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Film director George Lucas stands next to two Stormtroopers from his movie Star Wars

Lucas Looks Back On Movie-Making

As creator of the Star Wars universe, George Lucas launched a franchise whose impact on pop culture — and on Hollywood — has been immeasurable. His special-effects house has pioneered one cinematic revolution after another.
His latest project, though, is a book. George Lucas' Blockbusting is a go-to blueprint for the aspiring filmmaker, a behind-the-scenes history of movies that looks back over 100 years through the lens of 300 major hits: their creative genesis, why they stood out, how they became lasting icons. But mainly, it strips away the glitz and glamour of the movie-making biz and gets down to the nitty-gritty of how a movie is made, including everything from advertising expenses to production budgets to shooting schedules.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on January 6, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 6, 2010: Interview with George Lucas; Interview with Willie Mitchell.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
What Makes A Blockbuster: George Lucas Weighs In


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, in for Terry
Gross, who's still a little bit under the weather. She hopes to return

Our guest today is George Lucas. As creator of the "Star Wars" movies and
universe, he launched a franchise whose impact on pop culture and on Hollywood
marketing and technology that's immeasurable.

Industrial Light and Magic, his special effects production house, has pioneered
one cinematic revolution after another. The list of films he has directed
and/or produced includes, among many others, "American Graffiti" and the
Indiana Jones movies.

His newest project, though, is a book, "George Lucas' Blockbusting," a behind-
the-scenes history of movies, the top 300 films from the beginning of the
cinema to 2005 that Lucas himself considers most timeless and significant.

His definition of a blockbuster includes such things as artistic merit and
lasting cultural impact, which makes his list both personal and interesting. In
addition, Lucas and his researchers have gathered an amazing amount of
information about original budgets, shooting schedules, production problems and
other aspects of the business of show business.

They've also adjusted for inflation all the original box-office figures,
production budgets and ticket prices, which makes for plenty of amazing
comparisons. For example, George Lucas' list of the 10 most popular movies in
history isn't your standard list of today's biggest blockbusters. Adjusted to
modern dollars, the 1939 film "Gone with the Wind" remains the most popular
film ever, followed by the original entry in Lucas' own "Star Wars" saga.

The rest of the top 10: "The Sound of Music," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,"
"The 10 Commandments," "Titanic," "Jaws," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,"
"Ben-Hur" and "The Exorcist."

George Lucas, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. GEORGE LUCAS (Director, Producer): Thank you, it's great to be here.

BIANCULLI: You have in your book 300 movies, and you chose them, and I love
most of the choices in your book, things that I didn't necessarily think were
going to get in there that did: "Dr. Strangelove," "Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington," "Deliverance." I regret the absence of one film, and so I have to
ask you about this. It's "Gold Diggers of 1933." And I don't know if that was a
borderline thing, and I wondered not only why isn't that there but also which
movie do you miss? Which one for you was number 301?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, it's not 301. It's sort of 1001.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUCAS: You know, I – the hard part was, you know, culling it down and
trying to find a mix of movies that run the gamut of different kinds of genres,
different kinds of success. This book is as accurate as I could possibly make
it. We had a lot of researchers. They worked many years.

Some of the films that we picked we just couldn't get any information on. I
mean, I just couldn't find out anything. Some – so we had – those dropped by
the wayside. And so a lot of the films that I wanted in there didn't get in
there just because we didn't have any information about it, which is one of the
reasons I was so anxious to do this book, because there's a lot of information
out there, and the studios are going through their changes and all their things
from, you know, corporate realities from this and that, and a lot of this
information is disappearing.

BIANCULLI: Right, there's no institutional memory.

Mr. LUCAS: Yeah, and the people. You know, we actually were able to talk to
some people who actually lived through a lot of this, and we were able to still
– they still have some of this stuff on file in a musty old vault somewhere at
the - the basement, warehouse, somewhere, that somebody knew about that we
could get into and find out the facts. So that's going to go away in, you know,
probably another 20 or 30 years. This information won't be there anymore.

Now, we're also in a process right now of completely turning this business
model, the technology and everything on its head. So this, what's in this book
now, is suddenly becoming ancient history simply by the technological advances
that we're going through and the revolution.

And so that's one other reason why I wanted to preserve it.

BIANCULLI: So why no "Gold Diggers of 1933"?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, I think no "Gold Diggers of 1933" was that I just – each year
we have a – you know, sort of a limit on how many we can put in there, and I
think I just couldn't fit it in. I mean, again, I wanted "Gold Diggers of

You'll see there's a little section on musicals and hits of the '20s.


