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VOL. 127 | NO. 45 | Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Honors Continue For Architect Of Memphis Sound

By Mitch McCracken

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Memphis music icon Willie Mitchell was honored on what would have been his 84th birthday last week with a Tennessee state historical marker at his Royal Studios.

“This marker will really, in a very permanent way, keep alive the legacy of the Mitchell family, the contributions of Willie Mitchell and certainly the significance of this area of town,” said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, in announcing the honor on Thursday, March 1, to a gathering of Mitchell’s family and friends.

The marker was unveiled at a private ceremony at the South Memphis studio at 1320 Willie Mitchell Blvd., a stretch of South Lauderdale Street that was recently renamed in his honor. The marker is a tribute to his life and work as a bandleader, songwriter, producer and label head. He not only helped shape the sound of American soul music, but widely was considered the architect of the Memphis soul sound.

“A lot of people say the origins of the Memphis Sound began at the Plantation Inn, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that,” The Memphis Horns’ Wayne Jackson said in a 2007 interview, referring to the West Memphis music spot. “We dressed up and shined our shoes and did steps. We got that idea from the Four Kings, Willie Mitchell’s band.”

Mitchell wasn’t just a talented producer and businessman. He was a teacher and mentor to many who had the privilege to work with him.

“He taught people to be patient,” said former television personality Leon Griffin, who hosted Mitchell’s memorial service in 2010. “He taught people to look for the best in themselves.”

A great example of what Griffin was talking about is when in 1969 while on tour with his Willie Mitchell Band, Mitchell met a young singer from Michigan playing in Midland, Texas. He brought that singer back to Memphis. His name was, of course, Al Green.

Mitchell persuaded a young Green to stop trying to sound like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett. Just sing like Al Green, he said. Together, he and Green made history, creating an unparalleled body of work featuring arguably the greatest voice in soul backed by Mitchell’s unique mix of gritty southern R&B and elegant arrangements.

When Joe Cuoghi, the founder and president of Hi Records, died in the summer of 1970, Mitchell found himself in charge of the label and he became a vital part of the organization by engineering, producing, scouting talent and eventually running the label. He put together one of the best rhythm sections in the world calling it “Hi Rhythm,” which consisted of Teenie Hodges on guitar, Charles Hodges on organ, Leroy Hodges on bass and drummer Howard Grimes.

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

Mitchell produced 22 Gold and Platinum records with Al Green alone. His ear could hear a hit regardless of genre.

He produced songs for Ike & Tina Turner, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Paul Butterfield, Jesse Winchester and Rufus Thomas. He also contributed to such albums as John Mayer’s “Continuum,” Rod Stewart’s “Soulbook” and Buddy Guy’s “Skin Deep.”

His son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, said, “He could also hear talent in rap music and was a fan of Tupac.”

In 2007, Willie Mitchell was recognized by the Memphis Chapter of The Recording Academy at The Recording Academy Honors. In 2008 he received an even larger honor from The Recording Academy at the 50th annual Grammy Awards, The Trustees Award.

Mitchell deserves the recognition and his son, who now operates the studio, worked hard to get it. Royal Studios has now been recognized by the state of Tennessee as a landmark.

Mitchell was much more than just a talented musician, arranger and producer. He was a man who never forgot where he came from. He remembered trying to get his music heard when he was starting out, so he would take the time to listen to anyone who asked him.

Mitchell, or “Poppa Willie” as many called him, was a humble man with a compassion for his art, who was willing to share his knowledge, talent and his home (studio) with those who were as passionate about their music as he was. His impact on Memphis and music is immeasurable.

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