Willie Mitchell is certainly not a household name, but his productions rank among the best of soul music. While Mitchell was an artist in his own right, he is best known as the vice-president of Memphis soul label Hi Records and the producer of some of the label’s biggest hits, including Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain”. Of course, no conversation about Hi Records or Willie Mitchell would be incomplete without mentioning the work he did with Al Green. The two formed one of the greatest artist/producer alliances in modern pop music history-spinning off classics ranging from “Let’s Stay Together” and “Love & Happiness” to “I’m Glad You’re Mine” and “Simply Beautiful”. Mitchell died today in Memphis at the age of 81.

Mitchell’s production style was never ostentatious. His songs generally tended to simmer, which made him a perfect fit for Reverend Al. The songs had a churchy quality to them but were certainly romantic if not downright sensual. That push and pull between religion and worldliness is what defines soul music, and very few people composed and produced it better than Willie Mitchell.

Check out “Simply Beautiful”, my favorite Al Green song. Everything fits together perfectly-gently strummed guitar (with a hint of country/western flavor), the organ that pops in a minute or so into the song, Al’s practically whispered vocal. Perfection. Today’s R&B producers (who are not really producers but beatmakers-there’s a difference) should take note.