This piece was originally published January 11th, 2010. You have doubtlessly heard a Willie Mitchell production. Perhaps it was one of John Lennon’s fave songs of the early ’70s—the Ann Peebles’ 1973 R&B/Pop classic, “I Can’t Stand The Rain.” It might be one of Willie’s own funky soul groove singles of the ’60s such as “Soul Serenade,” “Poppin'” or “The Crawl.” Or, eventually, if you’ve ever thrown a stone anywhere near a place where music was coming out of a speaker, then it was probably one of the many, many smash hits that Willie produced (and often co-wrote) with the inimitable Southern soul giant of the ’70s, singer Al Green.
Take your pick: “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me,” “Tired Of Being Alone,” “You Ought To Be With Me,” “Let’s Get Married,” “Love And Happiness,” “Here I Am (Come And Take Me)” —all mighty Al Green gems easily recognized and forever playing somewhere on the planet at this very moment.
Al Green not really your thing? Then maybe you might better know his song that helped to put The Talking Heads on the legitimacy map in 1978 by getting a lot of airplay and becoming a hit for them in their earlier days (a time when they were previously just being thought of as a bunch of oddball artschool types in polo shirts who did that wacky French laced “Psycho Killer.”)…
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, the legendary “Take Me To The River.”
Willie Mitchell grew up in Memphis, and from an early age he was playing his main instrument, the trumpet, as well as studying music theory and composition. By the mid ’50s he developed into a very popular bandleader and keen arranger in demand, (including putting together a few private parties for Elvis) and by 1959 while turning more and more towards becoming a recording artist, signed on with Hi Records as a performer, primarily as a means of showcasing his groovy soul, trumpet led dance instrumentals.
Hi Records was already a fairly successful Memphis, TN Rockabilly styled record label before Willie’s arrival, but became better known as an instrumental label in the early ’60s through a connection with Elvis’ Sun Recordsbass player Bill Black via The Bill Black Combo. Their song, “Smokie part 2” became a big hit which lead to an extremely high profile for the band as well as for Hi Records when the Beatles asked them to be their opening act for their 1st American tour.
Through his association working for Hi Records, Willie created a string of his own successful albums and songs, constantly touring and all further helping to garner Hi Records reputation as a place for jazz tinged grooves and tight instrumental funky Southern dance blues.
Willi’s heavy and consistent work routine and streamlining his band, which now included some of the finest rhythm players that Memphis, or anywhere for that matter, had to offer, as well as his exceptionally modern approach to capturing these sounds in his recording studio would become his own personally stamped Willie Mitchell sound and arrangement style.
By 1969 all his previous ’60s work helped to pave the way for what would become the next phase of the Willie Mitchell/Hi Records story—becoming Vice President of the label and with Willie producing great soul vocalists. First there was the aforementioned Ann Peebles, and then throughout the 1970’s, the mega superstardom of his close association with Al Green.
Al Green, a young fledgling singer from Arkansas who already had his debut out, and not selling well, was hired on by Willie as a vocalist and then coached in an attempt to pull Al from trying to only imitate his vocal heroes, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Sam Cooke. Willie stressed that al just try and sound like Al Green. the result was a winning marriage of Willie’s production style to Al Green’s smooth yet slightly gritty Southern blues, with a dash of a profoundly engaging falsetto, and all inflected with bits of a wild and sexy element that was learned from his days as a gospel singer.
It was throughout this period that Willie and the label really solidified what is now known specifically as the “Hi Sound”—using such signature methods as stripped down 4/4 drum patterns, glorious deep organ fills, clear and precise horn stabbbing and an atmosphere that somehow was ultra smooth modern soul and futuristically predating post punk.
This Al Green/Willie Mitchell/Hi Records sound would go on to influence a very young David Byrne and provide much inspiration for Byrne. Enough to steer his Talking Heads band of RISD artcats away from his peers’ punk sounds. Whether it was the aggressive, politically charged slash and burn of such bands as Sex Pistols and The Clash; the hopped up scooter Mod of The Jam, or the Beach Boys, Phil Spector at hyperspeed comic book rush that was The Ramones, the Talking Heads were a band apart in look, sound, though their collaboration with another Willie Mitchell production fan, Brian Eno, and by choosing to cover Al Green’s “Take Me To The River.”
Willie Mitchell. One of the true great Renaissance men of music. He is this, by having a large solo career, by producing a massively successful and fantastic body of work for Al Green and others, and by helping to pass down a distinctly unique sound as well as a recognizably memorable stamp on one of the unlikeliest periods in music—via David Byrne and Talking Heads—the punk era. An era that was usually more about smashing the past, but as it is well known now, to have been more about capturing a fresh and stylistic groove of the best that great musical art can serve up, and in this case, as a sweet Southern dish of soul.