Born Willie Lawrence Mitchell, 1 March 1928, Ashland, Mississippi
Willie Mitchell is one of the great musicians to have emerged from the Memphis musical scene. He was the man behind the unique sounds that made the Hi label one of the world's leading soul record companies from the 1960s through to the end of the 1970s. At Hi he performed the roles of arranger, producer, bandleader, recording artist, composer, trumpeter, keyboardist and all-round factotum. From 1970 until 1979 he was also vice-president of the company.
Born in the small town of Ashland, Mississippi in 1928, Mitchell and his family moved to Memphis in 1932. After purchasing a trumpet from his cousin for $ 8, Willie formed his own high school band ("We did gigs for a dollar") at the age of only 14. Between 1946 and 1950 this was a ten-piece band. One member was ex-Duke Ellington pianist Onzie Horne who taught Willie the basics of arranging. Mitchell had to do his duty for Uncle Sam from February 1951 to June 1953 ; this time was spent touring USAF bases in West Germany, often providing support to visiting acts such as Vic Damone. On returning to Memphis he played trumpet in the bands of Tuff Green and Al Jackson Sr. In 1955 Mitchell formed a band of his own once more, to take up a residency at Danny's Club, across the Mississippi in the suburb of West Memphis, Arkansas (until 1959). The band included bass player Lewis Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson (future members of Booker T & the MG's) and a vocal quartet called The Four Kings, with Don Bryant on lead vocals. The group had three releases on Eddie Bond's Stomper Time label in 1958-59, two vocal singles and one instrumental 45 ("Bongo Beat"/"The Crawl").
After leaving Eddie Bond in 1960, Mitchell linked up with Ruben Cherry in the capacity of house musician and producer for the latter's Memphis-based Home of the Blues label. The guiding touch of Mitchell proved to be a great asset on recordings made by Roy Brown, Larry Birdsong, The Five Royales and other artists. Willie had also three (instrumental) singles released on Home of the Blues under his own name.
At the end of 1961 Mitchell joined the Hi label, also in Memphis. Formed in 1957 with Joe Cuoghi as president, the label's main output consisted of instrumental recordings, with Bill Black's Combo and Ace Cannon as its most successful acts. Mitchell's first release for Hi was "The Crawl, Part 1 & 2", the first part being a reissue of the Stomper Time recording. Willie's combo became Hi's regular studio band and recorded many instrumental singles and albums in the 1960s. It wasn't until his fifth Hi single that Mitchell entered the charts, peaking at # 31 (both pop and R&B) with the infectious "20-75". The song was named after its catalogue number, Hi 2075. Mitchell had eight more chart entries in the 1960s, the best selling being "Soul Serenade" (# 23 pop, # 10 R&B) in 1968. Personally I prefer the more rocking "Bad Eye" (1966) and "Slippin' and Slidin'" (1967), which only scraped the bottom of the pop charts. In 1968 Mitchell was voted "Instrumentalist of the year" by Cash Box magazine.
Mitchell's real forte was as a producer and arranger and he was instrumental (no pun intended) in developing Hi Records into a viable alternative to Stax, after that label's decline. When Joe Cuoghi died in July 1970, Willie's long years of hard work for Hi were rewarded when he was made vice president of the company. Nick Pesce became the new president, but he gave Mitchell full creative control. The 1970s were Hi's glory decade and Willie's discovery Al Green became the biggest soul star of the seventies, with 16 pop hits (including a number one, "Let's Stay Together", 1971) and 25 R&B hits (including six chart toppers). Other successful acts on Hi were Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright and Otis Clay. Mitchell himself recorded only sporadically in the 1970s and had no chart entries after 1969. In 1976 Hi was sold to Cream Records of Los Angeles, a company run by Al Bennett who had previously headed Liberty Records.
Mitchell left Hi in 1979, spending two years as a producer for the Bearsville label before he started his own independent record label, Waylo Records, with artists like Billy Always, Lynn White and Joyce Cobb. He also owned and operated the Royal Recording Studio in Memphis.
Willie Mitchell passed away on January 5, 2010, from a cardiac arrest. His final work was producing Solomon Burke's last studio album, "Nothing's Impossible", released in June 2010.
Interview with Mitchell (2004) :
Discography (Hi only) : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/wmitchell.htm
Acknowledgements : The late Tony Wilkinson, Roger St. Pierre, Greg Prato.
Dik, November 2014
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