Mr. LUCAS: And it's there.

BIANCULLI: It's in there.

Mr. LUCAS: And it's – you know, you just, you can't include everything.

BIANCULLI: Which blockbuster on your list most influenced you as a youngster?
What was your favorite film-going experience among those movies?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, when I was very young, I didn't really go to the movies that
much, to be very honest with you.


Mr. LUCAS: Yeah, and even when I did I was, you know, as a teenager, I was more
chasing girls than I was actually watching movies. It wasn't until I actually
got to film school that I actually – and I wasn't interested in Hollywood. I
was more interested in art films in San Francisco, you know, Bruce Bailey(ph)
and those kind of off-the-track people.

BIANCULLI: So you never had an oh-wow childhood experience in a movie theater?

Mr. LUCAS: Nuh-uh. Nuh-uh. Well, I mean, I saw – you know, "Ben-Hur" was an oh-
wow experience when I was a kid, and so was "Lawrence of Arabia," and you know,
those are ones that stick with me. The – once I got to film school, then I had
things like - "Dr. Strangelove" was my favorite movie, which is why it's in


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUCAS: And you know, several movies like that.

BIANCULLI: It's one of those movies that gets better every time you see it. I
don't even know what that phenomenon is, but you see more. It seems smarter. It
seems more relevant the older it gets.

Mr. LUCAS: Well, I've actually experienced just the opposite, which is we have
passed it. So the sense of satire has disappeared because the real world we
live in is so much more goofy and stupid than the one portrayed in that movie.
I know, it's very depressing.

BIANCULLI: But it's probably accurate though. It's okay. One of the things
that's in this book, I should describe to people that there's all these charts,
there's all these lists. There's all these little side things, and then each
film is described, and then there are stories and show-biz stories and
financial stories, and you find out these interesting little factoids all the
way through.

I didn't know, for example, that Meg Ryan and Molly Ringwald were up for
"Pretty Woman" before Julia Roberts got it, or that "Butch Cassidy" is the
number one Western of all time.

Mr. LUCAS: Well, there's a lot of – there's a lot of mythology around the movie
business, and this pretty much pokes a hole in all of it, because that was the
point of the book, to say all right, let's remove all the hype and let's just
get down to the raw facts. And they're more fascinating, personally, I think,
than the hype is.

I mean, there are things, you know, I even learn things. In mean in 1910 the
average ticket price was $6 or 6.50. Today, the average ticket price is $6.50.
You know, I – you know, I just made my assumptions based like everybody else
does, but the cost of a ticket hasn't changed at all.

You know, obviously in the big cities it's more, and in the small towns it's
less, but the average is pretty much the same as it was back in, you know,

BIANCULLI: One cost that I'm sure has gone up, the music rights for "American
Graffiti" in this book - because I've always wondered about that, because
"American Graffiti" was your movie. It really started the nostalgia music
craze, and you were able to get what was then a two-album but I guess a two-CD
or just a two-album set of songs, 40 songs, for $80,000. Now, what do you think
that would cost you today?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, that's not actually what happened. When we did the movie - you
know, it was a very low-budget movie, $700,000, and they said the music budget
can't be over 10 percent of the movie, and of course nobody wanted me to do
that. They said you can't just put that much music in a movie, it won't work.
And you can't – you have to score it. You can't just throw songs on it. It's
not going to work. It's because nobody had ever done it before.

So I did it. We made the movie. We put the music in there. It was $70,000, and
at the time we said, look, for another $5,000 per song we can get you the
record rights to this. And they said no, no, no, no, we don't want any record
rights. We don't want anything.

And then they came back a year later, and again, we were bringing these – you
know, nobody knew who the owners of these songs were and all kinds of things
because it was real – about a period of music where there wasn't much
organization. And so you know, sometimes we'd go to people who had records in
their garage, and the rights, you know, and the masters and everything.

So a year later, the studio went to do an album after the film was a giant hit,
and it cost them a million dollars...


LUCAS: ...for those same songs that I got for 70,000.


Mr. LUCAS: So that gives you a clue of where it went just in one year.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with George Lucas. His new book is called "George
Lucas' Blockbusting." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with filmmaker George Lucas, whose credits include
the "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones films. His new book is called "George Lucas'

So now I have some blockbuster questions. The audience experience of a
blockbuster - I'm not talking about the wider definition that you've done in
the book but the sort of thing that we think of where they make tons of money,
they're very big spectacle films - I think of, like, "Jaws," where I sat in the
back of an audience once and saw everybody kicking at the same time to avoid
being slid down like Quint in the shark's mouth or going up the stairs of "The
Exorcist" and everybody screaming at once. How important is that communal
viewing experience as we move forward?

