Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Goodbye, Willie Mitchell

I never met Willie Mitchell, in fact I don't recall ever even seeing him. There were numerous occasions when I stood in line at the old Squash Blossom health food store/restaurant behind Isaac Hayes, who frequented it during the fallow period before "South Park." I used to see Rufus Thomas at a drug store near my parents' house. I used to see Sam Phillips out mowing his grass. I met Estelle Axton, co-founder of Stax Records, at Cordell Jackson's house. But I don't recall ever seeing Willie Mitchell, despite the fact that his house was only about a mile down the road from my family home, on Mendenhall near Shady Grove. It had a low wall around the yard with some tasteful little wrought iron musical notes in it. Otherwise, there was nothing to indicate that inside dwelt a musical genius who influenced generations.

That I never saw him is really irrelevant, because so much of his work was a part of the "soundtrack of my youth" that I feel I carry a small part of him around inside me, which I guess is the musician's greatest gift - to touch another forever. He was responsible for so much great music that it's really impossible to pick a definitive piece, but for me, this song is pretty much what the art of Memphis Soul was all about. I never get tired of hearing this - it's like taking a beautiful journey of discovery every single time. This is Al Green performing a live vocal over the studio track, which is probably about as close to perfection as it comes. In it, Willie Mitchell walks a musical tightrope between potentially treacherous elements like horns, backup singers and strings, all of which have been so badly misused by so many, to deliver something elegant and deceptively simple. I recall hearing somewhere that he invited some local men in off the street to sit on the studio floor during the recording, to inspire the musicians and make the mood more intimate. It never sounds crowded. There is nothing superfluous. Everything belongs and is exactly as it should be. Thank you, Willie Mitchell, may you rest in peace.

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