Monday, March 16, 2020

Interview with Memphis producer Willie Mitchell

Willie Lawrence Mitchell (who owned and headed-up Memphis’ Royal Studio complex until his passing) sadly died on the morning of January 5, 2010, having suffered a cardiac arrest on December 19, 2009. Perhaps best known for “discovering,” mentoring, and producing Al Green throughout his multi-million-selling Seventies heyday, Mitchell held the key to unlocking the vast array of talent within Memphis’ city limits. Committed deeply to producing the real thing, Mitchell kept the faith in an area that some music heads saw as passé.

In the following interview with Pete Lewis, Mitchell reveals memories from the early Seventies heyday of Hi Records, when he oversaw and produced its now-legendary roster of soul artists like Al Green, Syl Johnson and O.V. Wright.

Willie Mitchell, right, works with his son Lawrence Mitchell
at his Royal Studio in 2009. Trumpeter Mitchell had several 
hits in the ‘60s, including “Soul Serenade.” 
(Mike Brown / Memphis Commercial Appeal)
PETE: As a producer, how do you adapt to different artists?

WILLIE: “The biggest problem is to give everybody a sound, though I do think the song is the most important thing. If I can hear the voice I want to hear and I’ve got the song, then I make it what I think it should be.”

PETE: How selective are you for your current roster of artists on your own Waylo label?

WILLIE: “I’m real selective. I look for talent, Number One. Number Two, I like for the artist to give ME what I gave THEM. I don’t like any lazy artist. I work, they work, and that’s the kind of artist I like - people who are dedicated to becoming a star. We both work hard together and see what we can accomplish.”

PETE: How far are you prepared to adapt to modern music trends away from the traditional R&B feel? For example, (current Waylo signing) Billy Always’ recent 45 ‘Let Your Body Rock’ was rather Minneapolis(Jam & Lewis/Prince)-influenced…

WILLIE: “You have to search to get the chemistry right with each artist; it doesn’t happen overnight. You take Billy Always. He has the right feel, a good voice, writes good - but it still takes a lotta time to make everything work. So, taking that into account, we do spend a lot of time getting each artist a sound, and trying out different formulas... For example, with another of my current artists - Lynn White - I don’t want to make her leave her soul/blues base because she’s been very successful with that in America. You know, because she’s sold a lot of records, I didn’t want to completely change her overnight. So right now, with the ‘Love & Happiness’ album, I’m testing the water to see how she’ll do in that particular vein without losing her base - and so far it seems to have worked.”

PETE: Is there anyone you’d particularly like to produce?

WILLIE: “I’d like to produce Al Green again, if he’d come back from gospel into soul. I’d like to do Tina Turner again too, because she’s just a magnificent lady, she sings well and we FEEL alike.”

PETE: Were you disappointed with the relative lack of success of Al Green’s first album for A&M Records (1985’s ‘He Is The Light’), which found you producing him for the first time since 1976?

WILLIE: “Three or four years ago gospel music came on the scene really big, with artists like The Clark Sisters and James Cleveland. Then, all of a sudden, the music didn’t sell as well. So I knew, when I was producing that album with Al, that it wasn’t gonna be as successful as some of the things we did back in the Seventies - because that style of gospel music had begun to fade just a bit. I mean, Al still sings well. But, when you’re in the studio with Al doing gospel and the band is swinging, you have a tendency to feel ‘Let’s forget this and let the band SWING! If only I could make him do it like I WANT him to do it… If only I could make him sing like he USED to!’... But, you know, Al and I are very good friends, and I understand he wanted just simple gospel-style arrangements - and so I tried to GIVE that to him.”

PETE: Going through the various artists you’ve worked with, how do your rate them?

WILLIE: “Al Green? He was fun to produce, but he didn’t happen overnight! When I found Al in Midland, Texas, I told him to go to Memphis and he could be a star in 18 months... And it really WAS 18 months before ‘Tired Of Being Alone’ happened big! But, you know, Al was a real craftsman - he worked 24 hours a day! Whatever he had to do to get a track perfect he’d do - if it meant working all night long or - if necessary - a whole month!”

Denise LaSalle (veteran Southern soul diva who belatedly hit the international mainstream with her 1985 novelty smash ‘My Toot Toot’)? She was very nice to work with and had a lot of talent. Her lyrics and melodies I loved.

Tina Turner? Most of the things I cut on Tina for Blue Thumb Records (in the late Sixties/early Seventies) were cover tunes. But even then you could really FEEL her in the studio! You always knew exactly what she wanted to do!”

Syl Johnson (Chicago soul man who topped the US R&B charts in 1970 with his controversial protest anthem ‘Is It Because I’m Black?’)? He really just wanted to sing like Al Green! Plus he of course had had success BEFORE coming to me.”

