Willie Mitchell Memorial Celebration
Although I showed up a little late, I got to hang out with some great people, like Don Bryant and his wonderful wife of over 35 years, Ann Peebles. Absolute legends of Memphis Soul, and the cornerstones of Hi Records as it developed its seventies persona, it was an honor to finally meet them face to face.
When I got there, Queen Ann Hines was fronting a band that included Hi Rhythm members Leroy and Charles Hodges, and 'Archie T from Tennessee', and she was just singing her lungs out. Ann soon gave way to the sublime Toni Green who, as she got into a rousing rendition of I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home, called Ms. Peebles and Otis Clay to the stage, and they proceeded to just tear down the house... Lord, have Mercy! Special thanks to the entire Mitchell family for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this memorable evening.
On Wednesday, the official Willie Mitchell Memorial Celebration was held out in Cordova at the Hope Presbyterian Church, the positively cavernous building that was home to the Issac Hayes tribute last August.
Poppa Willie was eulogized by a host of local dignitaries, and one after the other spoke of the special place he held in the hearts of all who knew him. Brand new Memphis mayor A.C. Wharton said "If music was a religion, then Memphis would be it's Holy City..." and went on to lionize Willie as one of its chief Prophets. Moving tributes were given by David Porter, John Fry and several others, but perhaps the most poignant speech of the afternoon was delivered by Al Bell.
Bell, who was recently made the Chairman of the Board at the Memphis Music Foundation, recalled those dark days after the Stax bankruptcy when his phone stopped ringing, and everyone avoided him like the plague. Wiping tears from his eyes, he told us something that he had never shared with anyone before - "At a time when everyone else pushed me away, Willie Mitchell sought me out, and put food on my table, and helped to keep a roof over my family's heads..." Willie's open hearted generosity was spoken of again and again, and all of us who knew him felt the warmth of his presence there in the room.
The Musical Tribute that followed was simply amazing, as Hi Rhythm was joined by full string and horn sections, and a raft of background singers that included both Sandra and Donna Rhodes, whose silken vocals had graced so many great Hi recordings.
As Don Bryant kicked it off with That Driving Beat, you just knew this was going to be one remarkable afternoon. Once Don had finished singing, he mentioned the little known fact that the second vocal on the original 45 was by none other than Willie Mitchell himself! Very cool. Hi Rhythm smoked their way through Soul Serenade, after which Kevin Paige stepped up and delivered a beautiful Let's Stay Together. Preston Shannon, who performs the song regularly with his crack Memphis band, tore it up on Take Me To The River, and J. Blackfoot took O.V.'s That's How Strong My Love Is and just stole the show with it. Willie Clayton's soulful reading of Simply Beautiful was incredible, and Otis Clay got the crowd on its feet with Trying To Live My Life Without You. Life force Solomon Burke (who had driven from California for the funeral), closed out the show with the song Willie had written especially for him, the title track of his forthcoming Mitchell produced album, Nothing Is Impossible.
I was just blown away.
Here's some video I shot with my crappy digital camera which really doesn't do it justice, but hopefully will give you some idea of just how great it was:
Long Live Willie Mitchell!