I talked to Phillip Mitchell on the phone. A very charming and helpful guy - we laughed - he reminisced - and 60 minutes just flew by. Here below is an article to be found in the 'In The Basement' Soul magazine (see left). The actual conversation contained a little more than produced below - he even sang the line 'Starting All Over Again' over the phone. A big teethy grin at my end! Many thanks Phillip
Leroy Phillip Mitchell was born on 27 June, 1944, in Louisville, Kentucky, but, despite his astonishing prowess as a singer / songwriter, he disclaimed the idea that he might have come from a musical family: 'I did not come from a musical family at all, actually. My father was just a factory worker and my mom was just a typical housewife. To my knowledge, I'm the sole musician or singer out of the whole family. I can't understand it myself.
Certainly the trait did not rub off on either of his two brothers - one of whom is now deceased - or his sister but Phillip will claim to have been singing all his life, very little in church but seizing every opportunity in school. 'Even in school lavatories,' he said. 'I was singing on the street corners and in the parks. Wherever we could get a group of enough guys to sing some doo-wop songs. That was pretty much the thing when I was a kid, coming up here in Louisville. My skills were basically just crafted on the street corners'.
Phillip has also honed skills as an instrumentalist. 'My formal training was on trumpet', he explained. 'I played trumpet for years with a e-flat trumpet player and an b-flat cornet player in school. But I found out very quickly that I couldn't play the trumpet very much at home because it was nerve-wracking. My mom would run me out of the house. And I couldn't take the trumpet out into the streets and blow it so I thought I'd better quit the instrument. That's when I began to teach myself guitar and piano as well. 'Needless to say, Phillip became proficient in each.
From his early teens, Phillip was performing with groups not just on street corners but for public entertainment. However, contrary to certain reports, the Youngsters was not one of them. Their name raised by Barry, he answered: 'No, actually, the Youngsters was not my group. That was a group of a friend of mine and they were kind of like a rival group from across town featuring Bobby Downs. The were first known as Little Pete & The Youngsters. Bobby was the original lead singer of the New Birth [who went on to record for RCA, Buddah and Warner Bros] which is a well-known recording group from here.My group was the Checkmates, which featured myself as lead vocalist and also Curtis Wiggins, whose sister, Londee [Loren] Wiggins was also in the New Birth. The Checkmates was my group'.
When Phillip was a mere fourteen, the Checkmates even got to record a single for the local Halt label. 'Halt was just a local recording company here in Louisville, owned by a friend of ours, Ted Gordon,' said Phillip. 'Ted's the son of the owner of a butchers and grocers chain here in the city and was kind of like acting as our manager at the time. We were just kids and we recorded a couple of songs that I'd written. One was called 'The Cou and I think the other was 'Closed Chapter'. 'They also recorded 'Da Time' for Ted Gordon but, when asked about a further self-composition, 'After You Become A Star', Phillip explained this was not with the Checkmates but with a group called the Premiers, cut at Everlast Studios in Columbia, South Carolina.
Certainly, even at such a young age, Phillip had become quite a prolific songwriter. He told Barry: 'I always wanted to be a songwriter. All I did as a kid was sit in my room and write these little poems. While everybody else was out doing whatever they were doing, I just had a fascination for rhyming and making words mean something. That was my passion as a child growing up. But I've been writing songs probably since I was eight years old. I didn't know what I was doing actually at first but, over a period of time, you develop a talent, you understand exactly what you're doing and at some point you arrive and finally make sense of what you're trying to achieve. But it's always been my passion. I guess my inspiration came from people like Smokey Robinson. I think if I had to say who influenced me most with my writing it would have to be Smokey Robinson.
Right now, I have to say songwriting is pretty much a way of life. I have to write if I do anything. It's my therapy, my passion basically. In 1963, the Checkmates looked like they were to get a breakthrough when they won a local Louisville talent contest. The prize was supposed to be a contract with Correc-Tone records out of Detroit, to be produced by Harvey Fuqua. Nevertheless, circumstances transpired against them and they never got to claim their rewards. As Phillip told it.. 'Here in the city there is a newspaper called the Louisville Defender. It was the big, prominent black-owned newspaper here and each year they'd put on an exhibition - they'd call it a 'honk show'. It was a city-wide talent contest and few groups and all the bands from all over the city and the region would come and compete. The winner was to receive a recording contract with Correc-Tone records in Detroit. And we won. However, Harvey Fuqua actually had a niece who had a group in the competition, the Fabulons. We beat them out but Harvey decided that he wanted a personal audition from our group. His reason was because the crowd went wild and they couldn't determine whether we could sing or not because the people were screaming so loud. So, although we had won the contest, we had to go to a local radio station and give him a personal audition. We were very good but consequently nothing ever came of it. I think he was a little sore that we beat out his niece and we never heard much about it from that point on'.
