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Willie Mitchell: “Music all the Way”

15/01/2010

I’ve just heard on Radio Four’s Last Word that Willie Mitchell has died in Memphis. Producer, arranger, trumpet player – Mitchell produced Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Anne Peebles, two of the stirring voices that emerged with soul music and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s (though neither found the audience they deserved). He’s better known for his ‘discovery’ of Al Green – lopping the ‘e’ of the end of Greene’s name, chopping his Afro and teaching him to sound “like himself”, rather than aping Sam Cooke or Wilson Pickett. Mitchell was also responsible for many of the Reverend’s songs, including ‘Let’s Stay Together’, ‘Tired Of Being Alone’ and ‘Take Me to the River’.

Born in Mississippi in 1928, Mitchell moved to Memphis when he was two and grew up there imbibing the music of jazz royalty – the Count, the Duke and the Lady. Eschewing Stax and Motown, but part of the same black entrepreneurial tradition, he joined Hi Records and bought a derelict cinema, The Royal, turning it into a recording studio where he worked his magic over the next forty years. Mitchell’s grandson said he “was doing music all the way till he couldn’t”, and up until three weeks ago he was still working on Solomon Burke’s new album. Burke can still remember his first encounter with this “cool-looking guy”, constantly combing his hair back and showing off his ‘lucky jacket’. “I aint gonna take this off” Mitchell told him, “till we get a hit!”

There are many tracks that demonstrate Mitchell’s skill as an arranger, most obviously, there’s the atmospheric introduction to Ann Peebles’s ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’, capturing the sound of water dropping on a window. But my favourite Mitchell production is of an Eric Randle song from 1972, ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’. It is a sparse recording, leaving plenty of room around the brass and strings, and letting Peebles’s coolly understated performance of this domestic drama –  one of the greatest expressions in song of female revenge – hold the stage.

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