLACK lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She writes two columns, one of which can be found here. She can be reached through her blog.

 

 

 

 

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