That event, the first of several disillusionments with the record industry, prompted Phillip to opt to go it alone. 'We really thought we were on our way when we won that recording contract. It was very disappointing for me as well as the other guys. So I got the notion to leave town and pursue the music industry for myself. I thought if I was ever going to do anything and make it in the business, I would have to leave Louisville. The other guys, they just did not want to go. It was a giant step for me. The only thing I knew was that I could sing and I could dance so I would go and give it a shot. I had plans to be bigger and better than Sammy Davis. He laughed. 'First, I worked with a group; it was actually a band. They were not singers, they were dancers, the Cash Registers, the former band of Alvin Cash & the Crawlers who had a big hit with Twine Time. The band was from Louisville, some friends of mine. So I actually left Louisville with the band, going to Indianapolis. We played the bars and clubs in indianapolis and this is where the name Prince came about. I was performing and the lady at the show said 'He's not Phillip, he's too good to be just Phil he''s Prince Phillip!' And from that point on everybody just kind of added the name and it kind of stuck to me. It did have a nice ring to it, so I adopted it and I've been using it ever since. 'While I was performing in Indianapolis, I got drafted into the military. That rather halted my pursuit of the dream at the time. I had to do my stint in the military but it did not last very long as I was released on a medical discharge. I went back to Indianapolis but this time not with the Cash Registers. Instead, I became the lead singer for the Moonlighters'.
The Moonlighters would go on to work with Main Ingredient but, by that time, Phillip had opted to travel south. He continued: 'I worked my way to Alabama actually because, when I left Indianapolis, I joined with a guy called Big Tidy Kennedy, who was a big-band leader in the forties and fifties. I joined his revue and we travelled throughout the southern States. We started in St. Louis, we went through Missouri on into Tennessee and into Alabama playing carnivals. It was like joining the fair. And we worked our way to Muscle Shoals. Once we got to Muscle Shoals, I realised that this was the big recording centre. One of my friends from the Checkmates, Curtis Wiggins, was along with me and we quit and both stayed in Muscle Shoals. That's how I came to be there. I found Fame recording studios and later Muscle Shoals Sound studios, because the original guys that had recorded for Rick at Fame - Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood and Roger Hawkins - they later left Rick Hall to form their own studios. I was like back there in the beginning of that all'.
Phillip's first move was to sign with Rick Hall, with whom he recorded 'Keep On Talking' and'Love Is A Wonderful Thing'. Although cut in 1966, it did not see the light of day for a further two years, when it was issued as Smash 2152. By that time, Phillip had travelled on for some abortive recordings with Huey Meaux. 'After the short while in Alabama, nothing seemed to be happening,' he continued. 'I think it was one of those things where you sign up with somebody and they forget they got you. I was young and very enthusiastic. I was very much trying to get out there as fast as I could. And you know, you sign a lot of deals, you meet a lot of people and I had other interests I was pursuing as well. I was really trying to break into the industry there but things were really happening too slow for me. I was always on fast forward. So I struck out for Texas and that's when I first met up with Huey Meaux, down in Houston. I signed with Huey and he was my manager; pretty much my agent in fact. He did me a lot of bookings et cetera and he was instrumental in getting a release from Rick Hall. I was writing a lot of songs at that time and we recorded some things. Nothing ever was released with Huey though'.
With hindsight, it is easy to tell Phillip that that was somewhat par for the course where Huey Meaux was concerned. In any event, Phillip was on to his next move - out to the West Coast where, in Los Angeles, he became a member of the Bean Brothers, so called due to their height. 'We were string beans!' He qualified. 'All of the guys were tall guys. I'm six foot They were the Bean Brothers prior to me joining them. They were mainly a dance group; they could dance like oh my gosh and I was a pretty good dancer myself. As a matter of fact, I was the choreographer for a lot of different local groups here and there and when I fell into that scene... However, they did not sing very well and my task was to teach these guys to sing harmony. Basically, one of the attractions that they had for me was that I could teach them how to do their harmonies and become vocalists and it worked out real well. We had a great great run as performers'.
