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Memphis Soul Pioneer Willie Mitchell Dies At 81

Mitchell, circa 1970. The music producer's work began in the 1950s and extended into the 21st century.
Michael Ochs
Getty Images
Mitchell, circa 1970. The music producer's work began in the 1950s and extended into the 21st century.

Music producer Willie Mitchell died Tuesday at age 81. Though you may not know him by name, you certainly know his work: Mitchell was the producer behind a string of hits by Al Green in the early to mid-1970s — just part of an expansive body of work that began in the 1950s and extended into the 21st century.

Mitchell's story is one of a musician who stayed true to his roots, both cultural and musical, and spun gold from those beginnings. Born in Mississippi but raised in Memphis, Mitchell help to establish his city as the soul-music capital of the south. He started as a trumpeter and had a few regional hits before moving from the bandstand to the mixing board in 1960. He soon began producing sessions for vocalists O.V. Wright, Lee Rogers and Ann Peebles.

His first sessions for Hi Records were recorded at a movie house turned recording studio, Royal Studios. From then on, he never worked anywhere else.

'Let The Song Happen'

In 1970, Mitchell bought Royal Studios and established a session band with the best Memphis R&B musicians. At around the same time, he booked time in Royal for a young soul singer named Albert Greene. In a little more than two years, Mitchell and the newly minted Al Green produced seven singles, which each sold more than 1 million copies.

In an interview with NPR in 2000, Green and Mitchell pulled back the curtain on the latter's skills as a producer for the 1972 hit "Let's Stay Together."

"I'm in here, trying to blow the studio top off," Green said, "and Willie kept saying, 'No, just say it.' I'm going, like, 'I think I need to just muscle up and sing it.' He said, 'Don't try to handle the song, Al. Just let the song happen. Just let it happen. Just let it ooze out and let it — that's right.' "

"I wanted this golden voice on it, and he kept giving me somebody else's voice," Mitchell said. "And that's why we just kept going over and over and over and over again. Yeah. When he nailed it, I said, 'That's the one.' "

The Mitchell Magic

The two parted ways in 1976, but Royal Studios stayed busy with Mitchell productions. By the 1980s, the Green-Mitchell collaborations had become influential, and other musicians started to make their way to Memphis, hoping for some of the Mitchell Magic.

"If you walk into that room, it's like a circus tent," says Andria Lisle, a Memphis-based freelance journalist who visited the studio many times. "It's covered in burlap that drapes down from the walls. It's sloped, because it was a movie studio, and you've got the vocal booth. You've got Al's mic, the mic that Al Green recorded his greatest stuff on in the 1970s."

John Mayer, Rod Stewart and Keith Richards all made their way to Memphis, Royal Studios and Willie Mitchell. By 1989, even Green made his way back.

"Memphis was just as much a part of the Mitchell sound as any piece of equipment in Royal Studios," Lisle says. "Willie knew the magic was Memphis, and he didn't need to go anywhere else. Everybody came to him."

If future generations of musicians make the trek to record in Royal Studios, there'll be an instant reminder of Mitchell's legacy. In 2004, the name of the street along that section of south Memphis was changed to Willie Mitchell Blvd.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
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