Mission to Memphis With Willie Mitchell

When the legendary Label Chief at Cream Records, Al Bennett, called me into his office in Hollywood I didn’t really know what to expect. As I entered I saw a handsome black man sitting in front of his desk and Al looked up and said, “Willie this is Don Sundeen, I’m going to send him to Memphis to help you out with this Al Green thing.” Willie Mitchell stood up to shake my hand with a big smile, and welcomed me.

Willie Mitchell was one of the great Memphis based artists and producers, head of HI Records, and proprietor of the famous Royal Recording Studio. Al explained that we’d just acquired HI Records but there was a problem, the most prominent artist at Hi, Al Green, owed us an album and since he’d become very religious was dragging his feet on cutting a “secular record.” So my assignment was too get Willie and Al together again to produce that record. Memphis eh? One of the homes of the music that I loved, sister to New Orleans.

Willie Mitchell Memorial Celebration, January 13, 2010

Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, things didn’t turn out that way. Al wrote and produced the album himself, and he and I would eventually travel around the South doing interviews and dinners with the radio folks. But what did happen was that Willie Mitchell and I became great friends.

In 1977 I’d spend a few days each month at Royal Studio working with Willie and the other artists including: Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright and Syl Johnson, while waiting for Al to deliver his new album. Willie took me into his home, out to dinner with his family and generally treated me like part of his world.

Once we went to lunch, and he pulled up in front of a house in a residential neighborhood. We walked around back, knocked on the door and were invited into the kitchen where I was served the best barbeque I’ve ever had. Willie had hits on his own, the instrumental, “Soul Serenade” in 1968, and had produced all the Al Green hits up to that time. He said part of the secret to Al’s great success was the heavy bass drum of Al Jackson, Jr. of Booker T. and the MG’s, and the iconic Shure 54 microphone. He also told me of back in the day when Elvis would call around midnight and ask Willie to come over to Graceland with a couple of other players and jam all night. When they left each got a thousand dollar bill from one of the Memphis Mafia.

Willie Mitchell on Al Green and HI Studio

We last spoke in 2010 and I realized something was wrong. His son got on the phone and said, “Willie’s not well Don.” His memory was fading and soon I got the dreaded call that he was gone. Interestingly, not long before he passed he and Al Green reunited and cut two well-received albums. My biggest regret was that I wasn’t there to see that.

Being at Royal Studios was one of my great privileges in my atypical life, you never knew who would come in to record. One afternoon I walked in and Willie said, “You should have been here last night, Bobby Dylan came in to work with the Memphis horns.” I was beyond disappointed, never in my career had I never seen Dylan up close and if I’d been around a day earlier, I could have witnessed him at work. But, maybe there were rules as to whom he’d allow in the Studio, and that’s why Willie didn’t tell me.

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