Mr. LUCAS: I think that is very, very important, and I think that's the key to
why movie theaters and the movie-going experience in a theater will never die.

I always tell people, I say look, as long as Green Bay Packer fans go in the
70-below-zero weather, in the snow, to watch a game they can't actually see
because they all want to be together and scream together and have a good time
together, the movie industry is safe. And there will always be movie theaters.
There will always be people that want that social experience, because people,
human beings, are a social animal, and they will want something like the opera,
like the ballet, you know, they will want to go and have this communal motion
picture experience, or like plays and Broadway shows.

So I don't think that's ever going to go away, and I think in the end the movie
theaters are going to become more accommodating to that idea, that it needs to
be a special experience, a special communal experience, which means better
quality theaters, bigger screens, more amenities, so that it's a real

BIANCULLI: Does it necessarily mean more spectacle, or would there still be
room for an "American Graffiti" along with the "Star Wars"?

Mr. LUCAS: I have a feeling that the "American Graffiti"s are going to probably
go by the wayside in terms of theatrical release. I think they're going to go
directly to pay-per-view, you know, which is sort of Internet-based

BIANCULLI: One theme of your book is how technology changes things in Hollywood
every so often - you know, sound, color, wide-screen, Dolby, CGI. Is – can you
tell us about tomorrow? You're so well-placed to do this. Is it 3-D? Is it
something else? What's going on at Industrial Light and Magic that's really
exciting you?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, the breakthrough at Industrial Light and Magic really was
"Jurassic Park." That was when we finally got a 3-D animated character of a
dinosaur to look real. And you know, that – from the very, very beginning of
the movie industry, whether it's Melies' "Trip to the Moon" or, you know, "The
Lost World," people have been struggling with these issues, and we finally did

Now you can do anything. I mean, literally, you can do anything, and obviously
we can do it quicker and faster and easier and that sort of thing, and that's
going to continue.

3-D is the new kid on the block. The thing I like about the new 3-D as opposed
to the old 3-D, old 3-D were 3-D movies, you know, where they took spears and
poked them in the audiences' eyes and stuff.

BIANCULLI: Right, right.

Mr. LUCAS: Now we're shifting that, and even though there's a little bit of
that left, mostly movies now are movies in 3-D, and we very early on in this
process, we experimented with turning Episode IV into a 3-D movie, and with Jim
Cameron and Bob Zemeckis and I, we went to the theater-owners' convention in
Las Vegas and we showed these 3-D movies and saying, you've got to go digital
because if you go digital we can have 3-D movies, and these are what they look

The startling thing about that is everything we showed them, especially like
"Star Wars," which was not designed to be a 3-D movie, it just was a different
way of looking at the movie. It was cleaner. It had depth. You know, it just
looked great. But you didn't – you know, after a while, you forget that it's 3-
D. It doesn't come out and remind you.

BIANCULLI: Before the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park," before you did that, what
were the pre-digital special effects that you think were most significant,
whether it was the Steadycam or some sort of process stuff that hadn't been
done before? What movies really worked for you in a pre-digital age?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, in a pre-digital age we had matte paintings, which, you know,
were when you wanted a big wide shot of something, especially a period film,
and they were very static, but they seemed to work in the movies all right.

And the special effects part has been there ever since the very, very
beginning, you know, since "The Trip to the Moon," which was very crude. But
when you get then to "King Kong," which was the beginning of stop-motion
animation, they improved it, but it was basically the same thing, and when I
did – I mean, the number one movie up to that point really was "2001," where
they took a great deal of care, spent a huge amount of money, a vast amount of
time, and they made these perfect shots of, you know, spaceships floating
through space. And it was very slow, and very meticulous.

I wanted to make a movie that was very fast and kinetic. So I set my sights on
one technological advance that I needed in order to make the film move fast and
have a lot of energy and be able to be an editorialized movie movie rather than
bunch of static-shot movie, which is what "2001" was, the ultimate special
effects movie since the beginning.

And so that's what we did. We figured out how to take models and match
backgrounds and so shoot them where you could pan through space, which you
couldn't do at that point. You could move the camera. So we were able to move
the camera. That was a major breakthrough.

