Willie Mitchell (seated) and (from left) Leroy Hodges, Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, Archie Turner Mitchell, Rev. Charles Hodges and Howard Grimes gave records from Hi that special sound. Gerald Cyrus
by Sherman Willmott
Special to the Memphis Tri-State Defender
What can you say? Memphis has lost a giant. The giantest of giants. There aren’t many giants this big any more. Willie “Pops” Mitchell will no longer be holding court behind the desk at 1320 S. Lauderdale Ave. (now honorary Willie Mitchell Blvd.), and the world is worse off because of that. Mitchell is one of the originators and creators of the Memphis sound. His erudite trumpet playing will endure as one of the most sophisticated and distinctive sounds to emanate from Memphis.
Willie Mitchell and Al Green
Willie “Pops” Mitchell (right) and R &B singer Al Green took soul music to a whole new level. Mitchell, who produced several Top 10 hits for Green, never left the neighborhood he helped to transform into Soulsville USA. In this picture is a Silver Cloud white Rolls Royce that Mitchell bought and had shipped from England for he and his wife’s 25th wedding anniversary. The couple married March 3, 1949. Anna Barbara Mitchell died March 27, 2001. (Courtesy photo)
Until Jan. 5, Mitchell presided over one of the longest running recording studios in music history, celebrating 53 years of hit-making at Royal Recording. Royal Recording is also known as Hi Records – located in the former Royal movie theater, converted to a recording studio by Pop Tunes’ owner Joe Cuoghi in 1957.
While Mitchell was a legendary musician in his own right, he will be remembered for discovering and producing international superstar Al Green through a chance meeting at a small club in Midland, Texas, in 1967. Green was opening for the Willie Mitchell band. Mitchell was taken with the young Green’s singing and called Green over to his booth and told him that he was a pretty good singer. Mitchell told Green that he could make him a star, and the young, impetuous Green asked how long would it take. Mitchell told him that it might take a year or two. Green replied that he did not have that long!
After the show that night, Green returned to where he was living in Michigan, and Mitchell returned to his studio in Memphis. About a year later, Al Green came knocking on Mitchell’s door and asked if that deal was still available. Willie Mitchell said of course it was, and, right then, the two began making a lifelong career of heavenly soul hits with Mitchell composing the music and Green writing the lyrics and singing.
Al Green became the biggest soul singer in the world, and Willie Mitchell became one of the top producers of soul music in the world.
When Memphis was on top of its game in the 1960s, the Willie Mitchell band was the house band at the Manhattan Club on Bellevue Ave. – just a short drive around the corner from the Hi Records studio. Musicians and music aficionados would gather for a last call there and thrill to the uptown trumpet sounds of Mitchell before calling it a night. This club was the souler system supercenter of hipness for late night music mavens, to the point where Elvis himself would rent out the Manhattan Club for his Christmas parties several times in the 1960s. Where is the time machine to take us all back to the Manhattan Club at 2 a.m. on a Friday night in 1965 and dance the night away to the smoothest of sophisticated soul sounds of the Willie Mitchell band?
Some of the stars to pass through the doors of Hi Records’ studio and seek the expert touch of Mitchell include Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright, Ike & Tina Turner, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Al Green, John Mayer, Buddy Guy, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, the Young Fresh Fellows, and even Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Mitchell is also responsible for putting together one of the greatest soul bands of all time – the Hi Rhythm Section. The band has backed Mitchell and his guests on hundreds of soul hits.
Willie Mitchell leaves a body of music that will remain timeless and will endure until the end of mankind. As the sign at a jewelry store in Mid-town says, Willie “Pops” Mitchell made Memphis and the world a better place. Enjoy that soul serenade in heaven, Willie!
(Sherman Wilmott is former curator of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.)
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