Phillip's vocal coaching paid off and the Bean Brothers, Mitchell having departed, recorded 'Shing-A-Ling' for the Cashsales label. Our hero, meanwhile, was back in Muscle Shoals... 'I went back into Muscle Shoals only to find the Rhythm Section had formed their own company, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. I'd been writing songs an I had a bag full of them. So I signed a writer's contract with Muscle Shoals Sound studios. Barry [Beckett] and Roger [Hawkins] decided they wanted to produce me as an artist which was exciting for me and they did. I recorded 'Free For All' and 'Flower Child'. They shopped it and I was contracted with Shout records.' A second Shout single was issued, coupling I'm Gonna Build California From All Over TheWorld' and 'The World More People Like You'.
Barry drew attention to the number of Stax artists who recorded Phillip Mitchell songs and he wondered if there was ever a likelihood that he would sign with Stax as an artist? Phillip replied: 'At one point, while I was writer at Muscle Shoals, Stax were very interested in my songwriting. They offered to buy out my contract with Muscle Shoals Sound but they were turned down flat. I thought it might have been interesting if I had gone to Stax, because that would have opened up the recording side of my career but I don't know of any actual attempts for Stax to have been interested in me a a recording artist. As an artist, I've always been an singer too but it seems that my singing took a back seat to my songwriting. It had to; nobody was really interested in me as a singer. The guys at Muscle Shoals were not interested in me being a singer, in fact they didn't want me to be a singer because I was busy writing so many songs. I kind of got pushed away from the artist part of things'.
One of Phillip's biggest achievements for the Stax stable was his song, 'Starting All Over Again', as recorded by Mel & Tim. 'It's definite one of my favourites,' he confirmed. 'It's a great song. I actually wrote it for Sam & Dave. They called me from the studios one night where they were recording Sam & Dave and they said 'do you have anything for Sam & Dave?' I said, 'of course' and I didn't have! So they said 'bring it over now'. I thought 'oh oh, I've really put myself on the spot here, I need to get myself something for Sam & Dave'. And I said to myself 'I didn't know that they had started singing together again' and that's when I got like a light bulb - ping! 'Starting All Over Again'. That's where the concept came from. I started strumming the guitar thinking the next line. I never wrote it down. When I got to the studio, I just started singing the first thing that came out of my mouth and bang it came out. But I''ve never actually heard the [finished] Sam & Dave version in my life. Of course I really like Mel & Tim's version and Don Gibson had a big country hit. Another country artist, Randy Bailey out of Nashville, recorded it, also Hall & Oates.'
Phillip told Barry that he even put an extra rap on the front of Mel & Tim's version, prompting the observation that he often included spoken passages to lead into his songs. 'I've been considered an original rap artist. but thats a different kind of a rap,' he said. 'I'd always use a recitation at start of my records and the guys in Muscle Shoals used to say 'Philip, why have you got to talk so much? Why do you always put this talking in your music?'. I said .I don't know, it just feels natural for me'. And I've been doing that for many, many years and, in most cases, a lot of the demos that I would record in Muscle Shoals - when I was an exclusive songwriter there - I would put these raps on there and they would go back and remix them and take them all off without telling me. Then, if somebody would record one of the songs and I did not hear any of the talking, I'd say 'wait a minute, this is not right. But they would take it out'.
Prince Phillip Mitchell, the singer, did get to find his name back on wax - albeit briefly and without the title 'Prince' in front - when he signed with Hi, where he stayed from 1972 to 1974. Was it a good move? 'I would have to say yes and no,' he responded. 'Of course, Willie Mitchell was a fantastic guy and a fantastic producer - I think we might be kin somewhere along the line. Anyway, Willie liked me very much as an artist and I thought he was very talented. We had a great relationship but I think Al Green at the time was priority at Hi and none of the other artists very much mattered. We all kind of like brought up the rear. It was Al Green and then the rest of the guys. But I don't feel I fitted in very well and eventually I sought other avenues as an artist'.
