Willie L. Mitchell (March 1, 1928 – January 5, 2010) was an American soul, rhythm & blues, rock and roll, pop and funk record producer and arranger, who ran Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. He was best known for his Hi Records label of the 1970s, which released albums by a large stable of popular Memphis soul artists, including Mitchell himself, Al Green, O. V. Wright, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and Quiet Elegance. A trumpeter and bandleader in his own right, Mitchell released a number of popular singles for Hi Records as an artist in the 1960s, including "Soul Serenade." It peaked at #43 in the UK Singles Chart in April 1968.
Born and raised in Ashland, Mississippi, Mitchell moved to Memphis when he was in high school. He attended Rust College. At the age of eight, he began to play the trumpet. While in high school, he was a featured player in popular local big bands. He later formed his own combo, which from time to time included musicians such as trumpeter Booker Little, saxophonists Charles Lloyd, and George Coleman, and pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr.
Mitchell landed a job with the Home of the Blues record label as a producer, then left to join Hi Records as both a recording artist and a producer.
Known at the recording studio as "Papa Willie", Mitchell earned his nickname by taking over the reins of Hi Records in 1970 and guiding it through its most successful period. Mitchell's productions have been much noted for featuring a hard-hitting kick drum sound (usually played by pioneering Memphis drummer Al Jackson, Jr. of Booker T. & the M.G.'s).
James Mitchell, Willie's younger brother, was a fantastic trumpet player and one of the members of the Memphis Horns.
Through the 1980s Mitchell ran his own independent record label, Waylo Records. Acts on the label included Billy Always and Lynn White.
In 1987 Joyce Cobb recorded several singles for Waylo, one of which made it to #3 on the British R & B charts: Another Lonely Night (without you).
He and Al Green revived their successful recording partnership in 2003 when Green recorded I Can't Stop, his first collaboration with Mitchell since 1985's He is the Light. Their 2005 follow-up project was Everything's OK.
Mitchell died in Memphis on January 5, 2010 from a cardiac arrest.
His final work was producing the final Solomon Burke studio album, Nothing's Impossibile, released in June 2010.
(2) Best known as the man who signed Al Green to Hi Records and as the producer of Green's most popular records, Willie Mitchell had a successful recording career of his own during the mid-'60s before meeting Green. Born on March 23, 1928, in Ashland, MS, Mitchell was raised in Memphis, TN, and began studying music and arranging at an early age, taking up the trumpet at the age of eight and learning from pianist Ozie Horn (as well as drawing from such influences as Roy Eldridge and Harry James). After he was discharged from the Army in 1954, Mitchell moved back to Memphis, where he soon became a popular, local trumpet-playing bandleader – including Elvis Presley hiring the big band to play several private parties. By 1959, Mitchell had turned his attention to studio work and he signed on with Hi Records; he is often credited as being the creator of the oft-copied and instantly recognizable Hi sound (churning organ fills, sturdy horn arrangements, a steady 4/4 drumbeat, etc.).
Throughout the '60s, Mitchell became a popular concert attraction on U.S. college campuses and he scored several moderately successful soul/dance hit singles, issuing a steady stream of solo releases for the Hi label, including such titles as Sunrise Serenade, It's Dance Time, It's What's Happenin', Hit Sound of Willie Mitchell, Ooh Baby, You Turn Me On, Willie Mitchell Live at the Royal, Solid Soul, and On Top. When the founder of Hi Records, Joe Cuoghi, died in 1970, Mitchell suddenly found himself in charge of the label. What could have been a turbulent transition turned out to be a smooth one: a year before Cuoghi's passing, Mitchell had signed an up-and-coming soul singer named Al Green to the label. Under the guidance of Mitchell, Green's career would soon skyrocket and he became one of the '70s top soul artists with Mitchell co-producing and engineering all of Green's albums from 1970 through 1976 (the singer's most successful period), as well as such classic Top Ten hit singles as "Tired of Being Alone," "Call Me (Come Back Home)," "I'm Still in Love with You," "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," "Let's Stay Together," "You Ought to Be with Me," "Look at What You Done for Me," "Let's Get Married," and others.
Besides racking up the hits with Green in the '70s, Mitchell continued to issue his own solo recordings, including such further releases as Soul Bag, Robbins' Nest, Hold It, Listen Dance, Many Moods of Willie Mitchell, and Willie Mitchell Live, in addition to producing albums for Ann Peebles and Syl Johnson. Mitchell also sporadically issued solo albums, but still continuously produced recordings for other artists, including Otis Clay, Jimmy King, Preston Shannon, and O.V. Wright, among others. The late '90s saw several Mitchell compilations crop up (1998's Hi Masters and 1999's Soul Serenade: The Best of Willie Mitchell), which continued into the early 21st century with a double-disc anthology, Poppa Willie: The Hi Years, 1962-1974, as well as a pair of two-for-one CD releases (It's What's Happenin'/The Hit Sound of Willie Mitchell and Soul Serenade/Willie Mitchell Live). In addition to his many musical accomplishments, Mitchell also owned and operates the Royal Recording Studio in Memphis, TN. He passed away in Memphis on January 5, 2010. ~ Greg Prato & Bruce Eder
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