It's hardly a surprise that this year's 18th Annual Premier Player Awards honoring Hi Records has been in planning stages for months. "I've been lobbying for this for a long time," says Yvonne Mitchell, daughter of Hi Records mainstay "Poppa" Willie Mitchell. "Jon Hornyak [executive director of the Memphis chapter of NARAS, producer of the event] called me in December, and by the second week of January, we started on this project."
"Memphis music history tends to be focused around the three great labels: Sun, Stax, and Hi," Hornyak explains. "We honored Sun last year, and Stax has this great museum [the Stax Museum of American Soul Music] opening next month, so we thought this would be a great time to honor Memphis soul with a focus on Hi."
"Plus, so many of the artists are still playing, and we're thrilled to honor them," Hornyak says, citing such musicians as sax honker Ace Cannon and members of the legendary Bill Black Combo, who were involved with Hi before the R&B aesthetic kicked in. "Everybody's doing a song from the Hi Records catalog," Hornyak says, naming Hi greats like Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, Don Bryant, Syl Johnson, and The Hi Rhythm Section (who will perform alongside Poppa Willie), The Rhodes, Chalmers & Rhodes background singers, and a nine-man band featuring guitarists Skip Pitts and Thomas Bingham, bassist Jackie Clark, drummer Steve Potts, keyboardist Lester Snell, and a formidable horn section (Scott Thompson, Jim Spake, Lanny McMillan, and Jack Hale Sr.).
Hornyak calls the awards show and salute to Hi "a celebration of the past, present, and future of Memphis music in one night." Concerning Hi -- possibly the longest-running studio in America -- that's a particularly apt description. With a family history that's irrevocably intertwined with countless music-related memories, the night will be especially poignant for the Mitchell family.
"We had a fun childhood, but we were definitely sheltered," Yvonne says. "I started going to the studio back in 1968 after I graduated from Father Bertrand High School," she remembers. "Daddy was playing at the Manhattan Club, right up the street. I started taking an interest in music then."
Yvonne and her younger sister Lorrain jumped right in. "We had a management agency, and we started going on the road with Ann Peebles," Yvonne says. "After we started traveling, we realized that what we were doing at Hi was different and that people really appreciated it. Stax had its own sound, Motown had its own sound, and Hi had its own sound too."
Being in the biz was often hard work.
"My daddy and I mixed [Al Green's] Let's Stay Together album together," Yvonne recalls. "We went in on a Sunday and we came out on a Wednesday. I thought we were going in for six or seven hours, but Poppa said 'When you enter the studio, you never know when you're coming out.' He locked us in until we mixed the entire album. In the entertainment business," she says, "you've gotta sleep it and eat it, or else you'll miss out on something."
Still, Yvonne remembers some amazing moments in the studio. "When O.V. Wright came in, you knew it was gonna be a short session," she says. "He'd do one or two takes, and then it was over. He was that good. I loved the string sessions the most," she adds, citing the late Noel Gilbert's group as one of the best in the world.
Her memories are peppered with superstars: "I remember taking Al Green to Immaculate Conception High School so he could sing to Lorrain's class. That was in 1970," Yvonne recalls. Eighteen years later, a very nervous Yvonne chartered a limo to pick up Keith Richards at the airport. The Rolling Stones guitarist was coming to Hi to record Talk Is Cheap. "He was just the nicest person," Yvonne laughs. "I really did enjoy that session. He even gave me credit on the album."
"We're still churning out hit records," Yvonne says, naming a Robert Cray album that was recently recorded at Hi. "We're just a little old funky studio that never changed anything, and now people are looking for this sound again. You can't get that fat sound anywhere else. You have to be born here to really get it," she claims. "The musicians, the soul, the gut, the feel I don't care where you go or who you find, you can't copy it!"
Memphix DJ Luke Sexton agrees. "The more I've been digging through Memphis 45s, the more I realize that Hi Records makes up the majority of hip-hop samples," he says, citing artists like the Wu-Tang Clan, Eric B. & Rakim, and RJD2, who have built their foundation on Hi beats. Sexton, aka the Red-Eye Jedi, will do the same for his tribute at the Premier Players Awards.
"I've taken samples like the drums on Al Green's 'I'm Glad You're Mine' and combined them with Poppa Willie's 'That's What I Like,' off an obscure Home of the Blues single," says Sexton. "We're scratching this all in with Herb Jubirt, a Hi comedian who sends shouts out to Willie Mitchell." He and Memphix DJ Chad 'Chase One' Weekley will salute Hi, along with Kevin Paige, Susan Marshall, The Porch Ghouls, Preston Shannon, Valencia Robinson, and The Echoes of Truth featuring Equoia Coleman.
The Premier Player Awards will be held on Thursday, April 3rd, at 7:30 p.m. at The Orpheum. Tickets range from $27 to $200 for the event and after-party, which will be held at the Gibson Lounge.