These are dark and death filled days we are inhabiting. As optimistic as I feel about the new year ahead—and I do, for reasons I can’t exactly account for, feel an alignment of stars—the past week has rattled anyone with their heart and mind connected each to the other, as words and pictures rise from the shook ruins of Haiti. Many of us are scrambling for ways to offer help (never mind the crazy uncle we had hoped was safely locked in the attic, who speaks of “the devil” like he was an actual man that might be approached…a corrupt quiz show mastermind to Haiti’s desperate, floozy contestant); but more of us sit slack-jawed and dumbstruck in the face of true, televised catastrophe.

Before the earthquake, however, there was another shudder that passed through some of us, and I hope its relevance isn’t forgotten for long—that being the death in Memphis on January 5th of producer/arranger/songwriter/Hi Records founder Willie Mitchell.

If all Mr. Mitchell had contributed to life as we knew it in the 20th century was producing Al Green’s “Love And Happiness,” that alone might have warranted the sitting president to Air-Force-One-it to Memphis and lay a wreath on the steps of Royal Studio, at the corner of S. Lauderdale Street and E. Trigg Ave.

But of course, that wasn’t all that Willie Mitchell contributed. He defined an era by forging a sound that lent groove and grit to smart, introspective songwriting—slyly hinting at the lusty impulse driving so much of that wise reflection. One listen through Ann Peebles’ seminal song cycle “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” for example, is proof enough that comprehensive minds were indeed at work, crafting not just an endlessly seductive batch of recorded song, but a fully-formed belief in The Spiritual and The Sensual as equal partners in a marriage.

When Willie Mitchell passed away last Tuesday, I happened to be working on a film soundtrack in my basement studio, in the company of none other than Solomon Burke whose latest album (yet to be released) was the last full project helmed by Mitchell.

Solomon was visibly rattled at the news of his friend’s passing, if not completely surprised. He shared a few stories with all of us in attendance about how tough a taskmaster Willie Mitchell had recently proved to be, badgering The King of Rock and Soul into dozens of passes at even single lines within a song, ever on the lookout for that perfect landing, that nuanced reading that says something more, with rhythm and inflection, than mere words can articulate; something that illuminates.

“I made Al Green sing that beginning ”I-y’I-y’I-y’I—” for six weeks straight when we were cutting ‘Let’s Stay Together,’” Mitchell scolded Solomon, “and I got a house full of Grammys to back me up!”

Solomon kept singing.

When I last heard from Solomon Burke four days ago, he was in his Lincoln Town Car, en route from Los Angeles to Memphis, Tennessee for Willie Mitchell’s memorial service, held just yesterday. I’m not exactly sure why he chose to drive that punishing distance rather than fly, but if I were Solomon, I might have done the same. Sometimes, even a king wants to feel humble.

Joe Henry
January 14, 2010
South Pasadena, CA