Sunset Serenade 

Saying goodbye to Memphis music legend Willie Mitchell.

Willie Mitchell

Justin Fox Burks

Willie Mitchell

At 7:25 a.m. on Tuesday, January 5th, 81-year-old producer "Poppa" Willie Mitchell died at Methodist University Hospital.

An entire chunk of local music history died with him.

Mitchell, born in Ashland, Mississippi, came to Orange Mound in the early 1930s and never left Memphis.

"By the time I got to Melrose High School, I was already playing with cats like Tuff Green," he told me in 2004. "I also played in Al Jackson's band back then. Not drummer Al Jackson Jr., you understand, but his daddy, Al Sr. He had a big band back then."

Mitchell was working with an instrumental group at Danny's Club in West Memphis when a cover of Bill Black's "Smokie" got the attention of Hi Records president Joe Cuoghi in the early 1960s.

"I started running the sessions, working with O.V. Wright and Bobby 'Blue' Bland. I was also doing my own stuff back then, instrumentals like 'Sunrise Serenade' and '20-75,' stuff like that," Mitchell said.

Before long, he'd taken over Hi's headquarters, a South Memphis recording studio called Royal.

"When I first came in, I listened and listened to that room," Mitchell remembered. "The sound was running all over the place. I wanted to make it stop somewhere. I wanted the air to be dead, and I put up shit every night until I got it right. I swear I can't tell you what I used ... although I will tell you that it was mainly burlap and house insulation. Man, that stuff stuck to me for six months."

My interview with Mitchell happened four years after I first walked through the door at Royal, as an emissary of the Rooster Blues record label.

I was with Ike Turner, who was cutting Here & Now, 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 come to Royal any time and be welcomed by Mitchell, 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 deejays and up-and-coming rappers, stopped by.

Mitchell was dry, erudite, and witty.

With Turner 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 rehearsed at Royal before their 1964 U.S. tour.

"They knew about the studio, because they were carrying Bill Black out on tour," Mitchell said. "Man, we had a big party that day! They went around the corner to Brady & Lil's restaurant and bought up all the barbecue."

When Keith Richards arrived to cut Talk Is Cheap in 1987, he tried to get Mitchell's sound. "I don't blame him," Mitchell said.

In the control room, Mitchell was all business. As his accomplishments on the pop charts attest, he was an engineering genius who could combine 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.

When he wasn't behind the board, Mitchell would roost in the lobby and, if he deemed you worthy, cue up a song or two on his CD player to give you a taste of his latest project. Sometimes, he'd play a number by Mashaa, one of his last protégées, or surprise his audience with a snippet of Al Green, who reunited with his mentor for 2003's I Can't Stop and Everything's OK, released two years later.

Despite health problems that plagued his body in recent years, Mitchell worked 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.

When I interviewed Al Green last year, he said it best:

"Willie, he's seen something in me that I, being the person, didn't even see or hear myself. [Something] he wanted to perfect, that I didn't even know he wanted to perfect. He's a great producer, a great musician, and, on some points, a great magician."

Soon after I got the phone call about Mitchell's death, I was stuck in traffic in East Memphis. It turned out to be a good thing. I turned on WEVL and listened to deejay Buck Wilders spin an impromptu, hour-long tribute that featured so much of Mitchell's own music. It was a fitting send-off for one of the most original, forward-thinking denizens of this town, the last of a triumvirate that included fellow Memphis producers Sam Phillips and Jim Dickinson, who died in 2003 and 2009, respectively.

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.

Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the nonprofit Willie Mitchell Foundation and Scholarship Fund (c/o Royal Studios, 1320 Willie Mitchell Blvd., Memphis, 38106) or to MusiCares (877-626-2748), which offers critical assistance for music people in time of need.


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