If ever there were an artist and producer who we wouldhave wanted to say "Let's Stay Together" to one another, it was Al Green andhis behind-the-scenes collaborator, Willie Mitchell. In the history ofproducer/artist relations, the Green/Mitchell partnership might be rivaled onlyby the Beatles' hookup with George Martin, when it comes jointly forging asignature sound through an unbroken string of artistically and commerciallymassive records.
In some ways, Green was the anti-James Brown, cooingin a delicate and unreal falsetto instead of indulging in down-and-dirty funk.That was largely Mitchell's doing. "Williehelped me to find my musical identity," Green said in the liner notes forhis 1997 Anthology boxed set."The vibes between us are perfect. Before I met him, my singing was morein the harder vein-Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett. But Willie wantedme to just relax and not sing so hard, just to find Al Green."
Mitchell actually had his own string of R&Binstrumental hits in the 1960s on the Hi label, which started out as a poplabel in 1957 but veered toward soul after Mitchell assumed the company's reinsin 1961. He had successes like O.V. Wright's "Eight Men, Four Women"and Bobby Bland's "Two Steps from the Blues," both in 1965, but thelabel's fortunes took a more significant turn when Mitchell started workingwith Ann Peebles in '67.
All of that, of course, was mere prelude to theproducer/label chief's fateful meeting with Green in 1968. The two were sharing a bill in Midland, Texas,with Mitchell then touring behind one of his own instrumental hits, "SoulSerenade." Green, at that point, had enjoyed just one minor hit, on anotherlabel. The legend oft told by both parties goes that Mitchell urged Green tocome to Memphisand record with him, only to be greeted by the singer's impatience. "I told himhe could be a star in eighteen months," Mitchell remembered, "and he said 'Ican't wait that long!'"
Tens of millions of albums were sold as Mitchell andGreen recorded 10 LPs together, from 1969's Greenis Blues through 1976's Have a GoodTime. Then Green, who had had a born-again experience in 1973, announcedthat he wanted to sing Christian music exclusively. Mitchell said he didn'tknow how to produce gospel, and with that, the partnership was over-except fora few eventual reunions.
Mitchell learned how to produce gospel after all, sortof, for 1995's underrated He is Alive.After Green reconciled himself to his secular career, they came back togetherthis past decade for two projects, ICan't Stop in 2003 and Everything'sOK in 2005. Mitchell had battled diabetes throughout 2002, and rememberedbeing too weak to get up from his chair when Green first stopped by to proposea reunion. But he was strong enough to set some ground rules: "I said, 'Let's don't do no gospel. Let's get it forreal, or I'm goin' back home'," the producer told Rolling Stone. There weremixed critical reactions to their two joint projects of the 2000s, with somethinking the records sounded too nostalgic and others complaining they soundedtoo contemporary. Ironically, Green's latest album, Lay It Down, a collaboration with the Roots' ?uestlove in 2008, washeralded for being a more successful return to "the Willie Mitchell sound" thanthe recent albums he'd actually done with Mitchell.
Mitchell was given a Trustees Award by the GrammyFoundation in 2008. On Dec. 19, he suffered cardiac arrest, according to hisson, Lawrence Mitchell, and he died at Memphis' Methodist University HospitalJan. 4.
"Music has been my whole life," Mitchell, who wasn'tmuch for doing interviews, told the Memphis Flyer in 2003. "I don't know ifyou'd call it a spiritual connection, but I'd die without it. One thing thatI'm proud of is that I was able to make a living for my kids. I've alwayswanted them to know about what goes on around here so they can take it on afterI'm gone... I just can't live without music, man. I still walk the floor atnight, get up, and play something that's in my head. I'm still always trying tocreate something." He might well have been saying to music, "I'm Still in LoveWith You," to the finish.