Of the six self-penned titles recorded at Hi, Phillip advised that Willie Mitchell produced 'Little Things' and 'That's What A Man Is For', 'Turning Over The Ground' - Mrs. Fowden's favourite! - Ain't No Love Life', 'Oh How I Love You' and 'The Same Folks That Put You There' produced by Mitchell himself. It was not his only move into production at the time, as he was also producing Archie Bell & the Drells for Glades. 'I had met Archie in Texas many years prior to producing him and we were good friends as well. I did several Glades singles for him and I often provided the some of the background vocals'. Also on the Hi label, in 1972, was a release called 'Hitchhike To Heartbreak Road', a Phillip Mitchell song recorded by Bobo Mr. Soul. To the surprise of this scribe, 'Bobo Mr. Soul' has turned out to be a pseudonym for Bea Williams, now a gospel artist, after a spell in the mid-eighties for Capitol Records. Clarified Phillip: 'Bobo was a good friend of mine. I met him then I was living in Texas; he's originally from Houston. I wrote the song for Curtis Wiggins who I told you about. He was a very similar singer and I produced the record for him in Muscle Shoals. However, we never got a chance to get a deal for it. I then brought in Beau Williams - we called him 'Bobo Mr. Soul' - and dubbed his voice on the track and shopped it with Hi Records. Matter of fact that's one of my favourite tunes'. Phillip also had an anecdote concerning his appearance as the second male voice on one of Don Covay's biggest hits, 'I Was Checkin' Out, She Was Checkin' In'... 'A lot of people don't know that was me. It was just a spur of the moment thing. Don was down in Muscle Shoals recording and I was in the control room just sitting listening and I thought 'God, there''s something missing from this song'. And he was doing this little rapping ad I was in the control room singing along and filling in the gaps. Jimmy Johnson said, 'Phillip, that's great'. He called Don into the control and said 'Listen to this!'. Don heard what I was doing and he said 'I like that, would you do that on the record?' and that's how that came about. Actually - and I didn't even remember it until someone in England pointed it out to me - I was also on another of Don's songs which must have been done at the same time, 'Somebody's Been Enjoying My Home'.
After Hi, Phillip passed through Spring's sister label, Event, and there enjoyed his first 'Billboard' r&b chartster, 'There's Another In My Life' which climbed to #58 in early spring, 1975. It was produced by Brad Shapiro who, together with Dave Crawford, had met our man when they stopped by Muscle Shoals looking for material for Millie Jackson. 'I played some songs and sang to them and Brad was impressed with me vocally,' he recounted. We signed a contract with Spring/Event. [Kept in the can from the sessions, until issued on a UK Southbound cd in 1990, was one of the editor's personal favourites, 'I'll See You In Hell First'].
Mitchell's name as a vocalist next appeared on a record label, not on one of his own releases but as a 'guest' on the chart album by Norman Connors, 'Romantic Journey', and the single taken therefrom, 'Once I've Been There' He told Barry how this came about... 'It was around 1977 and I was performing locally, at the Access Theatre in Louisville. Aki Aleong, who was Norman's manager at the time, actually came through with a cousin of mine and she introduced me to him - I think he might have been here for the Derby. He needed songs for Norman Connors and I said I've got some son. We began to talk and I played him some stuff and he liked it. Michael Henderson had just split from Norman's band to go solo, so I was asked to record my songs, 'Once I've Been There' and 'Destination Moon', so it was a pretty good deal for me. It turned out to be a big record and we toured and travelled throughout the country. I also recorded at duet with Eleanor Mills for the album. 'For You Everything.' That began a relationship with Norman; we still stay in touch'.
A year later, Phillip signed with Atlantic and, for the first time, released an album in his own right. 'Make It Good' was the 'In The Basement' spotlight in issue #15 and deservedly so. Featuring eight of his own songs, together with his own production and arrangement assistance from Paul Riser and McKinley Mitchell, musical assistance comes from a host of 'names' a background vocals are provided by the Jones Girls. The up-beat 'One On One' was chosen as the first single and gave him his biggest chart success to date, peaking at #32 r&b during an eleven-week stay. Leading the album in was Phillip's version of 'Star In The Ghetto' which, some nine months earlier, had been a hit for Ben E. King with the Average White Band. Phillip confirmed Barry's thought that it might have been autobiographical 'I actually wrote it for myself. It summed up my career coming out as a kid. They picked it up. Jerry Greenberg from Atlantic called me up one day and asked if I would allow them to record it.. They had heard the record and he was blown away by it. They cut a different version which I think was fantastic but, yes, it was kind of like an autobiography'.
