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Al Green Producer Willie Mitchell Dies At 81

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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.

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Mitchell died Tuesday at the age of 81, and though heproduced other great Memphis artists, including Ann Peebles, it's Green hitslike "Tired of Being Alone," "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," "Still in LoveWith You," and "Take Me to the River" that will remain the producer's legacyfor generations to come... and, thanks to these sensual records' renownedbaby-making powers, generations still after that.

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."

The band backing Green was just asimportant a part of those records' identity. Asked by interviewer Tony Jones in2003 if there was a secret to his trademark "Memphis sound," Mitchell answered,"Oh, I'm not telling you that," as if he were Colonel Sanders and had just beenasked for the KFC recipe. But in those minimalist arrangements, the basicelements were easy enough to pick out, if not to imitate: insistent hornarrangements, an insinuating organ, "Teenie" Hodges' elegant guitar lines, anoccasional simple string section, and nearly sleepy drums that always seemedabout to slide back off the beat but never did. It was Hi Records' house band,and Mitchell was very proprietary about them. "It's my own band and they don'twork on other sessions unless I let them, and that's not too often!" Mitchelltold interviewer John Abbey in 1973. "About every two years!"

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!'"

It only took about that long for "Tired of BeingAlone" to put Green on the R&B map, and the subsequent "Let's Stay Together"placed Green firmly on the pop-culture map. "Let's Stay Together" was a perfectexample of their alchemy.  "Trying to get another sound for Al, Ibegan to write some jazz chords," Mitchell said in the Anthology liner notes. "One Saturday afternoon I was tamperingaround on the piano and I came up with this melody of 'Let's Stay Together.' Iplayed it for Al on the piano. Al Jackson was playing drums with his hands,creating the rhythm. So Al [Green] said, 'Give me five minutes and I'll writesome words to it.' About 15 minutes later he came back with some words..." A weeklater, one of the most indelible pop masterpieces of the 1970s was in the can.

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.

After leaving Hi Records, Mitchell continued to ownand operate Royal Recording Studios, where his most famous records were made ona 16-track recorder-but only ever using eight of those tracks at a time,according to lore. Bluesmen like Buddy Guy and pop stars like John Mayer cameby to record in the studio that was set up where a movie theater screen used tostand.... and to try, valiantly and usually in vain, to soak up the vibes fromHi's heyday, when it was Stax Records' crosstown rival.

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.

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