The second movie I decided that what I would try to do is create a realistic –
so you believed it was a real person – two-foot green guy, which you know, you
say, well, gee, but you know, in those days, that was impossible. You just
couldn't do it.

And the idea was that we – you know, unless you did it with stop-motion, but in
stop-motion it was very hard to do acting. You know, they did a lot of things
in the acting, but the acting was very, very crude. But to do a more
sophisticated form of acting, we really had – we made the decision to go to
puppets, and we were just beginning to get to that place where we could use
servo-motors and others kinds of technologies to move the eyes and move the
skin and do things that you couldn't do before, and that was our technological

But those were things that had kind of been around, you know, rubber masks and,
you know, elaborate makeup and stop-motion and matte paintings, and it really
wasn't until digital that it blew all that open so that you could do anything.

BIANCULLI: Nowadays it's not that hard to see a blockbuster coming. You know,
you'll hear about something like "Titanic" or "Avatar" a long time before it
actually comes into theaters, and you have these expectations.

But "Star Wars" was a really different animal, and can you talk about when you
gave a first private screening for some of your filmmaking friends and your
other friends? Do you remember what their reaction was?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, I come up into the film business from film school, and as a
result I have a lot of friends who are filmmakers who went to school with me or
were going to school at the same time I was.

In those days, which was in sort of the '60s, you couldn't get into the film
business. So there was absolutely zero chance of us making it in the film
business because you had to be related to somebody.

So there was no chance of us ever, ever making it in the film business. None of
us even thought that that would happen, but we loved movies, we loved making
movies, and we cooperated with each other and were helping each other. We were
like, you know, rebels trying to work our way in somehow.

And so we continued that. We always helped each other. We always cooperated
with each other, and we would screen our movies in a rough cut to each other to
get everybody's advice.

When I did that with "Star Wars," it was in really rough shape, and I invited a
few friends. Some of them didn't understand it. It was very rough, and some of
them, like Steve Spielberg, said this is going to be the biggest hit of all

BIANCULLI: What does he know? Yeah.

Mr. LUCAS: Yeah, and some friends, like Brian De Palma, said, you know, what's
this crazy Force stuff, and why isn't there more blood? And you know, I know my
friends really well, and I know what their reactions to things are. You know,
everybody is personal, and they're all very honest.

I mean, the great thing about having friends watch your movie is they give it
to you, which is what you want. That's why they're seeing it. And you know, so
I got a very mixed result. The ones that really didn't understand it were just
very quiet and said I'm not sure about this one.

And - but generally, you know, everybody sort of made contributions to what I
could do to improve it, what wasn't working, what didn't make sense and that
sort of things. The – which is what I expected.

The first time I showed it to an audience, obviously they went nuts, and...

BIANCULLI: That must have been great.

Mr. LUCAS: It was. I mean, it was the same thing with "American Graffiti." You
know, we showed the movie to – of "American Graffiti" - and people just started
screaming and yelling and getting carried away. And you know, my first film,
"THX," everybody was very quiet afterwards.

BIANCULLI: George Lucas. His new book is called "George Lucas' Blockbusting,"
and we'll hear more of our conversation in the second half of the show. I'm
David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

We're talking to George Lucas whose latest project is a massive new book about
the history of quality in popular filmmaking called "George Lucas'
Blockbusting." When we left off, were talking about his own history of
filmmaking, hanging out with other young friends in the business.

One story about your filmmaking friends in your earlier days - and I don't know
that this is true, but I'd liked to confirm it if I can, because I think it's a
wonderful story - that you and Steven Spielberg, at one point in your careers,
each thought that the other one was coming out with a blockbuster. And so you
traded points so that you would actually have some sort of a financial
remuneration from the other's film, in case the other one did better. Is that

Mr. LUCAS: Yeah, that is true, actually. And we were, in those days, you know,
it was very - it was the '60s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUCAS: And it was a different world. It was sort of a communal world, where
everybody helped each other. Everybody encouraged everybody. Everybody shared
with everybody - and then we did that way. Of course, you know, none of us knew
these films were going to be hits.

BIANCULLI: Well, that's what I love about it.

Mr. LUCAS: I mean Steve...


Mr. LUCAS: Steve may have come out ahead because he said I know this is going
to be a hit. I certainly didn't know it was a hit. So, you know I...

BIANCULLI: But what films are we talking about here?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, that was "Close Encounters" and "Star Wars."

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. LUCAS: So we were...

BIANCULLI: Not a bad couple of films to throw money around on a bet.

