As a producer, studio engineer, trumpeter and bandleader, Willie Mitchell played a central role in the rise of Memphis as a center for soul music. Mitchell, born in Ashland on March 1, 1928, made many recordings under his own name, including "Soul Serenade." Best known for the classic hits he produced by Al Green, Mitchell also supervised sessions by Mississippians including Syl Johnson (a fellow Benton County native), Otis Clay and Denise LaSalle. He died in Memphis on January 5, 2010.
Willie Mitchell became a major force in Memphis music over the course of a career that spanned more than six decades, producing dozens of hits and shaping the sound of house bands at multiple recording studios. Mitchell and his brother James, a saxophonist, were born into a sharecropping family in Ashland but grew up in Memphis after the Mitchells moved to the city in the 1930s. He had taken up the trumpet by the age of eight and later learned to write musical charts using the Schillinger System of composition from pianist Onzie Horne, Sr. Mitchell said he also studied music for three years at Rust College
The first records Mitchell made under his own name appeared in 1959 on the local Stomper Time label. In 1960-61 Mitchell produced and recorded for the Home of the Blues label before moving to Hi Records. There Mitchell arranged recordings for Mississippians Ace Cannon and Gene Simmons, among others, and began scoring his own instrumental hits. He put together the Hi Rhythm Section in the 1960s with brothers Mabon (Teenie), Charles and Leroy Hodges and drummer Howard Grimes. The group was supplemented by Mitchell’s stepson Archie “Hubbie” Turner on keyboards and the Memphis Horns, including James Mitchell, who helped with horn and string arrangements. Mitchell’s own group recorded prolifically for Hi, enjoying its biggest hit with “Soul Serenade” in 1968, but he increasingly concentrated on producing soul vocalists, most notably Al Green. With backing by
Mitchell acquired stock in Hi in 1969, when he became a vice president of the company. Hi was sold to Cream Records in 1977, but Mitchell retained Royal Studios at 1320 Lauderdale (now Willie Mitchell Boulevard) and continued to produce for Hi/Cream. In the ’80s “Poppa Willie,” as he was known in later years, recorded Lynn White and Otis Clay for his Waylo label, and in the ’90s and beyond oversaw productions—often with grandson Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell—for Bobby Rush, Otis Rush, Willie Cobbs, Pops Staples and others, including Al Green.
Holding Gold Record awards, from left; Walt Maguire, Nick Pesce, D.H. Toller-Bond and Willie Mitchell. Maguire and Toller-Bond were with London Records, which distributed the Hi label. Pesce was president of Hi, following the passing of founder Joe Cuoghi. Mitchell was awarded more than 50 gold and platinum record plaques during his career.
Mitchell laughs with Hi Records star Al Green.
Ashland native James "Jimmy" Mitchell, Willie's
Syl Johnson (born Sylvester Thompson on July 1, 1936, between Ashland and Lamar), hit the national charts with this Hi album, one of three he recorded for Willie Mitchell, in 1974. He and his brothers Jimmy (b. 1928) and Mac (1934 - 1991) all moved to Chicago, where they excelled in blues and soul music. One of Jimmy's friends growing up in Benton County was Matt "Guitar" Murphy (b. 1929), another onetime Chicago standout later famed for his work with the Blues Brothers. Other Benton County blues musicians have included jug band member Will Batts (1902-1956), pianist Bill Samuels (1911-1964), guitarists Nathan Beauregard (or Bogard, c. 1887-1970), Floyd Lee, b. 1930 as Theodore Williams), Joe Beard (b. 1938), and Little Joe Ayers(b. 1944).
Erected 2014 by Mississippi Blues Commission. (Marker Number 181.)
Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African Americans • Arts, Letters, Music • Entertainment. In addition, it is included in the Mississippi Blues Trail 🎶 series list. A significant historical year for this entry is 1959.
Location. 34° 49.996′ N, 89° 10.548′ W. Marker is in Ashland, Mississippi, in Benton County. Marker is on Ripley Avenue (
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 14 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. Nathan Bedford Forrest (within shouting distance of this marker); Benton County Courthouse (within shouting distance of this marker); Benton County Veterans Memorial (within shouting distance of this marker); Davis Mill (approx. 11.1 miles away); Mississippi Central R.R. Campaign (approx. 11.2 miles away); Macedonia Baptist Church (approx. 11.8 miles away); Blue Mountain College (approx. 14 miles away); Southern Literary Festival (approx. 14 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Ashland.
Credits. This page was last revised on April 21, 2021. It was originally submitted on April 20, 2021, by Tom Bosse of Jefferson City, Tennessee. This page has been viewed 40 times since then. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on April 20, 2021, by Tom Bosse of Jefferson City, Tennessee. • Bernard Fisher was the editor who published this page.