Willie Mitchell's Royal Recording studio is the last of the historic independent soul-music houses still operating. Though he didn't come to own the place until the mid-1980s, it was always his domain. His Memphis career began in the mid-1950s, with Ace Cannon and Bill Black, through a string of his own 1960s R&B instrumentals, up to the heyday of Al Green, Ann Peebles, Denise LaSalle, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, and others pumping out hit after hit.
Mitchell and the Hi Records artists created a sound that no one has ever duplicated. Part of that has to do with the studio's location at 1320 South Lauderdale, smack in the heart of South Memphis, where the ground is rich and sweet with the feeling that makes soul music. Originally a movie theater, the building's acoustics are derived from its design. The studio rises where the movie screen used to be. The sound grows in a space duplicated nowhere else. "I've recorded all over the world and never found a sweeter spot than right here," Mitchell says. "There's something about the ground here. It's got soul."
While many Memphians might be afraid to traverse the area now, you'd be surprised at the artists who visit or call seeking his services. Alternative and post-punk bands have driven from as far as Seattle to record here. Keith Richards, Boz Scaggs, Rod Stewart, and Tina Turner, to name just a few, have all come calling to record, consult, hang out, snoop, try to get a project financed, or just pick the brain of the master. Mitchell, however, seems remarkably unimpressed with his own status. He'll mention an unfamiliar artist in the same breath as the heavyweights. Just making music is what gets him off. But remember, he says, "I like making hit records. You got to make hits."
And hits he has made. A state-commissioned research paper written in the mid-1990s put the number of Mitchell's gold and platinum units at more than 100. There's a great CD in record stores now -- Soul Serenade: The Best of Willie Mitchell on the Right Stuff label -- that catalogs the instrumental hits he's had under his own name. A Hi Records compilation released by the label in the early 1990s packages a wider retrospective. Others are still being planned.
Following the death of his wife Anna Barbara Mitchell in 2001, he battled diabetes for a time. But now Mitchell has recuperated and appears in terrific health.
Mitchell's not a big talker. This interview request came during what could prove to be one of the most significant projects of his career. We had to promise not to divulge it here, but Mitchell agreed to a short interview during a listening session.
Flyer: What are you working on now?
Mitchell: [Grins] I can't say who we're cutting right now, but it's a very talented artist. A great voice. We've been working hard, man. Every day. I think this is going to be a big, big record.
You seldom went to the nightclub you owned on Beale, and you're notoriously shy about speaking in public. Do you plan to attend the Premier Player Awards?
Yes, I'm going. I'm actually looking forward to it. I think it's a great thing for them to do, and I'm proud that they've thought of Hi Records. We had a great run. It's good to see the city bringing Stax back too. I'm real glad about that. It's helped the city, helped me, helped everybody. I hope it's really a big success.
Did you cut anything over at Stax?
Me and my brother James worked on some Little Milton things over there and some Johnnie Taylor stuff -- a lot of cats. I've played so many places I can't remember all of them.
When did you realize you could actually make it as a producer?
When I cut "Eight Men, Four Women" with O.V. Wright then came right back with "Two Steps from the Blues" with Bobby Bland. I knew I could make it then. That was 1965.
What's the key to the Willie Mitchell sound? Any secret knowledge you'd like to drop on the younger generation?
Oh, I'm not telling that. There is a secret, a couple of little things I do, but I've been lucky a man to be around so many good artists and hit records. It's really the artists that you work with. It's like a school teacher: The producer is the teacher, but it makes it so much easier and so much better when the student likes to get his lesson. If he doesn't want to get his lesson, it's a lot less fun.
The Hi Records recording band -- the Hodges brothers -- and backup singers Rhodes, Chalmers, and Rhodes and your regulars are famous for their contribution here. Anybody in town you see as being that good?
There's a bunch of good musicians around here. I like working with saxophonist Lannie McMillan on sessions. He's real good, very creative. I have my regulars on horns that I like to work with -- Jack Hale, Scott Thompson, Andrew Love, and Jim Spake. Got to cut with those guys. And Ben Cauley. Can't forget Ben.
Heard any good hip-hop lately?
[Laughs] They cut a lot of it around here, but it's really not my thing. It's too fast for me. I like this guy, Brian McKnight. He's really good. I also like what we did with Preston Shannon for Rounder. I was kind of disappointed that they never really took off.
It seems every year someone has a hit with "Let's Stay Together." Any favorite versions?
Not really, but I'm glad they do it though. I was glad to see Tina [Turner] have a big record with it.
Interest in your catalog is growing.
Yeah, that's good. I just got my [royalty] statement from Capitol. The greatest-hits package is selling a lot, but they didn't put "Robin's Nest" on it. I was surprised by that. Illinois Jacquet cut it a long time ago and I've always loved that song.
You've always said there's something in the ground here that makes your sound. Can you explain it?
I've been down here since '59, mingling with the people here. The winos come down here; the working folks come by. There are just good people around here. I like them and they like me. [Laughs] They come in and rob me sometime, but it's no big deal. Some guy'll come in saying he needs a few dollars to get something to eat and then a few minutes later you see him at the whiskey store! But I know when to give and when not to.
If you were to meet God tomorrow, how would you like to be remembered?
Music has been my whole life. I don't know if you'd call it a spiritual connection, but I'd die without it. One thing that I'm proud of is that I was able to make a living for my kids. I've always wanted them to know about what goes on around here so they can take it on after I'm gone. I always loved all of them, the boys and the girls. I teach them the board, help them write songs, play the piano for them. I just can't live without music, man. I still walk the floor at night, get up, and play something that's in my head. I'm still always trying to create something.