Friday, January 29, 2010

(Do The) Push And Pull, Pt 1 (STAX 0079)

(Do The) Push And Pull, Pt 1

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

So, after the Willie Mitchell Memorial Celebration, people were hanging out in the lobby of the Church, just kind of catching up on old times. I was talking with Otis Clay, Darryl Carter and Howard Grimes, all of whom I have gotten to know better since the O.V. Memorial back in 2008. Along came a lady in red, who proceeded to rub Howard's cheeks. "He's always smiling like that. I always rub 'em whenever I see him, for good luck. He was the drummer on my first record..."

Carla Thomas... I couldn't believe it. Here I was actually getting to meet this woman who played such an important role in the history of Stax. A woman who, for whatever reason, has been thought of as some sort of recluse for the past couple of decades. She was great. Funny and outgoing, with a twinkle in her eye that puts you in mind of her father...

I watched as Al Bell came up to her. I would venture to say that they hadn't been in the same room together since Stax went out of business 35 years ago.

A lot of water has gone under that bridge. The friction between the old and the new at Stax in those days was kind of embodied in Bell's relationship with the Thomas family. A lot of words have been left unspoken. As I said last week, Al is back in town as the head of the Memphis Music Foundation. He was genuinely glad to see Carla, and seemed to welcome the opportunity to let his voice be heard. I spoke with him for some time about the bankruptcy, and he told me in minute detail how it all went down. Not a pretty story, it included, he said, a hit squad that had orders to take him out unless he did what the big money boys wanted him to do. Incredible stuff.

As it turned out, people were going back to the Marriott downtown, and Carla needed a ride. I, of course, offered my services. As we were on our way out, we met up with her brother Marvell (one of Chips Moman's original Triumphs, and the keyboard man on so many great Stax records), who wasn't sure which lot he had left his car in (the place is HUGE). I offered to give him a ride to go look for it. I started talking about how I had Sattelite Radio in this car I rented, and that I had heard Carla on there twice in one hour on the way down. Once we were all in the car, I tuned the radio to Soul Town, and some song was just finishing up.

As the first notes of the next tune came out of the speakers, both of them yelled at once "It's Daddy!" You really can't make this stuff up, folks. Here I am with Carla and Marvell Thomas in my car, which in itself is as unlikely a scenario as one could possibly imagine, and out of all the songs on all the stations in all the world, here's Rufus Thomas (doing a song that was produced by Al Bell, no less) beaming from some Sattelite back down into Memphis, doin' the Push and Pull. Our hair was literally standing on end. It was spooky, man. I don't know if you believe in this kind of stuff, but I sure do. There are no coincidences, my friends. This had to be some kind of sign...

Back at the Marriott, Marvell met up with Sir Mack Rice.

We were soon joined by J. Blackfoot and Eddie Floyd,

as Carla sat there on the couch with David Porter and Al Bell.

Along with a few soul devotees from the UK who had made the trip for Willie's funeral, we had us a time, talking about those storied salad days at Stax. Days when Carla was the Queen to Otis Redding's King, days of Gee Whiz and B-A-B-Y. Like some kind of impromptu Stax reunion, I think some bridges were built, and ideas hatched for some incredible possibilities down the line.

After a while, Carla asked me to take her to another post-Willie Tribute party that was being held at The View, the funky Soul and Blues club out by the airport. We, of course, got lost for a while navigating the I-40/240 nightmare, and it gave me the opportunity to speak with her at length. This is one incredible woman, folks. She has been there and done that. The heir apparent to her father's incredible legacy as the ambassador of Memphis Music, she has chosen to live in obscurity. She has no telephone. "Are you ready to reclaim your rightful place as the Queen of Memphis Soul?" I asked her.

She wanted no part of it...

When we got out to the club, it was obvious how much she was loved by everyone in the place. As they were winding down a set that had included Queen Ann Hines and Toni Green, they pulled Carla up on stage and the joint went nuts.

She didn't sing. She didn't have to.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Willie Mitchell Memorial Celebration

After Willie's funeral last Tuesday, the family held a private reception in downtown Memphis.

Although I showed up a little late, I got to hang out with some great people, like Don Bryant and his wonderful wife of over 35 years, Ann Peebles. Absolute legends of Memphis Soul, and the cornerstones of Hi Records as it developed its seventies persona, it was an honor to finally meet them face to face.

When I got there, Queen Ann Hines was fronting a band that included Hi Rhythm members Leroy and Charles Hodges, and 'Archie T from Tennessee', and she was just singing her lungs out. Ann soon gave way to the sublime Toni Green who, as she got into a rousing rendition of I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home, called Ms. Peebles and Otis Clay to the stage, and they proceeded to just tear down the house... Lord, have Mercy! Special thanks to the entire Mitchell family for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this memorable evening.

On Wednesday, the official Willie Mitchell Memorial Celebration was held out in Cordova at the Hope Presbyterian Church, the positively cavernous building that was home to the Issac Hayes tribute last August.

