Sometimes, it takes losing something or someone
in Memphis to really realize what a cool city Memphis is, has been, and can be. If you pay attention just to the problems in politics, crime, and other warts — name me a city that doesn't have problems — like so many people do, then, sure, you're going to be constantly complaining.
Unfortunately, that's what most people do. They complain. They don't try to do anything about it. A lot of them just move to the suburbs or abandon public education, but don't get me started on that or I might break a leg when I fall off of this soapbox.
Many of the people in Memphis who are professionally charged with promoting the city and its attractions do a great job. I've read countless op-ed pieces about all the great things Memphis has to offer, and they are all correct.
But this is for the folks who might already know what a great zoo we have or what great museums we have (full disclosure: I work at one of them, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music) but still don't realize that we are the envy of the world in many circles.
Last week, Memphis lost one of the greatest assets it has ever had, when musician, bandleader, and music producer Willie Mitchell passed away. So much has been written about him here and all over the world since then, it has been incredible, and there's not much factual information I could add about his life and career that hasn't already been covered. Willie Mitchell was as much a Memphis music legend and pioneer as anyone in the music industry. A trumpeter, bandleader, and one of the greatest music producers in history, his accomplishments are part of the very backbone of American music. Mitchell is perhaps best known for discovering, mentoring, and producing soul and gospel icon Al Green (another of Memphis' greatest treasures), but he also recorded and produced the likes of Ann Peebles, Sly Johnson, Buddy Guy, John Mayer, and dozens of others. Mitchell spent his entire life creating sounds that will forever remain distinctive, particularly the soul music his Hi Records label released in the 1960s and 1970s.
He also put together one of the greatest bands in history: the Hi Rhythm Section. In 2007, during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Stax Records, the Stax Museum was fortunate enough to cap off a concert series with a tribute to Willie Mitchell, with all members of the Hi Rhythm Section playing together for the first time in 30 years. I don't relay this to be self-serving, just to point out that even while celebrating the legacy of Stax Records, we thought it fitting to honor Mitchell for all of the great things he had done in his long and wonderful life.
Fortunately, and this is not always the case, the city of Memphis had already shown Mitchell a great deal of appreciation when, in 2004, it renamed the section of Lauderdale Street where his Royal Recording Studio was located as "Willie Mitchell Boulevard." This usually happens after someone of achievement has passed away, but Mitchell was alive to see it. So, kudos to the city for one of the coolest things it has ever done, because Willie Mitchell was one of the coolest men who has ever lived.
Above and beyond his accomplishments in changing popular music forever, "Poppa" Willie Mitchell was a kind and generous mentor to the people with whom he worked and was known by those close to him for his incredible sense of humor. And I think I'm getting close to the point of this.
Willie Mitchell was one of the things about Memphis that has made people from all over the planet love this city for decades. Because of the nature of my job at the Stax Museum, when he passed away last week, my office sounded like a casino, with the desk phone ringing, the cell phone ringing, and e-mails popping up like fruit on a slot machine. People who loved him were calling from Spain, France, England, New York, Chicago, you name it. A lot of these were journalists who had interviewed Mitchell, and some were just people who had visited Memphis and visited Royal Studios to find him sitting at the front desk with his feet propped up, dressed like a movie star, complete with his signature shades. He always welcomed them in and made them feel at home, and if he wasn't there, his sons would do the same. I can't tell you how many times people, with excitement and awe in their voice, would say to me, "Wow. I got to meet Willie Mitchell."
And yes, I feel the same way. There are a lot of things that make me proud of Memphis. Willie Mitchell was one of those. I never saw him when I didn't laugh out loud a dozen times. There's a lot to be said about a man of his stature who was still down to earth enough to make that happen. He will be missed.