Mr. LUCAS: Yeah. Well, in the end it was, you know, I thought he had the better
film and he thought I had the better film and he won. I had the better film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: I think that's great. When you were with friends and you were all
seeing early screenings, rough cuts or very rough cuts of one another's films,
what memories do you have? What really stands out about seeing some of those
films by your friends?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, that was a great time for me, and I think for all my friends.
You know, for 10 or 15 years we would show each other our movies. And you know,
we'd sit down on the editing machine, we'd go through them with them, we'd see
the screenings. It was a very collaborative and fun period and I think we all
have very very fond memories of all that. It's a - you know, it was like a film
commune and it was, you know, as it turns out, all of us sort of players - you
know, from Francis Coppola to Marty Scorsese to Steve Spielberg, it's just, you
know, and more - we didn't think that we were going to be the old men of the
industry. But it turned out that way, that we actually are the ones who were
able to rise above the average. And I think part of it was because we were able
to help each and we had support from each other.

BIANCULLI: But what movies in particular? When you were seeing these things
before anybody else was seeing them, before they were even finished, what
really popped out, by whom?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, "Godfather" was a real experience, because the movie
originally was very, very long and we got to see it and it was great. It was
really great. And then the studio sort of made him cut it really, really short
and it didn't work at all. But he turned that in and they eventually let him
cut it back long again. But seeing the first cut of that was amazing.


Mr. LUCAS: And then I saw the first cut of - the very first cut of "Taxi
Driver," which was quite an experience. You know, because it was pretty intense
and it was sort of pushing the boundaries of violence and story and all kinds
of things - so that was really exciting. And what else was there? There was oh,
"Jaws" was, you know, because we lived through that, in terms of all...

BIANCULLI: What do you mean you lived through that?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, Steven had a lot of problems making that movie. I mean it was
on water. It was very, very, very difficult - so there was a lot of pain and
suffering that went on in that movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUCAS: And, you know, it's so we heard the day-to-day drama and then I saw
the movie. And that was very exciting because it worked like crazy and, you
know, he's - after all the struggle and all the - you get those movies where
you say this is going to be the biggest disaster ever. And we, everybody thinks
it, you know, because it was so hard to make and there were so many things that
went wrong. And then when you see it and it works - like works - you just say
wow, that's fantastic. It just, you know... And I think, ultimately, it was the
same way for the people who saw "Star Wars," which is well, this is, you know,
because it didn't have any special effects in it at all, and they just said I
don't understand this movie. And it was the same thing with the studio when
they read the script...

BIANCULLI: It's hard to visualize "Star Wars" with no special effects.

Mr. LUCAS: Yeah. And the studio, when they read the script, they said I don't
understand the movie. I don't know what it is. I don't get it. And it's not
until it all falls together in one piece and you've got the sound and the
picture together and it's all working, that it actually is a movie. And I think
a lot of people don't understand that a movie ultimately is a very fragile
thing and that, you know, if it's not put together right, you know, it's not
finished right, they can fall apart. It doesn't take a lot to send it the wrong

BIANCULLI: You've talked about how important that storytelling is as you define
blockbusters and blockbusting, that there has to be an emotional resonance to
these films for you to have put them into your list of these 300 movies through
the ages. Can you talk about mythology, because here we have "Avatar" that's
out as we speak and it's reworking Native American stories for part of its
inspiration, and "Star Wars" was all about absorbing and reflecting various
world myths and the whole Joseph Campbell perspective. And they were rewarded
financially in every other way for dipping into mythology. Do epic blockbusters
and mythology go hand-in-hand in film?

Mr. LUCAS: Well, mythology, basically, is storytelling. And when I started out
in college, I was an anthropology major, and that's where I first became
acquainted with mythology. And I always thought of mythology as psychological
archeology. You know, the regular anthropology you can sort of - especially in
terms, if you go back into society and archeology - you get a sense of the way
that society worked and everything but you don't get a sense of what they were

With the stories - with the mythology you get a sense of what they were
thinking. And by getting a sense of what they're thinking, you get a sense of
their psychology - of the social psychology and sometimes the individual
psychology. And that's what fascinated me because I was - I've been very
interested in that all my life.

And the reason I got involved in "Star Wars" in the first place, is I wanted to
do a little experiment with myself to see if the myths that were told and the
psychological motifs that were underlying those myths were still relevant today
- if we still reacted to the same psychology that they did back then.

