Al Green may have eventually made it without Willie Mitchell guiding hand, but the two are directly intertwined, its impossible to separate Al Green’s sound without thinking of Willie Mitchell. Nor would Wu-Tang’s GZA’s signature song “Liquid Swords” have its dark guitar opening without Mitchell’s “Groovin'”. Take a moment, and revisit Rev. Green today, and honor a soul legend.
Best known as the man who signed Al Green to Hi Records and as the producer of Green’s most popular records, Willie Mitchell had a successful recording career of his own during the mid-’60s before meeting Green. Born on March 23, 1928, in Ashland, MS, Mitchell was raised in Memphis, TN, and began studying music and arranging at an early age, taking up the trumpet at the age of eight and learning from pianist Ozie Horn (as well as drawing from such influences as Roy Eldridge and Harry James). After he was discharged from the Army in 1954, Mitchell moved back to Memphis, where he soon became a popular, local trumpet-playing bandleader — including Elvis Presley hiring the big band to play several private parties. By 1959, Mitchell had turned his attention to studio work and he signed on with Hi Records; he is often credited as being the creator of the oft-copied and instantly recognizable Hi sound (churning organ fills, sturdy horn arrangements, a steady 4/4 drumbeat, etc.).
Throughout the ’60s, Mitchell became a popular concert attraction on U.S. college campuses and he scored several moderately successful soul/dance hit singles, issuing a steady stream of solo releases for the Hi label. When the founder of Hi Records, Joe Cuoghi, died in 1970, Mitchell suddenly found himself in charge of the label. What could have been a turbulent transition turned out to be a smooth one: a year before Cuoghi’s passing, Mitchell had signed an up-and-coming soul singer named Al Green to the label. Under the guidance of Mitchell, Green’s career would soon skyrocket and he became one of the ’70s top soul artists with Mitchell co-producing and engineering all of Green’s albums from 1970 through 1976 (the singer’s most successful period), as well as such classic Top Ten hit singles as “Tired of Being Alone,” “Call Me (Come Back Home),” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” “Let’s Stay Together,” “You Ought to Be with Me,” “Look at What You Done for Me,” “Let’s Get Married,” and others.
A beautiful tribute to some of the musicians who left us this year from the NYTimes. Featuring a diverse range: the Ronettes Ellie Greenwich, Wilco’s Jay Bennet, guitarist Jack Rose, the Stooges’ Ron Asheton, MJ, Koko Taylor and more. Click above link.
Vic Chestnutt’s West Of Rome spent a whole summer on rotation for me. If you’ve ever traveled into the interior of California alone, maneuvering beat-up farm roads with its insistent heat, listening to “Big Huge Valley” you may think Vic was your co-pilot.
Vic Chesnutt is a singer/songwriter who can divide a room, and that might be one of the highest compliments one can pay. Listeners can be turned off by his personal style that values storytelling — though not necessarily straightforward narrative — over smooth and even-metered rhymes. But his legion of fans — including many singer/songwriters — embrace these very distinguishing characteristics. He is surely an original, taking up traditional music streams folk, country, rock & roll, and producing his own idiosyncratic song style. It is tempting to place Chesnutt in the Southern gothic literary tradition. There is a certain Southern flavor in his songwriting — Southern in the sense that the lyrics are peopled with misfit outsiders who forge their own way, all described through Chesnutt’s own cracked lens. Chesnutt’s craggy voice, classical guitar, and outrageous imagination are his tools, and his performances were faithfully preserved by Scott Stuckey’s resonant living room production. After a few spins, listening to Chesnutt and company sound like they’re playing in your living room, the record begins to sound familiar; it’s nooks and crannies, cracks and crevices start to feel homey and comfortable, like an old house or an old friend. There’s a humble magic that West of Rome perpetuates that is ultimately the most enchanting thing about it — it offers a gentle reminder of things that are far too often taken for granted to those who care to listen.
Big Huge Valley.
well the big huge valley is a ribbon of light
the aqueducts are snakes tonight
the stars are homesteaders, staking claims
my head is hopping with historical names
transfer trucks are buffalos
chewing up this desert road
yes and i am nothing especially
just an uptight man on a useless journey
and the oil is pumping up out of the dirt
those virile dinosaurs continue to squirt
and the mountains lay like croaker sacks
the global forces sculpt with tectonic panache
and the crop duster flies through those blackish skies
she ain’t on the clock
she’s banking in and pulling out
her propeller eyes on the wind sock
well the big huge valley is on a respirator
life juices pumped from up in the sierras
the almond trees battle their own disease
the hay is jaundiced and the raisins wheeze
cattle march uner the knife
i do believe the big doctor is sweating up a storm tonight
Words from Kirsten Hersh
What this man was capable of was superhuman. Vic was brilliant, hilarious and necessary; his songs messages from the ether, uncensored. He developed a guitar style that allowed him to play bass, rhythm and lead in the same song — this with the movement of only two fingers. His fluid timing was inimitable, his poetry untainted by influences. He was my best friend.
I never saw the wheelchair—it was invisible to me—but he did. When our dressing room was up a flight of stairs, he’d casually tell me that he’d meet me in the bar. When we both contracted the same illness, I told him it was the worst pain I’d ever felt. “I don’t feel pain,” he said. Of course. I’d forgotten. When I asked him to take a walk down the rain spattered sidewalk with me, he said his hands would get wet. Sitting on stage with him, I would request a song and he’d flip me off, which meant, “This finger won’t work today.” I saw him as unassailable—huge and wonderful, but I think Vic saw Vic as small, broken. And sad.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to listen to his music again, but I know how vital it is that others hear it. When I got the phone call I’d been dreading for the last fifteen years, I lost my balance. My whole being shifted to the left; I couldn’t stand up without careening into the wall and I was freezing cold. I don’t think I like this planet without Vic; I swore I would never live here without him. But what he left here is the sound of a life that pushed against its constraints, as all lives should. It’s the sound of someone on fire. It makes this planet better.
And if I’m honest with myself, I admit that I still feel like he’s here, but free of his constraints. Maybe now he really is huge. Unbroken. And happy.