In Memoriam: Memphis Soul Prince Willie Mitchell Music producer Willie Mitchell helped define the sound of soul through his work with Al Green, Ann Peebles and Otis Clay. He produced Green's seductive classics "Tired of Being Alone" and "Call Me" as well as Peebles' hit "I Can't Stand the Rain."
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In Memoriam: Memphis Soul Prince Willie Mitchell

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In Memoriam: Memphis Soul Prince Willie Mitchell

In Memoriam: Memphis Soul Prince Willie Mitchell

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(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. Today we remember Willie Mitchell, the trumpeter and record producer who owned Hi Records of Memphis and recorded hits by among others, Al Green, including this one.

(Soundbite of song, "Love and Happiness")

Mr. AL GREEN (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) Love and happiness, yeah, something that can make you do wrong, make you do right. Mm-hmm. Love. Love and happiness. Wait a minute, something's going wrong, someone's on the phone, three o'clock in the morning. Yeah. Talking about how she can make it right. Yeah. Well, happiness is when you really feel good about somebody. There's nothing wrong being in love one with someone. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, baby. Love and happiness. Love and happiness. Hey. Love and happiness. Love and happiness.

BIANCULLI: That was "Love and Happiness" by Al Green produced by Willie Mitchell. Mitchell died yesterday, two weeks after suffering a cardiac arrest. He was 81. Today, we'll play back interviews Terry Gross recorded with Willie Mitchell and with Al Green.

In 1991, Al Green told Terry how he met Willie Mitchell.

Mr. GREEN: I met him in the country, out in Midland, Texas and Odessa, Texas out there. I met him out there and he asked me about going to Memphis to sing on his recording because he worked at a studio. And we were riding in the car that day and I said, how long do you think it will take me? I was so flamboyant. I don't understand how I did it. I was right on this guy. I says, how long will it take me to become a star?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: And he says, and he swallowed like to choke, right? He says a star? Well, about two years probably if you really work at it. I says excuse me. Let me out. I don't have that kind of time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: He says, you're not serious? I say, I'm serious. I don't have two years to waste on practicing to become a star. I need - in fact, I need some money now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: And really, so he took me down to Hi, he says this kid going to be phenomenal. They says, how do you know? He says, because he's got it in him. And so he borrowed $1500 for me, from the president of the company to get me a place to stay and all that and says I want to work with him because he's going to be phenomenal, just watch.

GROSS: Gee, it really pays to have chutzpah, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: I guess. I just told him I just, you know, I wanted to be what I wanted to be.

GROSS: Now the first song that he asked you to record was a cover of the Beatles "I Want to Hold Your Hand," right?

Mr. GREEN: Could you believe that?

GROSS: It really is hard to believe. Why did he choose that?

Mr. GREEN: I have no idea.

GROSS: What was your reaction to it?

Mr. GREEN: My reaction was good. I thought it was a great song. It was a wonderful song, but it was for the Beatles. It wasn't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: That song "I Want to Hold Your Hold," that song, "Driving Wheel," we was trying to find Al Green. That's what we was trying to find. Who is this guy? Who is this guy with the high falsetto and the rough voice? And Willie says, I'll tell you what. Don't sing with the rough voice. I say, well, what do you want me to do? We's cutting all these different songs by different people -just a lot of songs. He says sing mellow. Don't sing hard. Sing mellow.

And I just went out there and started singing. (singing) I'm so tired of being alone. And, I'm so tired of on my own. Help me girl as soon as you can.

And I looked in the studio mirror. They had this glass, right and you're looking at the engineers...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GREEN: ...and everybody was jumping up and jumping up and jumping up and I says, well, I must be doing something right so I'll just keep on singing, (singing) people say - and that's I don't know how that started. That's the way it's done.

GROSS: Well, that was your song. That was the song you wrote.

Mr. GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: So you already had it written...

Mr. GREEN: Yeah said well, after we got done cutting all these other people's songs, the Beatles and all these blues songs and the Temptations, "Can't Get Next to You" and all these songs, I says, I got a song too. So Willie says, oh please, because he'd been cutting all day - we'd been cutting all day. It was one o'clock in the morning. I says, I got me a song and I wrote it on my own.

So Willie told one of the guys go out there and see what he's got, would you please? I got to have a drink. Willie had a little shot of Vodka or something, and after he went to feeling better he says, all right, what we got out here? And it was this song "Tired of Being Alone" and I had worked it up with the band. And I sung it and it became our first million sale.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to play it.

Mr. GREEN: Let's play it. Come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: Let's play it.

GROSS: This is Al Green's first big hit, the song he wrote, "Tired Of Being Alone."

(Soundbite of song, "Tired Of Being Alone")

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) I'm so tired of being alone, I'm so tired of on-my-own, won't you help me, girl, just as soon as you can. People say that I've found a way, to make you say, that you love me. But baby, you didn't go for that, me, it's a natural fact that I want to come back, show me where it's at, baby. I'm so tired of being alone, I'm so tired of on-my-own, won't you help me, girl, just as soon as you can. I guess you know that I, uh, love you so, even though, you don't want me no more, hey, hey, hey, I'm crying tears, all through the years, I tell you like it is, honey, love me if you can. Ya baby, tired of being alone here by myself, I tell ya, I'm tired baby, I'm tired of being all wrapped up late at night.

BIANCULLI: That's "Tired Of Being Alone" by Al Green, produced by Willie Mitchell. Now, let's listen to a bit of Terry's conversation with Willie Mitchell from 1995.

