Willie Mitchell - Woodchopper's Ball (Hi 2091)
Willie Mitchell will turn 80 next March. If you've been around here a while, you already know that we love us some 'Poppa Willie'. In two separate trips to visit him at his Royal Studio in Memphis, he has been nothing short of wonderful and, despite various health issues, has maintained his sense of humor through it all.
I received a letter the other day from Julius Bradley, whose new Gospel album, He Is Coming Back, is now featured over at holy ghost. In the letter he says "As you have acknowledged on your website, Mr. Willie Mitchell has not received the honors and commendations commensurate with his lifetime accomplishments and contributions to the Music that has become internationally known as the only true American art form. Recently, efforts have been initiated locally to obtain for Mr. Mitchell the Grammy Legend Award for his contributions to this Music. Any assistance by you will be gratefully appreciated."
According to the Recording Academy, the award is presented to 'individuals or groups for ongoing contributions and influence in the recording field'. Let's take a look at some of Willie's accomplishments...
His best known work, by far, is the string of hit records he put together for Al Green in the seventies. Al charted no less than 26 times between 1970 and 1979, a period in which he would spend almost four months atop the charts with six different singles reaching #1 R&B (not to mention four more that sat comfortably in the #2 slot for another three months). Five more Willie Mitchell produced Al Green singles would also break into the top ten, spending an incredible total of over six years on the Billboard charts. Lord Have Mercy.
While the world watched a bloated and overmortgaged Stax fall on it's face by mid-decade, Willie Mitchell was around the corner creating his own instantly recognizable 'Sound of Memphis' for his Hi label. An impressive roster of artists that included Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and George Jackson would hit the charts on a regular basis for the company, working with the crack 'Hi Rhythm' section to keep that 'sound' out there on the streets.
Now, big soul fan that you are, I'm sure you'll agree with me when I say that O.V. Wright was just untouchable. One of the truly great voices in the history of soul music. Well, another under-appreciated fact about Willie Mitchell is that he produced virtually EVERY record O.V. ever made. Let me repeat that for emphasis here, folks; save for his initial ill-fated Goldwax single, Willie Mitchell produced just about ALL of O.V. Wright's output. That's right, whether it was his later stuff on Hi or his amazing ten year run on Don Robey's Back Beat label, it was all recorded at Royal with Willie. Wow. (I couldn't resist putting A Nickel And A Nail up on the A Side... if this was the only thing Mitchell ever produced, that'd be enough for the award, man!)
But there's more... a lot more.
We just spoke about how Willie Mitchell's tight outfit, as the house band at places like the Manhattan Club and the Plantation Inn, influenced a generation of white kids growing up in Memphis, and how bands like the Mar-Keys came up as a direct result of that influence. Add to that the little known fact that fully one half of the original M.G.'s were graduates of Poppa Willie's band and you begin to see the scope of Mitchell's impact on soul music. Al Jackson, Jr. understood that, and made it a point to continue working with 'the Master' until the day he died.
Today's awesome selection (the flip of Buster Browne which would crack the R&B top 30 in the summer of 1965) demonstrates, in my opinion, what I'm talking about. Like a cross between Last Night and Green Onions, the tight horn lines, the Hammond groove, the fat guitar and sax solos over a razor sharp beat mark the foundations that defined the Memphis Sound. Willie did that. Back then, before the arrival of the Hodges Brothers and Howard Grimes, he was working with folks like Reggie Young, Bobby Emmons, and Tommy Cogbill who would go on, of course, to form the nucleus of the 827 Thomas Street band at American Studio later on. As a trumpet player, Willie understood the importance of brass, and it was at Royal where Memphis Horn legends like Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, Ben Cawley, and Charlie Chalmers broke themselves in.
The fact that our current B side here is a cover of a 1939 Woody Herman smash hit provides an indication of how deep Willie Mitchell's musical roots are. He came up working in the big bands of people like Tuff Green and Al Jackson, Sr. and studied arrangement and composition with Memphis legend Onzie Horne. He was there as those bands made their post-war move into smaller ensembles and, as we've seen, laid the groundwork for R&B and Soul. Touring behind top ten hits like Soul Serenade, Mitchell's band remained a popular fixture out on 'the circuit' throughout the sixties. This man has some stories to tell!
When Hi Records was sold in the late seventies, Willie retained ownwership of Royal Studio, where he continues to produce great music to this day. Despite the able assistance of his grandsons Archie and 'Boo', you can still find 'Pop' behind his desk most days, taking care of business. People continue to knock on the door, and just recently he's been working with several European acts who seem to appreciate his talents more than many in his own backyard. Maybe the fact that John Mayer came down to record some of his Grammy award winning material there last year will help to bring Mr. Mitchell and his landmark studio the recognition they so richly deserve.
The fact that the Recording Association bestowed their Lifetime Achievement Award on Booker T & the M.G.'s this year shows that their heart is in the right place. Please join with me and the rest of Poppa Willie's friends in Memphis in helping to convince the Association that he is the right choice for a Legend Award next February. What better way to honor the man on his eightieth birthday?
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