Unlike the 'Make It Good' album, which was recorded in California, Phill's second Atlantic set, 'Top Of The Line', was recorded at Muscle Shoals so The Jones Girls were still on hand and McKinley Mitchell once again helped out with the arrangements. Again the eight songs were all top-notch from the Phillip Mitchell pen and the singles, the brassy disco-funkster, 'Let's Get Wet' and the ballad beauty, 'If It Ain't Love It'll Go Away', were 'Billboard' r&b chartsters. Instead of building on the achievements, however, things seemed to go distinctly cold and it would be some seven years before the next recording contract. Phillip was fortunately sustained financially by songwriting royalties but, as he explained: 'I went through a period of despondence. To be quite honest, I was fed up with the industry and the way things were going. I'd given a lot of myself and my talent but it set me back on my heels. There was disco and funk and I thought 'this industry has gone to pot'. I didn't feel much like performing, I didn't feel like writing, I didn't feel like singing. I just could not understand why things were happening like they were happening in my career. I found out later that pretty much my leaving Atlantic Records was due to my management agency and that made me very distraught. I did not have the same zeal, the same enthusiasm to pursue anything. I just kind of faded. I'd still write but I wouldn't pursue any deals or anything and the years just passed. It was just a bad time for me'.
So what brought him back? Phillip said: 'Don Dortch, out of Memphis, Tennessee... He was a big promoter there. He called me and he said 'Let's record some new music!' I thought 'oh no'. So he talked to me and then said 'John [Abbey] wants to talk to you'. So I talked to John, who was a friend of mine, and he persuaded me into going down to Atlanta and Ichiban Records. They were doing quite well at the time. I just cut a few things to see how it would go and I was gradually getting back into it and the excitement was coming back. That excitement... I'm a lifer in this business and really, once you get into it, you can't quit. It's a bug. I thought 'well, okay, maybe this will be good for me and get me back to where I should be'. Barry cited 'She Is My Lady' and 'I Taught Her Everything She Knows' of his favourites, which Phillip acknowledged, and we must mention the ballad, 'You're Gonna Come Back To Love', which made a moderate appearance on the r&b chart. Once again, though, the vagaries of the record business meant a five-year gap before Ichiban issued an album follow-up, 'Loser'. Phillip was equally mystified by the gap. 'Record companies! It does not have anything to do with me. It's just the way the industry works. It's always wait, wait and we'll release this at this point or we'll release this at that point. In the meanwhile, you kind of get disillusioned about the whole thing and say 'well, whenever they put it out, let them put it out'. So this has been pretty much the thing with me and the record companies.
'I don't like record companies. That's why I'm just about to launch record company. I'm putting it on the Internet. I've got my own website under construction right now which should be up and running in a couple of weeks. I'm going to have to do a lot of promoting. It will be on www.lostsoulmusic.net. And I'll be doing all of my past, present and future music across the net. I plan to cut all of my hits on a cd with myself recording all the hits done on other people. Being a songwriter you give your songs away. That's the way you live, that's the way you make money I'm always confident I can write something better than the last song, so I don't have a problem giving my songs to other people. I've got tons and tons of my music, all brand new, all new stuff and I've got a lot of rappers sampling a lot of my music. I'm not into rap music but some of it is good stuff. I'm constantly writing. I must have about two thousand songs in my catalogue right now. All I do is write. They'll be all featured across my record company on the Internet so, hopefully, all of my fans across the world will be able to access my music via my website'.
Phillip is also gearing up to getting back into performing on a regular basis. 'I do love to perform but it's very limited at this point. I'm looking to come to Europe and do some things in the very very near future - hopefully anyway. The last time I was in Europe, I was in England and I was very hoarse. I had laryngitis or something but, being the ham that I am, I went on to perform and I did some damage to my vocal chords. In recent years, I've been taking time off to make sure I heal properly. Right now, I'm just beginning again. I'm into the high technology; I do a 'one man thing'. I've sequenced and play my own stuff so I can go out solo but I also have access to great band players'.
Well, Phillip, we'll be waiting!
Interview with Prince Phillip Mitchell: 20 April, 2001