Willie Mitchell, one of the great sonic architects of soul music, has died. Mitchell had suffered a heart attack on December 19, and passed away early this morning (January 5). He was 81.
Born and raised in Ashland, MS, Mitchell was initially a trumpet player who honed his compositional and arranging talent under the tutelage of Duke Ellington veteran Onzie Horn during the early '50s. Mitchell played with some of the best jazz players in Memphis, such as Booker Little, Charles Lloyd and George Coleman. He gravitated to R&B later in the decade, and his bands became local favourites, even playing gigs at Elvis Presley's Graceland.
In 1960, Mitchell became a producer, arranger and musician at the Home of the Blues record label, but moved to the slightly better known Hi Records a year later. Mitchell's precise horn arrangements and four-to-the-floor beats continued Hi's reputation as a label focused on instrumentals. He had a half dozen hits during the '60s, the most memorable being "Soul Serenade." By mid-decade, he had refined his sound further and incorporated the teenaged Hodges brothers into his spare but hard-hitting sound.
In 1968, Mitchell met down-on-his-luck vocalist Al Greene while on tour in Texas. The famous story goes that Mitchell told Greene that he could make him a star in 18 months' time, but Greene complained that was too long. Nevertheless, Greene made his way to Memphis a few months later, dropped the "e" from his last name and started working with Mitchell.
At the same time, Mitchell became vice-president of Hi and effectively stopped performing to focus on A&R and studio work. He made good on his promise to Green, and produced, arranged and co-wrote many of the biggest soul hits of the '70s, such as "Tired of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together" and "Call Me." Mitchell also scored big hits with singers Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson and O.V. Wright.
Becoming president of Hi & Royal Recording Studios in 1970, Mitchell's trademark sound of earthy rhythms, complex chord changes and gossamer strings boosted the label's fortunes above and beyond crosstown rivals Stax in terms of commercial and artistic success. By the mid-'70s, though, his partnership with Green was winding down and eventually the rise of disco killed off the Hi sound. The label was sold to Cream Records in 1979.
Mitchell worked steadily during the '80s and '90s, but came back strong to reunite with Green for two well-received albums I Can't Stop (2003) and Everything's OK (2005).
Mitchell had recently worked with Buddy Guy and John Mayer, and received a Trustees Award from the Grammy Foundation in 2008.