Master of Memphis Soul: Willie Mitchell, 1928-2010

Posted January 9, 2010

Willie Mitchell, multi-faceted veteran of Memphis soul, who served as musician, long-time producer and executive at Hi Records, and talent deveoper, died recently. He had a distinguished career that spanned six decades, and was instrumental in shaping the talents and pruducing the recordings of soul artists Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and especially Al Green.

At Hi, Mitchell assembled the famed Hi Rhythm Section of Teenie Hodges, guitar; Charles Hodges, organ; Leroy Hodges, bass; and Howard Grimes, drums, one of the greatest soul bands ever, and the backbone of numerous memorable recordings.

Willie Mitchell in Hi StudiosTruly a soul artist’s soul artist, Mitchell won major awards from the Recording Academy (the body that awards the Grammys) in 2007 and 2008 for his endeavors. He was also a significant recording artist in his own right, with several soul and R&B hits in the 1960s.

Soul, like blues and jazz, was always more than just music, or even African-American music. A fusion of grittiness from the blues with the emotional resonance of gospel, it was political in its own right, and a reflection in the artistic realm of that cry for justice that emerged from the Civil Rights Movement and inspired a decade of activism and protest, from the 1960s into the 1970s. Whether it was in James Brown exulting “I’m Black and I’m proud!” or Aretha Franklin demanding “Respect,” whether it was the heartfelt poignancy of Otis Redding “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay,” or Marvin Gaye asking “What’s Goin’ On?” soul music was another voice that expressed the people’s concerns and the people’s cries for justice, and was both background and foreground of our struggles then–certainly for African-Americans, but also for numerous white youth who were impelled into protest in their own right by the African-American struggles. Whether soul lyrics were explicit or Aesopian, they gave voice to the protests of the 1960s, and were integral to both the cultural as well as the political ferment that, no matter how muted that ferment later bacame, still left an indelible mark not only on U.S., but also on world, politics and culture.

Soul was part of the voice of protest of the 1960s and 1970s. It was our voice, a voice that spoke for and with the voices demanding the U.S. out of Vietnam, that demanded an end to the centuries of injustice to persons of color, that impelled gays and women to speak out in their own voices of protest, anger and demand for change as well.

Willie Mitchell was instrumental in shaping the artistic power of that voice. And, of course, we still listen to and cherish the soul music of the 1960s and 1970s to this day. The sustaining power of that voice owes much to Willie Mitchell. We will not forget him, nor will we forget the music his deft talents brought to such positive fruition. It is a part of us all, and will stay so.


2 responses to “Master of Memphis Soul: Willie Mitchell, 1928-2010”

  1. Isaac Avatar

    Thanks, George, for writing about this. I heard the news on the radio the other day. Sixties and seventies Memphis soul is one of the cultural high points of this country’s history.

    and now, enjoy Al Green’s rendition of the Impressions “People Get Ready”…

  2. georgefish Avatar

    Thanks, Isaac, for the appreciative comment, and also for enclosing the link to Al Green.

    The night I composed my tribute to Willie Mitchell I honored his memory by playing a CD of al Green’s recordings, which displayed in thier musical magnificence Mitchell’s wonderful talents as songwriter, arranger and producer. And also displayed the magnificence of the Hi Rhythm Section, aided and abetted cretively by horns and, when called for, strings as well.

    A couple more notes on Willie Mitchell: he was born on March 1, 1928, and died on January 5, 2010. He was paart of the hottest band in Memphis in the 1950s and 1960s, and toured extensively. The Hi Rhythm Section was actually his touring band of the 1960s. It was on one of his gigs that he met Al Green, a then <& quot>down at the heels<& quot> opening singer for his act.

    Another note on Green: on one of his most venerated recordings, <&quot>Take Me To the River,<& quot> he begins by dedicating the song to Little Junior Parker, a seminal blues artist of the 1950s and 1960s whose music was an important precursor to soul.

    Lastly, I’d like to note that my political commentaries on blues and other pop music are extensively featured in left publications, not only on this Webzine but also in Against the Current, Political Affairs, MRZine, and Socialism and Democracy. Music brings home to me just how much <& quot>The personal is political,<& quot> and in my appraoch and appreciation for pop music I’ve been inspired by Marxist critic Sidney Finkelstein and his seminal book, Jazz: A People’s Music.