Poppa Willie was eulogized by a host of local dignitaries, and one after the other spoke of the special place he held in the hearts of all who knew him. Brand new Memphis mayor A.C. Wharton said "If music was a religion, then Memphis would be it's Holy City..." and went on to lionize Willie as one of its chief Prophets. Moving tributes were given by David Porter, John Fry and several others, but perhaps the most poignant speech of the afternoon was delivered by Al Bell.

Bell, who was recently made the Chairman of the Board at the Memphis Music Foundation, recalled those dark days after the Stax bankruptcy when his phone stopped ringing, and everyone avoided him like the plague. Wiping tears from his eyes, he told us something that he had never shared with anyone before - "At a time when everyone else pushed me away, Willie Mitchell sought me out, and put food on my table, and helped to keep a roof over my family's heads..." Willie's open hearted generosity was spoken of again and again, and all of us who knew him felt the warmth of his presence there in the room.

The Musical Tribute that followed was simply amazing, as Hi Rhythm was joined by full string and horn sections, and a raft of background singers that included both Sandra and Donna Rhodes, whose silken vocals had graced so many great Hi recordings.

As Don Bryant kicked it off with That Driving Beat, you just knew this was going to be one remarkable afternoon. Once Don had finished singing, he mentioned the little known fact that the second vocal on the original 45 was by none other than Willie Mitchell himself! Very cool. Hi Rhythm smoked their way through Soul Serenade, after which Kevin Paige stepped up and delivered a beautiful Let's Stay Together. Preston Shannon, who performs the song regularly with his crack Memphis band, tore it up on Take Me To The River, and J. Blackfoot took O.V.'s That's How Strong My Love Is and just stole the show with it. Willie Clayton's soulful reading of Simply Beautiful was incredible, and Otis Clay got the crowd on its feet with Trying To Live My Life Without You. Life force Solomon Burke (who had driven from California for the funeral), closed out the show with the song Willie had written especially for him, the title track of his forthcoming Mitchell produced album, Nothing Is Impossible.

I was just blown away.

Here's some video I shot with my crappy digital camera which really doesn't do it justice, but hopefully will give you some idea of just how great it was:

Long Live Willie Mitchell!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

O.V. Wright - Without You (Hi 2315)

Without You

As you may know, I drove down to Memphis last week to attend Willie Mitchell's funeral. It was an experience I will never forget...

With the congregation swaying as one, Otis Clay sang When The Gates Swing Open as they wheeled Willie's body out into the East Memphis afternoon. As fate would have it, I got stuck at a light on Poplar Avenue, and lost the funeral procession in traffic. As I frantically tried to catch up, and figure out where they were headed, this incredible O.V. Wright song we have here came up on the car radio, and just filled it with light.

The B side of O.V.'s first Hi single, it was written by Willie and Earl Randle and never released on an LP. It is, in my opinion, a work of pure genius, and one of the greatest things to ever emanate from 1320 Willie Mitchell Boulevard. I just kind of melted there in the car...

By the time I made it out to the West Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery, they were just about finished with the graveside ceremony and, as the crowd dispersed, I knew what I had to do. I picked up a flower that had fallen from Willie's casket, and took it with me.

As I drove the 15 miles out to the Galilee Memorial Gardens, I thought about the timeless body of work O.V. Wright and Willie Mitchell had created together. I thought about how blessed I was to have been able to speak with Willie and let him know there were people out here who appreciated what they had done. When it became apparent that his mounting health issues were going to prevent him from attending our Memorial Fund Benefit Concert and Monument Dedication in November of 2008, Willie grabbed my arm and said "Take care of O.V. for me."

As the sun set over Germantown, I laid Willie's flower there on O.V.'s grave.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Al Green - Strong As Death (Sweet As Love) (Hi 2288)

Strong As Death (Sweet As Love)

Willie Mitchell was, in so many ways, the Soul of Memphis. In a city that seems to thrive on rebuilding something to their own specifications once they have succeeded in destroying it, Poppa Willie remained the beating heart of all that was honest and real in that town.

When he opened the door to me at 1320 Willie Mitchell Boulevard, it literally changed my life. Here was the truth I had been searching for. Here in that funky and timeworn place Soul music had survived, watched over by the man who, more than any other single individual I can think of, had created it. As I've said in the past, he was indeed the 'Duke Ellington of Soul', and without his profound influence the music simply would not exist as we know it today.

I am honored to have sat there in that front office and listened as Pop told it like it is, dismissing any talk of 'legend' with a wave of his hand. I was privileged to have been part of the campaign to get Willie the Grammy Trustees Award he so richly deserved in 2008, and treasured the opportunity I had to work with him as we put together the O.V. Wright Memorial benefit for later on that year.

When Bob Wilson booked the studio to record Sir Lattimore Brown that summer, it was like a dream come true. To have been a part of that historic session, and witness the reunion of these two men who had worked together both at Stax and American over forty years ago was something I will never forget.

Spending several days there afforded me the chance to meet Willie's family, and see the love and respect they showed him as they took care of the man who had taken care of them for so long. With the constant parade of grandchildren and great grandchildren that seemed to swirl around him, you could see how much they meant to each other.

