As a producer, studio engineer, trumpeter and bandleader, Willie Mitchell played a central role in the rise of Memphis as a center for soul music. Mitchell, born in Ashland on March 1, 1928, made many recordings under his own name, including "Soul Serenade." Best known for the classic hits he produced by Al Green, Mitchell also supervised sessions by Mississippians including Syl Johnson (a fellow Benton County native), Otis Clay and Denise LaSalle. He died in Memphis on January 5, 2010.
Willie Mitchell became a major force in Memphis music over the course of a career that spanned more than six decades, producing dozens of hits and shaping the sound of house bands at multiple recording studios. Mitchell and his brother James, a saxophonist, were born into a sharecropping family in Ashland but grew up in Memphis after the Mitchells moved to the city in the 1930s. He had taken up the trumpet by the age of eight and later learned to write musical charts using the Schillinger System of composition from pianist Onzie Horne, Sr. Mitchell said he also studied music for three years at Rust College in Holly Springs. After playing with a service band during an early ’50s stint in the Army, Mitchell worked regularly in West Memphis, Arkansas, at Danny’s and the Plantation Inn, and at the Manhattan Club in Memphis with bands led by Al Jackson, Sr., and Tuff Green and his own group, which included Jackson’s son, Al Jr., Lewis Steinberg and future jazz heavyweights George Coleman and Charles Lloyd. Al Jackson, Jr. and Steinberg were founding members of Stax Records’ studio band, Booker T & the MGs.
The first records Mitchell made under his own name appeared in 1959 on the local Stomper Time label. In 1960-61 Mitchell produced and recorded for the Home of the Blues label before moving to Hi Records. There Mitchell arranged recordings for Mississippians Ace Cannon and Gene Simmons, among others, and began scoring his own instrumental hits. He put together the Hi Rhythm Section in the 1960s with brothers Mabon (Teenie), Charles and Leroy Hodges and drummer Howard Grimes. The group was supplemented by Mitchell’s stepson Archie “Hubbie” Turner on keyboards and the Memphis Horns, including James Mitchell, who helped with horn and string arrangements. Mitchell’s own group recorded prolifically for Hi, enjoying its biggest hit with “Soul Serenade” in 1968, but he increasingly concentrated on producing soul vocalists, most notably Al Green. With backing by the Hi Rhythm Section, Mitchell produced hits for Hi by Green, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, and Ann Peebles, and for other labels by O.V. Wright, Denise LaSalle and others. Mitchell also produced for Hi subsidiaries M.O.C. and Pawn, including downhome blues by Mississippians Big Lucky Carter and Big Amos Patton and soul-blues by Willie Clayton.
Mitchell acquired stock in Hi in 1969, when he became a vice president of the company. Hi was sold to Cream Records in 1977, but Mitchell retained Royal Studios at 1320 Lauderdale (now Willie Mitchell Boulevard) and continued to produce for Hi/Cream. In the ’80s “Poppa Willie,” as he was known in later years, recorded Lynn White and Otis Clay for his Waylo label, and in the ’90s and beyond oversaw productions–often with grandson Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell–for Bobby Rush, Otis Rush, Willie Cobbs, Pops Staples and others, including Al Green.
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