Willie Clayton (teenage singer who later morphed into a cult hero on the late-Eighties indie-soul scene)? We cut a couple of records on Willie when he was just 16. But then there were so many things happening at Hi Records that we had to cut down the roster - and I thought maybe he’d get better when he got to around 21. So sadly he ended up not on the label any more, but was a real nice kid to work with.

Ann Peebles (legendary Memphis soulstress on whom Willie produced the original 1974 hit version of the now-all-time classic ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’)? I’m gonna TELL you about Ann Peebles! She was the girl with the big voice who could have really gone further. But - and I have to be real honest - I don’t think Ann spent enough time thinking about what she needed to DO! I don’t think she put as much energy into her career as a singer as some of the REST of these people! You know, if you’re a fighter you’ve got to get into shape - and I don’t think she stayed in shape ENOUGH!

O.V. Wright (late Tennessee deep soul legend)? When you gave O.V. Wright a song, the song belonged to HIM! Nobody’d ever do it that way again! In fact, I think O.V. Wright was the greatest blues artist I’ve ever produced.

Otis Clay (Grammy-nominated Mississippi-born soulster)? Another one who had lots of talent, and a good singer... But, in comparison, O.V. was the one who just had something no-one else had.

You know, I enjoyed doing records with ALL those artists. But, in terms of highlights, when you hear how people like Al Green and O.V. Wright perform in the studio it’s like being born again - a real thrill!”

PETE: Why do you feel Memphis is no longer a major music capital in the Eighties?

WILLIE: “The big record companies are very selective now who they put on their label. So they leave people with real talent in towns like Memphis - that are not big international media centres - out on the street. And those artists then have gotta wait in line, and the line is long… So, because these people feel they can’t WAIT a year, they instead end up pressing-up a record themselves, and then do the best they can with it on the LITTLE (independent) labels.”

PETE: “Do you feel the South in general has been neglected by the major-labels in recent times?

WILLIE: “Yes, I do - especially Memphis! The big companies have got so SELECTIVE nowadays - I mean, people would rather sell 50,000 in New York than 50,000 in Atlanta! You know, a lot of labels today will say ‘It’s gotta be played in California and New York - it’s too Southern!’… But then you must remember that you can still sell a million records in the South ALONE! So yeah, I think that is one point that the major labels are now looking at. (Mississippi-based independent) Malaco Records, for example, is a blues label with mostly blues artists - but yet they still sell a lot of records!”

Friday, March 13, 2020

Gleaning Memories Uncovers Culture - 1980

By Connie Holman, The Jackson (TN) Sun, June 10, 1980. 

MEMPHIS — For years, the Center for Southern Folklore has been making films, records and books about the people and culture of Mississippi and its rich Delta. 

Now, the center staff is working in its own backyard with a Mid-South Folklife Survey of Shelby, Fayette, Lauderdale and Tipton counties in West Tennessee as well as DeSoto County, Mississippi, and Crittenden County, Arkansas. 

"We see our survey as a year-long search for people," project director Debbie Gibson says. "We're trying to find them and document the culture of an area through its people.

"We're going out in all directions with this survey. We're interested in urban and rural relationships, how they affected the past and now. We're looking for things passed from one person to another." 

The staff hopes to work in Golden Circle counties eventually, but for now, local residents are urged to help supply the center with names of people to interview in the four target counties. 

Skills and knowledge passed from generation to generation need to be preserved and shared with the public, Ms. Gibson says. For example, she's interested in finding people who have been taught by another person to sing or perform the blues, make baskets, gather herbs, tell stories or prepare food. 

"If things are documented, there's an incredible chance for their survival," she explains. "It increases the chances that a younger person can take up what you're documenting."

The survey project is two-faceted — educating the public and documenting traditional culture through interviews and photographs. 

Ms. Gibson and her staff introduce themselves to numerous communities through presentations about the Center for Southern Folklore. Slideshows and films help explain how the center preserves traditional culture. 

"Our outreach is tangible," Ms. Gibson says. "We give them something concrete that doesn't cost them. In return, they name people for us to interview, which we follow up on in our survey." 

"For years, folklorists have been digging up bones in one place and burying them in another," Ray Allen, a music specialist for the project, says. "And the public hasn't been getting to it. With our grant, its emphasis is getting it back to the public." 

Explaining that folklore exists in the city as well as the country is another emphasis of the survey. "Everyone thinks of folklore as old, rural, antiquarian," Allen says. "But, now people are realizing there's lore in the city. Anything that's passed on orally or visually from one generation to another generation is folklore." 

"All of the different cultures do contribute to what we call Southern, rural culture," Miss Gibson says. "The South has not been thought of as having a large, ethnic population, but it does." 

And folklife isn't just basket-making or blues, Ms. Gibson says. "It's all aspects of life passed on. It's barn construction, agricultural techniques and foodways. 