He answered the phone at the studio last August, just before his hip replacement surgery. We talked for a while, and I tried to somehow tell him how great I thought he was. As usual, he didn't want to hear it, turning the conversation around to the O.V. Wright benefit. "I like what you do," he told me.

This past October, I visited with Willie at his grandson Archie's apartment in Memphis. As I stood there looking down at him in his hospital bed, I knew it would be the last time I'd ever see him.

I went outside and I wept.
Funeral Services for Willie Mitchell:

Wake - Monday, January 11th from 2-7pm
N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home
12 South Parkway West
Memphis, TN 38109

Private Mass of Christian Burial - Tuesday, January 12th

Memorial Tribute - Wednesday, January 13th 2pm
Hope Presbyterian Church
8500 Walnut Grove Rd, Cordova, TN 38018
Performers to include Solomon Burke, Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, J. Blackfoot, Shirley Brown and many more.

In lieu of flowers, the Mitchell family requested donations be sent to the non-profit Willie Mitchell Foundation and Scholarship Fund c/o
Royal Studios
1320 Willie Mitchell Blvd
Memphis, TN 38106

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

There Are No Words

It is with a heavy heart that I must report to you that our friend Willie Mitchell passed this morning at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis. Words cannot express how much this giant of a man meant to all of us.

I will be posting funeral arrangements as they are finalized.

May God Rest His Soul

Friday, January 01, 2010

More Sad News


The one and only Earl Gaines passed away at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville on New Year's Eve. Earl was kind enough to meet with Bob Wilson and I during our Soul Detective Allen Orange investigation back in 2007. Soft spoken and elegant, I was just in awe of him... I spoke with him again this past October, when I brought Lattimore to Music City on the road trip. He had just cancelled a European tour for health reasons, and was unable to make the Jefferson Street reunion we had set up at Marion James' house, because he told me he was going into the hospital that day. I asked him if everything was OK, and he said he was fine...

May God Rest His Soul.

Here's what I wrote about him on Soul Detective a while back:

Earl Gaines came to Nashville from Alabama in the early fifties. After playing drums on Arthur Gunter's seminal Baby Let's Play House in 1955, he got a job as the lead vocalist with Louis Brooks and his Hi-Toppers. Together they would take It's Love Baby (24 Hours A Day) all the way to #2 R&B that summer (held back from the #1 slot by Fats Domino's Ain't It A Shame). The record put Excello on the map, but when subsequent singles didn't do much, the label dropped him in 1962.

After bouncing around to a couple of local labels, he started working with WLAC dee-jay Hoss Allen in 1964. Recording at Bradley's Barn with roughly the same crew that John R had been using for Sound Stage 7 (minus Allen Orange and Bob Wilson, of course) Hoss began to produce some sides that he shopped around to the record companies. A single, The Best Of Luck To You, was picked up by (of all people) Hanna-Barbera, and released on their HBR label in 1966. Although it would cruise to #28 R&B, the company decided to fold the label and concentrate more on the Jetsons and the Flintstones. Allen got Earl a deal with Starday-King, and despite quality releases on Hollywood and Deluxe (one of which, the MLK tribute Our Friend Is Gone, would feature our man Bob Wilson on the piano), Nothing much was happening with Earl's Career.

In 1972, after Hoss Allen's failing health curtailed his involvement in the business, Gaines signed with fellow dee-jay John R's Seventy-Seven label. John handed him off to Allen Orange. After three singles that failed to make much of an impression, Earl would crack the R&B top 40 once again in the fall of 1973:

77 131 A

Hymn Number 5

A cover of The Mighty Hannibal's 1966 Vietnam hit, I like Earl's version better. When he exhorts those awesome background singers to 'Moan, Children!', it's simply one of the greatest moments in Southern Soul history. Orange's great big production here is flawless, and Earl is just belting it out. A much better singer than Geater Davis ever was, Earl's energetic delivery takes the record to the next level. One of my all-time favorite J.R. Enterprises products!

The follow-up single, although just about as good, failed to make the charts:

77 135 A

I Can't Face It

I don't know if this was recorded at Music City or Muscle Shoals, but the band on here is just on fire! Check out the fat bass line, the oh so Toussaint piano - with the guitar mixed way up front, and the multi-tracked percussion... a masterful job of production by Orange to say the least. Gaines once again is just going for it at the top of his range, singing his heart out. The B side of this record was Earl's version of Soul Children, with Orange apparently trotting out the old 1969 rhythm track and having him sing over the top. It was worth a try, I guess. {this just in - according to our pal Bob Wilson, the backing track here was recorded during the same sessions as the original 'Soul Children', and was initially intended for Paul Vann. That's Wilson (who also wrote the rhythm arrangement) smokin' the 88s along with Tim Drummond, Mac Gayden, Troy Seals and New Orleans' own Karl Himmel laying down that percussion. It was recorded at Music City circa 1969}...

I'm gonna miss him.
Funeral Services for Earl Gaines:

Friday, January 8th
St. Luke CME Church
2008 28th Ave. N.
Nashville, TN 37208

Visitation: 10am
Musical Tribute: 11am
Funeral Service: 12 noon