There are lots of great names to throw around when it comes to soul and funk music, such as James Brown, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Al Green and Otis Redding. But, there is one often over-looked name that really deserves and commands the attention of all, and that man's name in Willie Mitchell.
Mitchell, in the early years of his career as a musician, performer and band leader, started out as a classically trained trumpet player, but was lured in by the sounds of soul and rhythm and blues music by the mid-1950s. By 1963, Mitchell was signed to the fledgling Hi Records label, a predominantly R&B instrumental label, writing and recording a string of modest hits until his "20-75" single hit the Southern airwaves in 1964, producing Mitchell's first big regional hit record.
The title, "20-75", directly relates to the single's catalog number, which is a massive foot-stomper of an instrumental, rivaling anything by James Brown's 'Famous Flames.' You instantly get hit on both sides of the head by the band's trumpet assault and slinky Buddy Guy-like guitar licks, followed by an onslaught of sweaty roadhouse saxophone at the bridge. The just over two minute track clips by faster than one would realize, and is the kind of song that will keep you coughing up quarters in the jukebox to keep dancing the night away. (A longer or possible live version, I'm sure, survives in the Hi Records vault, somewhere, just waiting to be dusted off and released.)
On the flip side of "20-75" is another equally upbeat, foot-pounding instrumental, "Secret Home." There's almost a sort of jazzy, game show theme song quality to this one, which sticks in your head virally, as you try to subconsciously try to think of the answer to the day's sixty-four million dollar question. Though, in Hi Records' winning formulaic way, the blistering saxophone returns halfway through the song for a few seconds, before veering back into the repetitive intro, where it is once again time to play 'The Feud.' The guitar on this track, though still audible and prevalent, takes a bit of a back seat to the horn section, but still keeps the rhythm going full tilt.
These two tracks are just a couple of great examples of Mitchell's early playing, arranging and producing abilities, but his real asset to Hi Records would be linked to the discovery of and working relationship with singers Syl Johnson, Anne Peebles and Al Green, producing a slew of major hits for Green in the 1970s, cementing both Mitchell and Green's reputations as a pivotal forces in mainstream soul music.
Sadly, Mitchell's tenure with Green and Hi Records would end towards the close of the 1970s, when the label was sold to Cream Records, and moved from Memphis to the West Coast. Mitchell would remain in Memphis and work as a freelance producer, and beginning in the mid-1980s, own and operate Royal Recording studio.
Mitchell and Green would reunite in 2003 for Green's celebrated comeback record, "I Can't Stop" for Blue Note Records, and again in 2005 for the follow-up album, "Everything's OK." Mitchell would later pass on from cardiac arrest in 2010 at age 81.
Thankfully, Mitchell's legacy continues through his influence on music as well as his Royal Recording Studio. Though most music fans may not know Willie Mitchell by name (yet), they certainly have heard his presence and artistry on countless records, like Al Green's best-known hit, "Let's Stay Together".
Now do you know who Willie Mitchell is? You do now. Oh, and you're welcome.
Song Notes | Willie Mitchell "20-75" b/w "Secret Home"
Hi Records CAT# 45-2075
Recorded: Memphis, TN
Song Credits: W. Mitchell
Producer: W. Mitchell
SIDE ONE: 2:13
SIDE TWO: 2:10
*Please Note: These recordings were transferred from the original vinyl release, and slightly edited for fade in and out purposes. Recordings are for demo purposes only, and not available for download.