Willie Mitchell, one last time down Beale Street by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 1/12/2010 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Memphis, Tennessee) If I were a better writer perhaps I could express the sense of profound community loss that I feel with the passing of Willie Mitchell. Today, me and my fellow working Memphis musicians held a funeral procession for Pops on historic Beale Street (January 12, 2010). They all braved the freezing temperatures to play a few last songs for our fallen friend and make an attempt to express our gratitude and heartfelt respect for this monolith of Memphis Music. If you have ever felt a shred of hometown pride then you will understand how ebullient and overwhelmed Memphians were with the success of Hi records and the many accomplishments of Willie Mitchell. We are commensurately saddened and grieved by his passing which marks the end of an era (photo above by Charley Burch).

Willie Mitchell at the Fender Rhodes electric piano

In the midst of a city so full of deprivation and squalor, where a huge percentage of the city lives under the poverty level, to see someone from our ranks, someone unknown, like an Al Green or Teeny Hodges or Willie Mitchell, rise to prominence, is more vicariously gratifying than I am capable of expressing with mere words. The soul-stirring emotional jolt that you hear when you first experience"I'm so Tired of Being Alone" by Al Green, his first hit, is the stuff of which dreams are made. This did not occur by accident. It was the genius foresight and planning of the late Willie Mitchell.

For more details and his discovery of Al Green, please click this link to an article I wrote earlier:

Willie Mitchell, a kind man known to musicians everywhere as "Pops"

Willie Mitchell's tenure as a bandleader and trumpet player in the clubs of West Memphis prepared his ear for the musical farsightedness that would produce so many Hi and Goldwax records. His jazz training and experience from gigging gave him this rare talent to hear the future, juxtaposing what he knew he could provide in his studio posed against the vocal strides of the likes of Al Green and Sly Johnson, Ann Peebles and so many more. His imagination knew no bounds.

Here's a link to another article about where Memphis Music originates, touching on Willie Mitchell's band and the contributions of the club scene in West Memphis:

Musicians gather at B. B. King's before the funeral procession begins

Rudy Williams

Trumpet player Rudy Williams, who has played Beale Street every day for over 20 years, led the procession and the mourners who attended the private family service lined up in a very long parade of limousines all down old Beale Street.

Rudy leads a procession of familiar Beale Street habitues, musicians, bartenders, club owners and managers, and John Elkington who is both famous for renovating and developing the street and notorious for allegedly not paying the city of Memphis any rent for over 20 years. That matter remains in litigation. According to Elkington, the night Al Green sang with Willie Mitchell on trumpet was one of the greatest nights of entertainment ever seen on the street.

hymns played on horns and percussion

Limousines stretch for almost three city blocks

Dear friend Bob Harding, High Punjab and Supreme Overseer of the Black Diamond club and I consider lighting a fire with the remains of what was Pat O'Brien's to ward off the cold.

Rudy Williams and Dr. Herman Green

Musicians gather outside the New Daisy Theater to play one last song for the mourners. Note that club owner Mike Glenn raised the words "Pops Mitchell R.I.P." on the marquee.

The author stands with bassist Vic Charles. We played many days and nights on Beale at the now defunct Willie Mitchell's Legends club.

The author and one of his oldest comrades, Tater Red. He is the owner of Tater Red's Lucky Mojos and Voodoo Healings, one of the most fun locations to visit on the entire street, particularly if one is in need of some Essence of Bendover or a Run, Devil, Run holy candle. Look to see a future article on Tater Red here at the American Blues News.

Here's his site:

Musicians gather for a few last words outside the not so bluesy Hard Rock Cafe. That's Watermelon Slim on the left, wearing the hat, standing next to Vic Charles and Vic's sweet wife. Next to Vic is J. Thomas Link on saxophone. Just left of the the flower arrangement wearing a beret stands David Skypeck, drummer for Free World. Next to him stands Richard Cushing, bassist and leader of Free World who organized all these fine musicians to play today. In front of Richard is Dr. Herman Green who also plays with Free World. Next to Herman is my friend and former band mate, Barbara Blue, who performs nightly at Silky's at 3rd and Beale. That's her boyfriend John Hyde standing next to her. Next to John is trumpeter Ewing Joseph Dice.

The distinguished Dr. Herman Green

After most everyone had left save the musicians, my longtime friend Herman Green had a few words of praise for Willie Mitchell, who led the way for all of us for many years. Herman said he had played many nights in Willie Mitchell's band at Danny's club in West Memphis, Arkansas during the mid-1950's and pointed out that thanks to Poppa Willie there was a Memphis sound that was unique to this area and its musicians .

For more information about the Handy Lifetime Achievement Award-winning Dr. Herman Green, please click this link to an earlier article I wrote about my friend:

In parting let me pass along this anecdote from my former band mate, Joe Schicke. Joe played in my band, the Wampus Cats, and also the Reba Russell Band until moving to Colorado. By the way, Reba would have been in attendance today but she was recording in Memphis with Grammy award winning producer Jim Gaines on the new Huey Lewis CD.

Joe Schicke at Royal Studios with Willie Mitchell

Joe writes, "This picture is from May 2009. Pops was a kind, smart, and funny man who absolutely loved music, and I'm so glad to have been able to spend some time with him. I'll always remember the times walking in Royal to mix and he would say, "Boo's back there..." then I'd come back up later and he'd be at his desk playing along to my band's songs on his keyboard! He always took time to talk and make me feel comfortable."

Joe is flying in from Colorado to play in Don Bryant's band at the Willie Mitchell memorial service being held for the public at Hope Presbyterian Church. Musical tributes will be performed by Solomon Burke, Willie Clayton, Otis Clay, Kevin Page, Preston Shannon and J. Blackfoot. Look for more on this event on my article to appear here on this Monday, January, 18, 2010.

Bookmark us and come back often at American Blues News:

©2010, Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms


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