Willie Mitchell dead at 81 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 1/10/2010 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Memphis, Tennessee) American music and in particular the musicians of Memphis, Tennessee have lost a stalwart, a bedrock of innovative music producing and a man, known to so many as "Papa," who was a mentor and friend to so many musicians, including the author, that it is indeed difficult to perceive the breadth of our loss. Willie broke his hip in September, 2009 and had a heart attack on December 19, 2009. He passed away on Tuesday morning, January 5, 2010.

Royal Studio on Willie Mitchell Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee
formerly the Royal movie theater now home of Hi and Goldwax Records

Listening back to the beautifully arranged Hi and Goldwax records that have been produced during the long, productive life of Willie Mitchell, I am struck by what magnificent jazz arrangements he posed against what might have been just straight up blues or soul songs, transforming the otherwise ordinary, and crafting it so purposefully into the remarkably unique and soul-stirring. These records are a testament to the peculiarly classy and innovative sound that came from "Papa" Willie Mitchell. They were different from anything that SUN or STAX records produced and stand on their own as the best of Memphis music. Al Green's hits, recordings by Rod Stewart, John Mayer, the work of such notable blues men Buddy Guy, Otis Clay and O.V. Wright, 12 albums of extraordinary instrumentals such as 1963 release "Soul Serenade," written by Willie Mitchell himself, and Syl Johnson's version of the Teeny Hodges/Al Green chartbuster, "Take Me to the River" are solid proof of this assertion.

Papa Willie Mitchell at the board

If anything this remarkable musician and producer was a musician first and a bandleader and producer as a result of years of live performances. Discharged from the Army in 1954, Willie Mitchell became a famous bandleader, playing gigs in the fruitful musical breeding ground of the clubs of West Memphis, Arkansas during the last half of the 1950's.

largest billboard in the South, Plantation Inn

These gigs, such as the Plantation Inn and Danny's club provided the experiential knowledge, the training that would stretch the canvas that would become soul and R & B for decades to come. Without these gigs, the interplay of musicians and the kind exchange of skill and techniques exhibited by the musicians, there would have been no Hi Records or STAX records hits. It simply would not have ever happened. It is for this reason that I have loudly decried what has happened in my home town, the elimination of the full time musician by starving him out or literally, killing the golden musical goose. No gigs, no way to make a living means no fertile ground for developing a musical scene. We live on our past with no thought of the future. How many times can every bar band play "Mustang Sally?"

If you are interested in this story of where the Memphis music came from, please click on this link to my earlier article in the American Blues News archives:

Willie Mitchell discovered Al Green at a gig in Midland, Texas, in 1967, brought him back to Memphis, borrowed $1500 from Mr. Joe Cuoghi, owner of Hi Records and part owner of Poplar Tunes record store, to help Al get established in town, and set out to make him a star. He believed in Al's talent and knew what he could do with it in combination with his own producing skills. He was right.

About this Willie Mitchell said, "Of all the singers, he was the only one that could hear jazz changes and really sing in that style. Once we got that sound together, I just kept making those arrangements ... and it was just hit after hit."

Willie searched for songs that would match with Al Green's voice and told Al to "sing sweet, don't use that rough voice," and they led the band through a multitude of different songs including Temptations tunes and even the Beatles' "I Want to Hold your Hand." After a dizzying day and night of recording Al insisted that they try a song he had written. They worked out the tune with the band and recorded "I'm So Tired of Being Alone" at about 1:30 AM after, Al said, Willie had a little shot of vodka. This beautiful arrangement using the Rhodes sisters, who Willie had seen sing country music, on background vocals, was an unqualified winner. Willie went on to write and arrange with Al and many other Hi artists during the 1970's including Ann Peebles("I Can't Stand the Rain"). These were successful years. I remember seeing Papa Willie cruising around town in a white Bentley having some laughs.

From the Hi Records site:

"At Hi in the Sixties, Mitchell was already working with the core of what would become one of the world's greatest rhythm sections -- guitarist/leader Teenie Hodges, his organist brother Charles and bassist brother LeRoy. Known as Hi Rhythm, the Hodges Brothers, along with drummer Howard Grimes, remains the premier ongoing Memphis soul section..."

Here's a link to the Hi site:

Otis Clay and The HI Rhythm Section, 1986
Standing left to right: Leroy Hodges, Charles Hodges, Howard Grimes
Sitting left to right: Otis Clay and Teenie Hodges

Willie Mitchell (seated at the Fender Rhodes piano) and (from left) Leroy Hodges, Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, Archie Turner Mitchell, Rev. Charles Hodges and Howard Grimes gave records from Hi that special sound.

My dear friend and former band mate, Howard Grimes is one of the finest old school drummers in the world. Some of Howard's shuffles defy description and it was a thrill and honor to play on stages with him for many years. Once Howard told me that he owed a lot to Willie Mitchell, who, when he was a very young man, had instilled in him that lazy, behind the beat time thing that is the essential signature of Memphis music. Howard said, "Willie told me, Howard, you watch my foot now. Then he tapped his foot all the way through the track we were recording. He said, Howard, we all gonna start together, and we all gonna end together." Thus greatness is born. Both original members of the Hi Rythm section, Howard and bassist Leroy "Flick" Hodges were some of my favorite musicians with whom I got a chance to play blues with over these many years. They are as kind, thoughtful and friendly as they are talented.

Willie Mitchell in his office surrounded by gold records

Pat KerrTigrett, Willie Mitchell, Jimmy Davis

My dear friend, Memphis musician Jimmy Davis, writes the following, "We were lucky enough to be at the Grammy's when Pops was awarded his Lifetime Achievement Award. Our group was also on the same plane home and we all walked together through the Memphis Airport with Willie. We stopped at a Commercial Appeal newspaper stand and there he was on the Front Page. I bought every copy and handed 'em out to our incredible Memphis Entourage. I'll never forget it."

My friend, the superb keyboardist, Archie Turner Mitchell, appears in the following video from Memphis NBC affiliate WMC-TV. To brother Archie, who now has lost his father and has always been so kind and supportive of me as a fellow musician, shared his stage and keyboard with me many nights, I would like to return the compliment, what Archie always says to me when I am downcast, "you are 100 with me, brother. One hundred...A plus."

Here is the Link:

As is our custom, to honor Willie Mitchell the musicians of Memphis will play at a formal processional down Beale Street with musicians playing all along our walk down the street that immortalizes the home of the BLUES and its musicians. We begin at noon this coming Tuesday, starting at B.B. King's Blues Club at 2nd and Beale. Loved ones, friends and fans are all invited to walk with us.

In lieu of flowers, the Mitchell family requested donations be sent to the non-profit Willie Mitchell Foundation and Scholarship Fund c/o Royal Studios, 1320 Willie Mitchell Blvd., Memphis, TN 38106, or that contributions be made in Mitchell's name to MusiCares at 1904 Wedgewood Ave., Nashville, TN 37212 (or call 877-626-2748).

Services for Willie Mitchell

A public viewing will be 2 to 6 p.m. Monday at N.J. Ford & Sons Funeral Home, 12 S. Parkway West, Memphis, Tennessee.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Hope Presbyterian Church, 8500 Walnut Grove in Cordova, Tennessee. The service will include a video presentation and performances by Solomon Burke, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Shirley Brown and J. Blackfoot, among others.

© 2010, Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

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