"And, during our interviews, we look at the total culture of a person," she continues. "Our questions are geared to complete biographical information on a person as well as his craft, art, whatever he's proficient at. We tie together his religion, sense of place (what he calls home) and his family. 

"We're dealing with the artist, not just his art, but a picture of his whole life," Allen says. "We don't just record songs or take pictures of a quilter, but how they learn, the social context of the songs in their life. We get inside of their lives." 

One final result of the survey will be a four-day July Fourth weekend festival at Shelby County Penal Farm in 1981. Craftsmen will demonstrate their craft and musicians will perform. 

Photo courtesy of the Center for Southern Folklore 

Lucy Long, an ethnic specialist at the Center for Southern Folklore, interviews Duoang Keo, right, a 1 7-year-old refugee from Cambodia. This was one of many interviews conducted among the ethnic groups in urban Memphis as part of the Mid-South Folklife Survey. This summer, the staff will focus on rural communities in West Tennessee. 

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Grave of Asie Reed Payton

Holly Ridge, Mississippi

We believe the grave marker for Asie Payton was provided by Fat Possum Records.

Asie Payton died of a heart attack on May 19, 1997, in Holly Ridge, Mississippi. It occurred in the early afternoon, while he was driving a tractor in the same fields he’d worked most of his sixty years. For all of 1995 and most 1996, Fat Possum tried unsuccessfully to convince Asie that the world outside Mississippi needed to hear him. But despite living below the poverty level and desperately needing the easy money of a gig, he could not be lured away from Washington County for more than a couple of hours.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

"Good Morning Blues" (1978) - Deconstructing the Dockery Myth

"B. B. King hosts blues special," Clarksdale Press Register, February 19. 1978.

A 60-minute Mississippi ETV film program about Mississippi blues music from its earliest origins at the turn of the century until World War II debuted on MS Educational Television at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, February 21, 1978. Narrated by well-known Mississippi-born musician B.B. King, the program featured the music of 18 Mississippi blues musicians. 

The filmmakers shot King's narration near Cleveland on the plantation of Will Dockery, because it was the alleged "home of many of the singers in the film." New research into the history of the blues and blues tourism in Mississippi reveals, however, that the identification of Dockery farm as "the birthplace of the blues" was a socially-constructed concept devised by early blues scholars and more contemporary brokers of blues tourism. For more information about the myth of southern redemption through a love of Black music, see Deconstructing the Dockery Myth by ethnomusicologist David Evans.

Good Morning Blues, nevertheless, is one of the most comprehensive collections of Mississippi blues singers ever to appear in one film, according to producer Rob Cooper. Some of the musicians featured in the film were Son House of Lyon, Bukka White of Houston, Nathan Beauregard of Ashland, Houston Stackhouse of Crystal Springs, Big Joe Williams of Crawford, Gus Cannon of Red Banks, Furry Lewis of Greenwood, Johnny Shines, Honey Boy Edwards, Walter Horton, Sam Chatmon of Hollandale, Zula Van Hunt of Memphis, Memphis Ma Rainey of Memphis, Hayes B. McMullen of Tutwiler, and Hacksaw Harney of Jackson. Also featured were the recordings of Willie Brown of Robinsonville, Charley Patton of Bolton, and Robert Johnson of Hazlehurst. The film explores the roots of country blues music, which provided the basis for rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul and much of modern music today. 

Producer Rob Cooper hoped the film would demonstrate the connection between the lived experience of African Americans and the art form of the blues. "The blues is as starkly beautiful as the land its singers lived in," declared Cooper. "It is the purest kind of musical and lyrical expression, the perfect vehicle for communicating the pain and deprivation of the harsh and desolate existence of [African Americans] in the early 1900s. It is purely American art, and the majority of the artists came from right here in Mississippi and went on to influence popular music all over the world." 

An art form born out of a need for expression of the problems unique to African Americans, the poor, and the subjugated, blues compositions were put together with traditional verses handed down through the generations, with personal experiences added, perhaps even the singer's own name in the lyrics. Inspiration for blues music came from love, longing, and pain. The language is poetic, strong and vivid, but, at the same time, simple and unpretentious. 

According to the film's writer Edward Cohen, "Blues music is not an art in the classical, conventional, or sophisticated sense of the word, but is art in its simplest and purest state...The blues is not only a musical form, it is a feeling, a feeling that arose out of the years of slavery, of sharecropping, of the life Black men and women led in the early decades of this century. Blues songs are extremely personal; their subjects are hard times, lost love, the desire to move on to a better place." 

According to executive producer and director Walt Lowe, "I think one of the most significant things that can be said about the blues is what B.B. King states in the script: 'There will always be blues as long as people have problems.'"