Willie Mitchell passed away earlier this month. He produced some of the greatest soul music ever made, so this week's show collects 45 of my favorites, including some big hits from Al Green and Ann Peebles, as well as great music from a handful of lesser-knowns.
It's tough to talk about Mitchell without talking about Al Green, the artist Mitchell worked the most with and had his greatest success with. Green's gift is so overwhelming and his vocal identity is so established that it's easy to overlook Mitchell's role in shaping it. But to hear Green's work prior to recording with Mitchell, or even to hear their early recordings before Mitchell crafted Green's signature style, and to compare it with his mature style is to understand exactly how important a producer can be.
Mitchell plucked Green from relative obscurity, brought him to Memphis and recorded him for almost two years before they hit upon Green's sound. Early singles, like "Back Up Train", "Gotta Find a New World" or "All Because", show Green to be a better than average soul singer—strong, gritty, agile—but offer no clue as to how sinuous or graceful Green's vocals could be. It took two albums and a dartboard approach to find out what worked and apparently even Hi Records didn't recognize it at first; Green's breakthrough, "Tired of Being Alone", wasn't the first single from Green's second album with Mitchell, Al Green Gets Next to You
, it was the fourth.
Once Mitchell hit upon a formula for Green, he worked subtle variations on a style that paired lush strings and jazzy chords with a restrained, lightly earthy backbeat. It was a perfect setting for Green’s music and their run of albums from I'm Still in Love With You
to Livin' for You
is almost flawless.
Mitchell’s touch was also evident in a host of other records he cut at Hi Records’ Memphis studio, both for Hi mainstays like O.V. Wright and Ann Peebles and for out-of-towners like the Detroit Emeralds and Denise LaSalle. Mitchell was not just a producer, he was an engineer, too, and the sound he coaxed from the room and from Hi’s band is instantly identifiable. Signature elements stamp all of these productions, like the wheeze of Charlie Hodges’s organ, the full, slightly tame sound of the Memphis Horns and especially the bone-dry snap of a snare drum, whether played by Al Jackson, Jr. or Howard Grimes.
The other acts Mitchell produced may have been less successful than Al Green, but many made remarkable music. When their songs were up to snuff, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and Ann Peebles all regularly made music that was nearly on Green’s level. Soul journeymen like the Masqueraders and George Jackson cut some of their best material with Mitchell, too.
I’ve tried to capture some of the breadth of Mitchell’s work in my mix. It’s not really his greatest hits (that would have required too much Al Green) or a selection of songs that have been popularized by sampling (though many were) and Mitchell’s work as a trumpeter and bandleader gets really short shrift (truth be told, I really dislike the music he made under his own name). I chose my favorites and tried to shape them into a mix that would function as an introduction or a celebration of his incredible body of productions. Enjoy. Download
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1. Al Green: Love & Happiness
2. Al Green: Love Ritual (Remix)
3. Ann Peebles: Somebody's On Your Case
4. O.V. Wright: Ace of Spades
5. Syl Johnson: The Love You Left Behind
6. Ann Peebles: It's Your Thing
7. O.V. Wright: A Nickel & a Nail
8. Willie Mitchell: Groovin'
9. Al Green: So You're Leaving
10. Al Green: Tired of Being Alone
11. Al Green: Let's Stay Together
12. Ann Peebles: I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down
13. Al Green: Call Me
14. Al Green: Your Love Is the Morning Sun
15. George Jackson: Aretha, Sing One For Me
16. Jean Plum: Here I Go Again
17. Syl Johnson: Anyway the Wind Blows
18. Ann Peebles: I Can't Stand the Rain
19. The Detroit Emeralds: Baby Let Me Take You In My Arms
20. Al Green: I'm a Ram
21. O.V. Wright: Are You Going Where I'm Coming From
22. Ann Peebles: Run, Run, Run
23. O.V. Wright: I'd Rather Be Blind, Cripple & Crazy
24. Ann Peebles: Trouble, Heartaches & Sadness
25. Al Green: I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
26. Al Green: I'm Glad You're Mine
27. Al Green: What a Wonderful Thing Love Is
28. O.V. Wright: Let's Straighten It Out
29. The Masqueraders: Let the Love Bells Ring
30. Al Green: La La For You
31. Syl Johnson: Steppin' Out
32. Syl Johnson: I Hate I Walked Away
33. Syl Johnson: Could It Be I'm Falling In Love
34. Al Green: I Wish You Were Here
35. Al Green: Simply Beautiful
36. Erma Coffee: You Made Me What I Am
37. George Jackson: Let Them Know You Care
38. Al Green: Something
39. Al Green: Strong As Death (Sweet As Love)
40. Syl Johnson: Wind Blow Her Back My Way
41. Betty Everett: Just a Matter of Time
42. Teacher's Edition: Sleepy People
43. Al Green: Jesus Is Waiting
44. Syl Johnson: It Ain't Easy
45. Ann Peebles: I Still Love You
If there's interest, I might break the mix into individual tracks and upload them as a .zip, but it's kinda a lot of work, so we'll see.
Statistical shits and giggles:
Number of songs by Al Green: 17
Number of songs by Syl Johnson: 7
Number of songs by Ann Peebles: 6
Number of songs by O.V. Wright: 5
Number of songs by George Jackson: 2
Number of songs by none of the above: 8
Labels: blues, gospel, mixes, R.I.P., radio, soul