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Issue 1084

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B&S classic interview: Willie Mitchell

Willie Mitchell @bluesandsoul.com
Willie Mitchell @bluesandsoul.com Willie Mitchell @bluesandsoul.com Willie Mitchell @bluesandsoul.com Willie Mitchell @bluesandsoul.com

Following the sad death this month of legendary Memphis musician, record producer and former Hi Records chief Willie Mitchell, Pete Lewis recalls interviewing the man best known for “discovering”, mentoring and producing Al Green throughout his multi-million-selling Seventies heyday...

Willie Mitchell - legendary producer, trumpeter and bandleader - holds the key to unlocking the vast array of talent within Memphis’ city limits. Committed deeply to producing the real thing, Mitchell continues to keep the faith in an area that some music heads seen as passé.

Recently Pete Lewis got a head-to-head with the great man himself in EMI’s Manchester Square offices in London. Naturally, the talk turned to his current independent label, Waylo Records. But, as the interview unfolded, neither participant could resist paying a fleeting visit to memory lane… And in particular to the early Seventies heyday of Hi Records, when then-label-boss Willie oversaw and produced its now-legendary roster of soul artists like Al Green, Syl Johnson and O.V. Wright.

PETE: As a producer, how do you adapt to different artists?

WILLIE: “The biggest problem is to give everybody a sound, though I do think the song is the most important thing. If I can hear the voice I want to hear and I’ve got the song, then I make it what I think it should be.”

PETE: How selective are you for your current roster of artists on your own Waylo label?

WILLIE: “I’m real selective. I look for talent, Number One. Number Two, I like for the artist to give ME what I gave THEM. I don’t like any lazy artist. I work, they work, and that’s the kind of artist I like - people who are dedicated to becoming a star. We both work hard together and see what we can accomplish.”

PETE: How far are you prepared to adapt to modern music trends away from the traditional R&B feel? For example, (current Waylo signing) Billy Always’ recent 45 ‘Let Your Body Rock’ was rather Minneapolis(Jam & Lewis/Prince)-influenced…

WILLIE: “You have to search to get the chemistry right with each artist; it doesn’t happen overnight. You take Billy Always. He has the right feel, a good voice, writes good - but it still takes a lotta time to make everything work. So, taking that into account, we do spend a lot of time getting each artist a sound, and trying out different formulas... For example, with another of my current artists - Lynn White - I don’t want to make her leave her soul/blues base because she’s been very successful with that in America. You know, because she’s sold a lot of records, I didn’t want to completely change her overnight. So right now, with the ‘Love & Happiness’ album, I’m testing the water to see how she’ll do in that particular vein without losing her base - and so far it seems to have worked.”

PETE: Is there anyone you’d particularly like to produce?

WILLIE: “I’d like to produce Al Green again, if he’d come back from gospel into soul. I’d like to do Tina Turner again too, because she’s just a magnificent lady, she sings well and we FEEL alike.”

PETE: Were you disappointed with the relative lack of success of Al Green’s first album for A&M Records (1985’s ‘He Is The Light’), which found you producing him for the first time since 1976?

WILLIE: “Three or four years ago gospel music came on the scene really big, with artists like The Clark Sisters and James Cleveland. Then, all of a sudden, the music didn’t sell as well. So I knew, when I was producing that album with Al, that it wasn’t gonna be as successful as some of the things we did back in the Seventies - because that style of gospel music had begun to fade just a bit. I mean, Al still sings well. But, when you’re in the studio with Al doing gospel and the band is swinging, you have a tendency to feel ‘Let’s forget this and let the band SWING! If only I could make him do it like I WANT him to do it… If only I could make him sing like he USED to!’... But, you know, Al and I are very good friends, and I understand he wanted just simple gospel-style arrangements - and so I tried to GIVE that to him.”

PETE: Going through the various artists you’ve worked with, how do your rate them?

WILLIE: “Al Green? He was fun to produce, but he didn’t happen overnight! When I found Al in Midland, Texas, I told him to go to Memphis and he could be a star in 18 months... And it really WAS 18 months before ‘Tired Of Being Alone’ happened big! But, you know, Al was a real craftsman - he worked 24 hours a day! Whatever he had to do to get a track perfect he’d do - if it meant working all night long or - if necessary - a whole month!”

Denise LaSalle (veteran Southern soul diva who belatedly hit the international mainstream with her 1985 novelty smash ‘My Toot Toot’)? She was very nice to work with and had a lot of talent. Her lyrics and melodies I loved.

Tina Turner? Most of the things I cut on Tina for Blue Thumb Records (in the late Sixties/early Seventies) were cover tunes. But even then you could really FEEL her in the studio! You always knew exactly what she wanted to do!”

Syl Johnson (Chicago soul man who topped the US R&B charts in 1970 with his controversial protest anthem ‘Is It Because I’m Black?’)? He really just wanted to sing like Al Green! Plus he of course had had success BEFORE coming to me.”

Willie Clayton (teenage singer who later morphed into a cult hero on the late-Eighties indie-soul scene)? We cut a couple of records on Willie when he was just 16. But then there were so many things happening at Hi Records that we had to cut down the roster - and I thought maybe he’d get better when he got to around 21. So sadly he ended up not on the label any more, but was a real nice kid to work with.

Ann Peebles (legendary Memphis soulstress on whom Willie produced the original 1974 hit version of the now-all-time classic ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’)? I’m gonna TELL you about Ann Peebles! She was the girl with the big voice who could have really gone further. But - and I have to be real honest - I don’t think Ann spent enough time thinking about what she needed to DO! I don’t think she put as much energy into her career as a singer as some of the REST of these people! You know, if you’re a fighter you’ve got to get into shape - and I don’t think she stayed in shape ENOUGH!

O.V. Wright (late Tennessee deep soul legend)? When you gave O.V. Wright a song, the song belonged to HIM! Nobody’d ever do it that way again! In fact, I think O.V. Wright was the greatest blues artist I’ve ever produced.

Otis Clay (Grammy-nominated Mississippi-born soulster)? Another one who had lots of talent, and a good singer... But, in comparison, O.V. was the one who just had something no-one else had.

You know, I enjoyed doing records with ALL those artists. But, in terms of highlights, when you hear how people like Al Green and O.V. Wright perform in the studio it’s like being born again - a real thrill!”

PETE: Why do you feel Memphis is no longer a major music capital in the Eighties?

WILLIE: “The big record companies are very selective now who they put on their label. So they leave people with real talent in towns like Memphis - that are not big international media centres - out on the street. And those artists then have gotta wait in line, and the line is long… So, because these people feel they can’t WAIT a year, they instead end up pressing-up a record themselves, and then do the best they can with it on the LITTLE (independent) labels.”

PETE: “Do you feel the South in general has been neglected by the major-labels in recent times?

WILLIE: “Yes, I do - especially Memphis! The big companies have got so SELECTIVE nowadays - I mean, people would rather sell 50,000 in New York than 50,000 in Atlanta! You know, a lot of labels today will say ‘It’s gotta be played in California and New York - it’s too Southern!’… But then you must remember that you can still sell a million records in the South ALONE! So yeah, I think that is one point that the major labels are now looking at. (Mississippi-based independent) Malaco Records, for example, is a blues label with mostly blues artists - but yet they still sell a lot of records!”

The great Willie Mitchell (who owned and headed-up Memphis’ Royal Studio complex until his passing) sadly died on the morning of January 5, 2010, having suffered a cardiac arrest on December 19, 2009.

‘Blues & Soul’ sends its sincerest condolences to his family and close friends.
Words PETE LEWIS

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