I was stuck out in East Memphis when I got the call, but I immediately began putting my thoughts together about what I would write about Poppa Willie, who I met more than a decade ago, when, as an emissary of Rooster Blues, I walked through the door at Royal Recording Studio.
From that first moment, he was the epitome of cool.
I was with Ike Turner, who was cutting Here & Now at Royal, and I got to listen firsthand as the two pioneers traded insults, shared war stories, and, finally, rolled up their sleeves and began work on the album.
Ever since, I knew I could walk into Royal any time and be welcomed by Poppa Willie, who would sit behind his desk, his shoes off and his feet propped up, and hold court as a revolving cast, ranging from Solomon Burke and Al Green to obscure chitlin' circuit dee-jays and up-and-coming rappers, stopped by.
Mitchell was dry, erudite, and irrefutably witty.
The Bo-Keys' Royal Sessions, cut back in 2004, could've provided enough fodder for a soulful take on This Is Spinal Tap — had anyone thought to bring a video camera to the studio.
Faced with a roomful of reverent Japanese tourists, Mitchell once bowed back, mimicking their effusive — yet indecipherable — praise in his high voice.
With Ike, and other insiders, his eyes would sparkle, and he'd talk about the old days, reminiscing about meeting a young Albert Greene, whom he transformed into a soul superstar, dropping gems about O.V. Wright and Syl Johnson, and, once or twice, telling stories about the Beatles, who actually rehearsed at Royal before their 1964 U.S. tour.
Once in the control room, however, he was all business. As his accomplishments on the pop charts attest, he was an engineering genius who could lash together all sorts of recording equipment and, from thin air, build that lush sound that epitomized a Willie Mitchell production. To see him doing it in person was like watching Hemingway stand at his desk in Cuba or witnessing Cronkite as he prepared to file a story on the Vietnam War: With a modicum of movement, Mitchell could, and did, create artwork that defined an era.
Despite health problems that plagued his body in recent years, Poppa Willie worked up until nearly the end of his life. Last year, he produced one more album for Solomon Burke, and in September, he ran his last session, working up a pair of arrangements for Rod Stewart. He was sought after — and worked with — a wealth of others, including John Mayer, Buddy Guy, My Morning Jacket, and locals ranging from Ron Franklin to Deering & Down.
Stuck in traffic today, I listened to WEVL deejay Buck Wilders spin an impromptu, hour-long tribute that featured so much of Mitchell's own music, including the brilliant, swaggering instrumentals like "Percolatin" and "Soul Serenade." It was a fitting send-off for one of the most original, forward-thinking denizens of this town, the last of a triumvirate that includes fellow Memphis producers Sam Phillips and Jim Dickinson, who died in 2003 and 2009, respectively.
Poppa Willie Mitchell's survivors include his daughters, Yvonne and Lorrain, his stepson Archie "Hubbie" Turner, and his grandchildren, Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, Archie Mitchell, and Oona Mitchell.
Funeral arrangements are pending.