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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Remembering Willie Mitchell, 1928-2010

The death of Memphis legend Willie Mitchell robs us of one of soul's greatest producers: the man who patented the genius sound of Hi Records and masterminded a run of peerless hits ("Let's Stay Together," "I Can't Stand the Rain") by Al Green, Ann Peebles and others. Here Colin Escott--a great scholar of American R&B--tells the Hi story.--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

The Tennessee city of Memphis has produced three record companies whose reputations have endured: Sun, Stax and Hi. Not bad considering most other cities of comparable size have produced none.

Of those three, Hi seemed the most likely to become an also-ran, but then--a decade after it was launched--it suddenly took on a new lease of life with the arrival of Al Green. Now not even a cursory history of black music can be written without a reference to Hi Records.

Hi was founded with an investment of $3.50 from Ray Harris. As a rockabilly singer, Harris had cut two luminous but wholly unsuccessful records for Sun in 1956 and 1957. Working in construction to keep himself going, he met Jerry Lee Lewis's cousin, Carl McVoy, who greatly impressed him with a rockabilly version of "You Are My Sunshine." They went to a home studio, paid $3.50 and emerged with a rough demo.

Harris had two partners in the project, Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch, who had worked on country music production for Sun in the mid '50s. Rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous at Sun had done little for their fortunes, so Harris, Cantrell and Claunch approached Joe Cuoghi, who owned Poplar Tunes record store and operated a local distributorship. Cuoghi had the financing and industry contacts that the others lacked, and, with Cuoghi's bankroll, Harris went to Nashville and re-cut "You Are My Sunshine," which Hi Records launched in late 1957.

By early 1958 the record was getting some action but Cuoghi could not collect from the distributors in time to pay for more pressings so the partners were forced to sell their burgeoning hit to Sun Records. They used Sun's money to lease an abandoned cinema on South Lauderdale Street, and buy some primitive recording equipment.

It would be over a year before they tasted anything close to another hit; in fact, Cuoghi was on the point of closing the company when they finally hit paydirt with the Bill Black Combo.

Black had been dismissed from Elvis Presley's employ, and was watching the repo man walk away with his household appliances when he and Ray Harris stumbled upon the unique bottom-heavy dance beat that became a trademark for both Black and his saxophonist, Ace Cannon. During the late '50s and early '60s, Hi became indelibly associated with greasy, blues-based instrumentals to the point where Hi was assumed to be an acronym for "Hit Instrumentals."

Both Black and Cannon sold exceptionally well in the R&B market--so well, in fact, that Hi wouldn't place Black's photo on albums so as to foster the illusion that he might indeed be black. The amiable bassist died in 1965, although it remained business as usual for the Combo. By that point, Black had already quit touring and had franchised his name, putting several 'Bill Black Combos' on the road.

It was the British invasion that spelled the end of the first era at Hi Records. Their most consistent seller became black bandleader Willie Mitchell, though it's still unclear how Mitchell actually came to join Hi. Ray Harris recalled that Mitchell was working for an automobile upholstery company and they started talking music while Mitchell was refurbishing Harris' Cadillac. Mitchell recalled that his pianist, Joe Hall, had played on the first Black sessions and that Hall had given Mitchell his ticket into Hi. Wherever the truth lies, Mitchell became a recording artist in 1961, and subsequently the house arranger. His road band became the studio rhythm section.

By the late '60s, Memphis was once again a hive of activity, largely focusing on Stax. In conjunction, Hi did good spin-off business as a custom studio for the singers arriving by the planeload for soul transplants, but they couldn't come up with anyone on their own label who could challenge the Stax artists.

At the close of the decade, Mitchell had almost quit touring after a bad road accident, and he started bringing in more of his own signings, including Ann Peebles and Al Green. He had met Green (originally Greene) in Midland, Texas, and invited him to check out the musical climate in Memphis. Green had already scored a small hit with "Back Up Train," but was staring oblivion in the face when he met Mitchell.

When Green broke through with "Tired of Being Alone" in 1971, the original Hi partnership had been completely re-cast. Quinton Claunch had left in 1960, and later co-founded Goldwax Records. In early 1970, Harris quit the company, venturing the suggestion that Green would go nowhere "singing in that sissy voice". A few weeks later, in July 1970, Joe Cuoghi died.

At the same time Carl McVoy, who had bought out Claunch's share of the company, was going through a messy divorce (as one might expect from a cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis) and sold out. Mitchell bought part of Harris' and McVoy's shares and became the executive vice president, while Cuoghi's lawyer Nick Pesce, who had been a silent partner from the beginning, became president.

Al Green had arrived in late 1968, and Mitchell kept the faith through two largely desolate years. During that time, Green found his true voice and Mitchell refined his production values. Hi had bought an old eight-track recorder (pieced together from two Ampex four-track machines), which operated on "tube" technology. The warm sound coloration, dubbed the "tube sound," was integral to Mitchell's productions, as was the snare drum, tuned and mixed in such a way that its crisp, dry snap became the centerpiece of the backing tracks.

Mitchell's rhythm section played with deceptive minimalism, giving him a sparse--but elegant--backing track. Then the vocals were couched in horn and string arrangements, giving the final production a sophistication that Mitchell had always cherished. After years spent working in the giant shadow cast by Stax, he had emerged with something truly unique. More than that, his productions held out the potential for crossover into the pop market, which made the difference between sales in the thousands and sales in the millions.

After Al Green broke through Mitchell tried the same formula with other singers but could never find a consistent winning pattern. He came closest with Ann Peebles, who had come to Memphis from the family choir in St Louis. Standing barefoot on the tattered carpet in the old studio, she turned in many stellar performances including "I Can't Stand The Rain" and "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down," but she could never quite break through into the major league.

Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, O.V. Wright and others made some fine music with Willie Mitchell, but there was no doubt that Al Green paid the rent--and he became a trouble man. He found material comforts less rewarding than he'd imagined when he had none and started a chain of events that would see him found his own church and retire from the worldly music scene in search of a little peace of mind. The catalyst for this change of heart was a plate of scalding grits doused over him by a jilted girlfriend one morning.

Shortly before Green's "retirement," Atlantic Records reportedly offered nine million dollars for Hi. By this point, only Bill Cantrell and Nick Pesce remained from the original partnership that launched the label two decades earlier. Both were in favor of selling, although Mitchell held the view that if Atlantic were offering $9 million one year, they would offer $18 million the next. His optimism proved to be unfounded, and Hi was eventually sold in 1976 for considerably less than $9 million to Cream Records, a corporation that had been founded by Al Bennett, previously president of Liberty Records.

Bennett planned to make Hi a continuing force in the marketplace, but his plans were pre-empted by the disco explosion, a sharp downturn in the record business and the fact that Al Green's popularity could not survive his return to the church. Shortly after Bennett died in 1989, the company's operations moved to a squalid little cubbyhole in a Hollywood office block and were subsequently put up for sale.

For two decades, though, Hi made some of the most enduring music of the times. They embraced a multitude of styles, starting with rockabilly, moving into instrumentals and Stax-slanted R&B, and closing with sophisticated soul music. It was a long journey in search of the big payday, but they made the most of being the right place at the right time. Hi had started by following trends and finished by setting them. Only a select few can say as much.

Read more Willie Mitchell pieces--and hear a 1985 audio interview with him — at Over 15,000 articles by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 40 years.

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