*Studio musician Todd Simon (of Antibalas, Breakestra, The Dap Kings, and El Michels Affair fame) wrote this on Willie Mitchell’s recent passing. Willie was a big influence on Todd, and studio musicians like him, so here are some of his thoughts. RIP Mr. Mitchell.
To find out one of your biggest heroes has passed away via Twitter is not fun. Five days into a brand-spanking new decade, I stumble upon a tweet from the east coast vinyl-digging monster DJ Small Change: “RIP Willie Mitchell. Can’t fuck with Hi Records real schitt.” My heart sank 20 floors.
Willie Mitchell is solely responsible for creating one of the most unique sounds from the R&B Soul movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Mitchell, who died at the age of 81 due to a heart-attack on January 5th, 2010, developed something fresh in R&B while Soul radio stations were flooded with James Brown, the Motown sound of Detroit, Philly Soul, and of course, his neighbors over at Stax in Memphis.
As in-house producer for Hi Records, “Papa Willie” produced and arranged hit after hit with Soul legends Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright, and Bobby Bland. Mitchell also led his own band as a trumpeter and released many hits under his own name, including “Soul Serenade” and “30-60-90“. Eventually, he gained ownership of Hi Records in 1970 and continued the label’s legacy until the late ’70s.
The first time I heard Willie’s sound was on Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” on an oldies radio station around the age of nine. I had already started studying the trumpet and was blown away by the powerful and intense horns throughout the entire song. Soon to find out, my mother had two Al Green LP’s in her wonderful vinyl collection: I’m Still In Love With You and Let’s Stay Together. Little did I know that these records would go on to shape my musical life for years to come. It’s these recordings that served as reference for my first ever horn arrangements in addition to the majority of albums I’ve worked on since.
There is something special and unique about Willie Mitchell’s sound. When you listen to the majority of his work, you hear an almost dark, smooth presence throughout his tracks. Where Motown and Stax is punchy and sometimes bright, the classics on the Hi Label are warm, thick and gritty, all at the same time. A great example of this is heard on Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain“. There’s an eerie, dark sound that was extremely different than most tracks that came out during the 1970’s.
Mitchell’s horns and strings were always on fire. Hi’s recordings had hints of Native-American Indian inspired horn lines, lush and sweet string swells, in addition to pure down-home southern blues lines. An example of Willie Mitchell’s arranging mastery is found on the highly underrated Syl Johnson album Back For a Taste of Your Love. The horns on “Feelin’ Frisky” are pure, intensified soulful energy while the strings on “Let Yourself Go” are outright in your face and, at times, even mind-expanding psychedelic.
Mitchell (above, right, with Al Green, left) had a raw gift for complementing powerful vocalists he worked with by placing horn and string lines at the most perfect places. During one phone conversation I had with Mitchell, he told me: “Vocalists can be insecure, causing them to be extremely sensitive while singing over heavy horns and thick strings. It takes a lot of patience, heart and experience to write the perfect arrangements.” He credited such skill to his early years as a jazz trumpeter and bandleader for greats as Booker Little, Phineas Newborn, Jr. and George Coleman.
Along the way, Mr. Mitchell linked up with Al Jackson, the amazing drummer for Booker T & The MG’s. Jackson was able to create whole different grooves for the Hi label. Some of Jackson’s out-of-nowhere tom hits are heard on some Al Green classics. At times, Jackson’s drums were complimented with impeccable rhythms by the Hodges brothers; Leroy on bass, Teenie on guitar, and Charles on organ. Other times, Howard Grimes would be heard on drums. With this impressive roster of rhythm section musicians, and a movie theater converted into the Royal Recording Studio, Mitchell had an arsenal ready to attack some of the finest Memphis soul out there (please don’t kill me Stax heads!).
I never got to meet the Willie, the trumpeter/ arranger/ composer/ producer/ bandleader/ recording engineer/ label owner responsible for much of my funk roots. We spoke on the phone a few times when I was trying to get him out to Melbourne for the 2006 Red Bull Music Academy. Unfortunately, he could not make it due to health complications from diabetes. I’ll never ever forget what Willie said: “Whenever you are in Memphis again, please come and stay with me. It’d be great to make some music with you.”
** Todd M. Simon is a pisces/ trumpeter/ arranger/ orchestrator/ high school band director whose work can also be found with Quantic Soul Orchestra, Connie Price & the Keystones, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, The Lions, etc.
His recent work includes Mayer Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement, TV On The Radio, Sam Sparro, Dr. Rubberfunk release “Hot Stone”, and the Mochilla Timeless DVD Box Set w/ Mulatu Astatke and Arthur Verocai, out this March.
Todd spends his [very little] spare time with his wife, daughter and chihuahua in Van Nuys, CA. For more info on Todd and his Nu-Fi Studio visit: his website or facebook artist page. He wrote this for NERDTORIOUS.