Willie Mitchell dies at 81; record producer worked with Al Green

Willie Mitchell, Lawrence Mitchell
Willie Mitchell, right, works with his son Lawrence Mitchell at his Royal Studio in 2009. Trumpeter Mitchell had several hits in the ‘60s, including “Soul Serenade.”
(Mike Brown / Memphis Commercial Appeal)
Times Staff And Wire Reports

Willie Mitchell, an influential record producer, label head and musician who worked closely with singer Al Green and other stars to help mold the Memphis soul sound, died Tuesday. He was 81.

Mitchell died at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., more than two weeks after he suffered cardiac arrest Dec. 19, said his son, Lawrence Mitchell.

Mitchell obituary: A news obituary of record producer Willie Mitchell that appeared in Section A Jan. 6 reported that he received a Trustees Award from the Grammy Foundation in 2008. The award was granted by the Recording Academy. —

A trumpeter, Willie Mitchell signed with Hi Records of Memphis in 1959 and recorded several instrumental hits in the 1960s, including “Soul Serenade” and “20-75.”

Mitchell became vice president of Hi Records in 1971 and moved into producing and shepherding the careers of Green and singer Ann Peebles.

As bandleader with the Hi Rhythm Section and as a producer, arranger and songwriter, Mitchell melded jazz chords and R&B beats. He collaborated with Green on such hits as “Tired of Being Alone,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and “Let’s Stay Together.”

“With Al, I was looking for a specific sound,” Mitchell told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2007. “And he was the only one that could hear jazz changes and really sing in that style. Once we got that together, I just kept making arrangements like that and that was just hit after hit.”

Green was flying to Australia and unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Mitchell also owned Royal Studio where Buddy Guy, John Mayer and others recorded their music. Mitchell resigned from Hi in 1979, after the label was sold, but he stayed busy at his studio.

As early as the 1960s, others in the record industry were trying to decode Mitchell’s formula. Motown chief Berry Gordy was among those who came calling.

“He sent his rhythm section down -- 11 people,” Mitchell said in another interview with the Commercial Appeal. “They were asking me, ‘How do you mic your drums? How do you do this, how do you that?’ . . . I said, ‘Man, I can’t tell you how I do all that.’ They thought it was technique or some system, but I just go by feel. That’s the secret.”

Even in later years, he worked with then-emerging talents like Mayer and Anthony Hamilton.

Most recently, he wrote string and horn arrangements for Rod Stewart’s new album of R&B covers, and produced a still-unreleased album from soul kingpin Solomon Burke.

He received a Trustees Award from the Grammy Foundation in 2008.

Mitchell was born in 1928 in Mississippi and moved to Memphis with his family when he was a child.

Mitchell and his band provided the musical entertainment at several New Year’s Eve parties for Elvis Presley at Presley’s Graceland home.

Family members said funeral arrangements have not been made, but there probably will be private services and a public memorial.

Besides his son, Mitchell’s survivors include two daughters and three grandchildren.

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