MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Music producer Willie Mitchell passed away this week. You may not know his name, but you probably know his sound. He was the producer and arranger behind a string of hits by Al Green in the 1970s. Those recordings and many more were part of a body of work which spanned six decades. The 81-year-old musician died Tuesday of cardiac arrest in the city he helped put on the musical map -Memphis, Tennessee.
Here's NPR's Felix Contreras.
FELIX CONTRERAS: Willie Mitchell's story is one of a musician who stayed true to his roots, both cultural and musical, and spun gold from those beginnings.
(Soundbite of music)
CONTRERAS: He was born in Mississippi, but raised in Memphis. And when he was released from the Army in 1954, he returned to Memphis and helped establish it at the soul music capital of the South.
(Soundbite of music)
CONTRERAS: Mitchell had a few regional hits before moving from the bandstand to the mixing board in 1960, producing sessions for vocalist Lee Rogers, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright.
(Soundbite of song, "I've Been Searching")
Mr. O.V. WRIGHT (Singer): (Singing) I've been searching, I've been searching, I've been searching, I can't find what I'm looking for.
CONTRERAS: Mitchell did his first sessions for Hi Records at a movie house turned recording studio. Royal Studios was located just a few blocks from the Stax Recording Studio in South Memphis. Mitchell never worked anywhere else.
Ms. ANDRIA LISLE (Freelance Journalist): When you walk in that room at Royal, it's like a circus tent.
CONTRERAS: Memphis-based freelance journalist Andria Lisle visited Royal many times. Mitchell bought the studio in 1970, and Lisle says he didn't change much over the years.
Ms. LISLE: It's covered in burlap - the drapes down from the ceiling down the wall - and it's sloped, because it was a movie theater. And, you know, you've got the vocal booth and of course you've got Al's mic, which is in fact the microphone that Al Green recorded his greatest stuff on in the 1970s.
CONTRERAS: Willie Mitchell started working with a young soul singer named Albert Green at the beginning of that decade, and in just over two years Mitchell and Green produced seven singles that each sold over one million copies. In an interview with NPR in 2000, both Al Green and Willie Mitchell pulled back the curtain on Mitchell's skills as a producer for the 1972 hit "Let's Stay Together."
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Mr. AL GREEN (Singer): I'm in here trying to blow the studio top off and Willie kept saying, no, just sing it. I'm going, like, I think I need to just muscle up and sing it. He said don't try to handle the song, Al. Just let the song happen. Just let it ooze out.
Mr. WILLIE MITCHELL (Producer): I wanted his golden voice on it and he kept giving me somebody else's voice, and that's why we just kept going over and over and over and over again. When he nailed it, I said that's the one.
(Soundbite of song, "Let's Stay Together")
Mr. GREEN: (Singing) I, I'm so in love with you, whatever you want to do, it's all right with me...
CONTRERAS: Mitchell and Green parted ways in 1976, but Royal Studios stayed busy. In the 1980s, Keith Richards recorded a solo album there; even Al Green returned in 1989. More recently, it was John Mayer and Rod Stewart. They all trekked to Memphis, hoping to tap into a bit of the Mitchell magic. They could've gone anywhere to make records, but journalist Andria Lisle says Memphis was as much a part of the Mitchell sound as any piece of equipment in Royal Studios.
Ms. LISLE: Willie knew that the magic was Memphis and he didn't need to go anywhere else. Everybody came to him.
CONTRERAS: Mitchell's son will take over production at the legendary studio. And if future generations of musicians travel to Memphis to record, they'll know exactly where to find Royal Studios. It sits on a street that was recently renamed Willie Mitchell Boulevard.
Felix Contreras, NPR News.