Producer-arranger Willie Mitchell, the architect of a string of R&B hits by Al Green, Ann Peebles and other Hi Records stars, died Tuesday in a Memphis hospital. He was 81.
Born in Ashland, Miss., Mitchell was raised in Memphis and began playing in high school. He worked as a session musician for Ike Turner at Modern Records, and his band was the house unit for Reuben Cherry’s House of the Blues label.
As musical director for Hi, the independent label founded by Memphis record retailer Joe Cuoghi and musician Ray Harris, Mitchell fashioned a run of gritty ’70s soul smashes — some of which crossed over to the pop side — characterized by gliding, stabbing horn charts and propulsive drum work by Al Jackson Jr. and Howard Grimes.
The label’s Royal Recording Studio employed top-flight house band Hi Rhythm, comprising the Hodges brothers — guitarist Mabon (“Teenie”), bassist Leroy Jr. and keyboardist Charles. The group became the ’70s equivalent of Booker T. & the MGs, the hitmaking band for Bluff City’s Stax Records.
Mitchell’s most successful charge was the sexy, mercury-voiced Green, who climbed to fame after notching the top 10 R&B hit “Tired of Being Alone” in 1971. His next single, “Let’s Stay Together,” topped both the pop and R&B charts in 1972.
Other Mitchell-Green collaborations that reached the apex of the R&B chart included “I’m Still in Love With You,” “You Ought to Be With Me,” “Livin’ for You,” “L-O-V-E” and “Full of Fire.”
Mitchell and Green reunited for the albums “Going Away” (1986), “I Can’t Stop” (2003) and “Everything’s OK” (2005).
He helmed Syl Johnson’s original version of “Take Me to the River” (later popularized in a rock version by Talking Heads) and striking latter-day work by Chicago-bred R&B singer Otis Clay and Southern soul titan O.V. Wright.
A trumpeter and keyboardist, Mitchell notched a handful of minor instrumental R&B hits during the ’60s with his own combo, the biggest of which was a version of “Soul Serenade” in 1968.
Following the shuttering of Hi in 1981, Mitchell briefly operated his own R&B label, Waylo Records. He received a Trustees Award from the Recording Academy in 2008.
Mitchell is survived by a son, two daughters, two grandsons and a granddaughter.