Hi records was based in Memphis, Tennessee, the history of soul can not be written without reference to this important record label. Hi records was founded 1957 with an investment of $3.50 by Ray Harris. With two partners Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch, who worked on production for Sun and Meteor records in the mid -1950's, they approached Joe Cuoghi (who was later to be President of Hi ) at Popular Tunes, record store, which included a jukebox service. Joe had the financing and industry contacts which the others lacked. Jukeboxes were later used to see which records were played the most. The first success came in late 1959 with a hit by the Bill Black Combo, Bill Black played bass and had played on all of the Elvis Presley session at Sun. Harris and Black had developed a unique bottom heavy beat Hi sound that became a trademark for Bill Black and Ace Cannon his sax player during the early 60's.
Due to the fact that most of Hi records were blues-based instrumentals, Hi could of been short for 'Hit Instrumentals'.
Willie Mitchell was born in Ashland, Mississippi in 1928, moved with his family around 1930 to Memphis. Played trumpet with his high school band and formed his own band until he went into the Army in 1950. It was at this time that with pianist Onzie Horne a former Ellingtonian, he learned arrangements and scoring. He went on to work residencies in West Memphis. In 1960 he became a producer, house musician and recording artist at the Home Of The Blues, record label and record shop. Willie Mitchell had begun his horn arrangements which had anticipated the Hi and Stax sound. By a chance meeting with engineer Ray Harris, Mitchell became an artist at Hi in 1961, his first Hi single was 'The Crawl', he was soon to became house arranger, and his backing group the Hi Rhythm Section. Like the Stax's studio black and white musicians played on many sessions. Using an old eight track recorder pieced together from two Ampex four tracks machines. It operated on 'tube' technology as opposed to 'solid state', the 'tube' work was essential to the Mitchell sound. The drums were tuned and then miked in such a way that they became the centerpiece of the backing tracks.
He went on to define a new black music style. His Rhythm section consisted of , Al Jackson on drums or Howard Grimes, (Al Jackson later joined Booker T at Stax's, it is known that at times he still played for Mitchell ) Bobby Eammons-organ, Reggie Young-guitar, Tommy Cogsbill-bass. Horn players Andrew Love, Ben Cawley, Charles Charmers, James Mitchell, Gene Miller and Wayne Jackson. In 1966-1968 the line up changed when the Hodges brothers moved in, Mabon Teenie Hodges-guitar, Leroy-bass and Charlie on organ. Between 1964-69, the combo had eight R & B hits, including 20-75/Secret home, Bad Eye, Mercy, Soul Serenade, Prayer Meetin', 30-60-90 and Uphard. Hi records were issued in the UK on the London record label.
Nearly all the singles by Willie Mitchell during the sixties were instruments apart from 'Everything Is Gonna Be Alright' and the flip 'That Driving Beat'. The vocal was supplied by Don Bryant who worked with Mitchell on stage as one of the Four Kings, who was also married to Ann Peebles who later was to enjoy commercial success as a singer with Hi.
By 1970 Willie Mitchell had quit the road and was now vice-president of the company and went on to produce Al Green from 1969 into the mid seventies. The vocals and lush horns and string arrangements made a polished production of sophisticated soul music, which crossed over into the pop market.
Hi was eventually sold in 1979 to Cream Records and it was in turn re-issued in the UK by Demon Records in the eighties. Demon started to uncover unissued tapes, some abandoned for over thirty years in a storage room, many comprehensive reissues of albums and CD's followed.
Willie Mitchell died on Tuesday 5th January 2010 he was 81 years old.