GROSS: "Tired Of Being Alone," is that the recording that you think really established his sound, both as a songwriter and a singer, and maybe your sound as a producer as well?

Mr. WILLIE MITCHELL (Musician and Producer): Right. I think that was the beginning.

GROSS: This has not only great singing, but it has a great arrangement behind him. Did you do the arrangement yourself?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Can you tell me a little bit about what went into that arrangement, into the horns and the backup singers?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I used to be a jazz player and we always used strange chords, not regular chords that other people use and I think we had some minor nines in there that people weren't using then. So, the arrangement was built in chords that really weren't used in R&B records.

GROSS: More of jazz chords?

Mr. MITCHELL: More of jazz chords, right.

GROSS: What about the backup singers that come in? How did you decide to use backup singers and what kind of sound were you looking for in those singers?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, you're speaking with Donna and Sandra Rhodes, they share a country show. They come on every Saturday and I would watch them. And they were like 16, 17 years old. And we had the studio way over in the ghetto. So, I called their mother and I said your children have really good sound to their voice. I said, I'd like them to come over to studio and work with them. She said, I don't know about that.

But anyway, sooner or later they came to the studio, Donna and Sandra Rhodes. And we began to do some background on different things and they sounded great and I loved the sound. They went through The Bee Gees. They sang for everybody: Frank Sinatra and everybody.

GROSS: Now I'm surprised that the singers that first captured your attention were country singers.

Mr. MITCHELL: It was the sound they had. It was the sound they had. I was trying to really do something that no one else had done in Memphis. And once I put that together and put the right musicians together, I had a sound that was different but still had that feel to it.

GROSS: You said you were putting together a sound nobody else had done before. What was different about your sound?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, we're speaking of Al Green things. So, I was trying to get Al Green to sound jazzy on top and softer, and the band to be down on the bottom of it and pretty in the middle. And that's what, down in Selma, Donna Rhodes and them done. They were pretty in the middle and they had Al Jackson(ph) drums and it was down on the bottom and they was on top doing jazz chords and everything. So that was the difference.

BIANCULLI: Willie Mitchell speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1995 interview with musician and record producer Willie Mitchell. He died yesterday at age 81.

GROSS: You grew up in Memphis, right?

Mr. MITCHELL: Right.

GROSS: What kind of music did you hear when you were growing up?

Mr. MITCHELL: A whole lot of bebop music. And everybody wanted to be Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, including myself. Then there was a guy came from Chicago, he lived in Memphis, his name Andre Horne(ph). He went to school with Quincy Jones and Billy Strayhorn. He came to Memphis. He changed the whole picture of music in Memphis. He organized a big band and this guy was so great. He - one of my elders, he taught me everything. In fact, that's his arrangement on "Shaft" for Isaac Hayes.

GROSS: Oh, really? That's great. I love that arrangement.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, that's Andre Horne. He passed away a while back.

GROSS: So he taught you a lot about arranging?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, yeah. He taught me everything.

GROSS: Willie Mitchell, how did you first join Hi Records?

Mr. MITCHELL: Now, that's funny. I had a real popular band in Memphis, and we used to work in Arkansas, across the river.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MITCHELL: At a club is called Danny's Club(ph) and it became real famous because Bill Black used to come in. Elvis would come in.

GROSS: Bill Black used to play with Elvis.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, he was his bass player. So, they decided to make a record with Hi Records. And I had a piano player named Joe Hall, who is really good. And they wanted to use him. So, I came to Hi and they made a record called "Smokie Part II." And it was a big seller. And after that he was trying to come up with other hit records. They couldn't do it, so they called me and I became Bill Black's arranger. And that's how I got into Hi.

GROSS: So, you started recording your own band at Hi Records.

Mr. MITCHELL: Right.

GROSS: You did mostly instrumentals. In fact, why don't we hear one of the instrumentals you recorded? This was "Soul Serenade," which was a hit for you in 1968.

Mr. MITCHELL: Right.

GROSS: It's one of your compositions, why don't we hear it?


(Soundbite of song, "Soul Serenade")

GROSS: You know, back when you first got to Hi Records and you were recording and producing instrumentals, what was the record label like?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: There was like two guys - myself and Ray Harris. That's what it was like. We'd stay there all night until we'd come up with something. We called Joe, and Joe said - he'd approved and then he put it on the street.

GROSS: Had you worked with recording technology before?

Mr. MITCHELL: No, not really. No.

GROSS: So did you teach yourself?

Mr. MITCHELL: I taught myself, right.

GROSS: Were there mistakes you made early on before you learned the ropes?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I made mistakes, but I made them but once.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What's one of the mistakes that you made?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I told a guy once. I said, you know, you are a great producer, but you taught me more than anybody I have known. He said, what did I teach you? I said, you taught me not to never make a record like you make it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What was the record?

Mr. MITCHELL: I'm not going to tell it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was there a special way you had of miking Al Green's voice and did you mic him any differently on "Can't Get Next to You"?

Mr. MITCHELL: No. I had one mic. It was a DX-77 mic I used on Al all the time. And I wouldn't let anybody else use the mic. And I had a (unintelligible) on it and I'd keep it there all the time. And it was the mic he sang all of his records on.

BIANCULLI: Trumpeter and record producer Willie Mitchell, speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. He died yesterday at age 81.

You can download podcasts of our show at And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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