Willie Mitchell, architect of the legendary Memphis soul sound, has died at the age of 81. Mitchell worked most notably with Al Green and Ann Peebles, but also with lesser-known but amazing singers like O.V. Wright.
As musical director for Hi, the independent label founded by Memphis record retailer Joe Cuoghi and musician Ray Harris, Mitchell fashioned a run of gritty '70s soul smashes — some of which crossed over to the pop side — characterized by gliding, stabbing horn charts and propulsive drum work by Al Jackson Jr. and Howard Grimes.
The label's Royal Recording Studio employed a top-flight house band, Hi Rhythm, comprising the musical Hodges brothers — guitarist Mabon ("Teenie"), bassist Leroy Jr., and keyboardist Charles. The group became the '70s equivalent of Booker T. & The MG's, hit-making house unit for the Bluff City's Stax Records.
I spent many years tracking down Willie Mitchell 45s in thrift stores and record stores. I still cherish those singles, spinning them at the occasional dance party, but mostly putting them on the turntable when I'm alone, so that I can shuffle my feet and nod my head and twirl around the room in amazement.
Not too many producers can capture and translate the sound and mood of a city and a time. But listen to anything that Willie Mitchell touched, and there's an undeniable and irrepressible heartbeat, a groove and a drive.
Rest in peace, Willie Mitchell. And thanks for your music.