So I didn't sort of take myths and turn them into a movie and modern and update
them and everything. What I did is I took the psychology behind the myths. And
then I also went, which is where Joe Campbell came in, which is he was a
comparative mythologist and he would go across all various cultures, time
periods, and that sort of thing and find the things that were common.

I was very interested in that. So I took the same things that were common and I
used those as the basis for my story and discovered, I think, that beyond a
doubt, we have the same psychology that we had 3,000 years ago. We don't have
the same intellect. We have advanced a huge amount in the last 3,000...

BIANCULLI: Oh, I didn't know which way you were going to go with that.

Mr. LUCAS: But in the psychological motifs of what we do, why we do it, our
psychology as an animal hasn't changed much. And we're still in the drama of
trying to adapt to sort of hyper environmental situations that are putting
extra strain on our psychology, that existed then but not that much different,
but in different ways.

BIANCULLI: George Lucas, thank you very much for being on FRESH AIR.

Mr. LUCAS: Oh, it's my pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Filmmaker George Lucas. His new book "George Lucas' Blockbusting"
has just been published.

Coming up, we remember record producer and musician Willie Mitchell who died

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
In Memoriam: Memphis Soul Prince Willie Mitchell

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. Today we remember Willie Mitchell, the trumpeter and record
producer who owned Hi Records of Memphis and recorded hits by among others, Al
Green, including this one.

(Soundbite of song, "Love and Happiness")

Mr. AL GREEN (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) Love and happiness, yeah, something
that can make you do wrong, make you do right. Mm-hmm. Love. Love and
happiness. Wait a minute, something's going wrong, someone's on the phone,
three o'clock in the morning. Yeah. Talking about how she can make it right.
Yeah. Well, happiness is when you really feel good about somebody. There's
nothing wrong being in love one with someone. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, baby. Love and
happiness. Love and happiness. Hey. Love and happiness. Love and happiness.

BIANCULLI: That was "Love and Happiness" by Al Green produced by Willie
Mitchell. Mitchell died yesterday, two weeks after suffering a cardiac arrest.
He was 81. Today, we'll play back interviews Terry Gross recorded with Willie
Mitchell and with Al Green.

In 1991, Al Green told Terry how he met Willie Mitchell.

Mr. GREEN: I met him in the country, out in Midland, Texas and Odessa, Texas
out there. I met him out there and he asked me about going to Memphis to sing
on his recording because he worked at a studio. And we were riding in the car
that day and I said, how long do you think it will take me? I was so
flamboyant. I don't understand how I did it. I was right on this guy. I says,
how long will it take me to become a star?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: And he says, and he swallowed like to choke, right? He says a star?
Well, about two years probably if you really work at it. I says excuse me. Let
me out. I don't have that kind of time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: He says, you're not serious? I say, I'm serious. I don't have two
years to waste on practicing to become a star. I need - in fact, I need some
money now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: And really, so he took me down to Hi, he says this kid going to be
phenomenal. They says, how do you know? He says, because he's got it in him.
And so he borrowed $1500 for me, from the president of the company to get me a
place to stay and all that and says I want to work with him because he's going
to be phenomenal, just watch.

GROSS: Gee, it really pays to have chutzpah, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: I guess. I just told him I just, you know, I wanted to be what I
wanted to be.

GROSS: Now the first song that he asked you to record was a cover of the
Beatles "I Want to Hold Your Hand," right?

Mr. GREEN: Could you believe that?

GROSS: It really is hard to believe. Why did he choose that?

Mr. GREEN: I have no idea.

GROSS: What was your reaction to it?

Mr. GREEN: My reaction was good. I thought it was a great song. It was a
wonderful song, but it was for the Beatles. It wasn't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: That song "I Want to Hold Your Hold," that song, "Driving Wheel," we
was trying to find Al Green. That's what we was trying to find. Who is this
guy? Who is this guy with the high falsetto and the rough voice? And Willie
says, I'll tell you what. Don't sing with the rough voice. I say, well, what do
you want me to do? We's cutting all these different songs by different people -
just a lot of songs. He says sing mellow. Don't sing hard. Sing mellow.

And I just went out there and started singing. (singing) I'm so tired of being
alone. And, I'm so tired of on my own. Help me girl as soon as you can.

And I looked in the studio mirror. They had this glass, right and you're
looking at the engineers...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GREEN: ...and everybody was jumping up and jumping up and jumping up and I
says, well, I must be doing something right so I'll just keep on singing,
(singing) people say - and that's I don't know how that started. That's the way
it's done.

GROSS: Well, that was your song. That was the song you wrote.

Mr. GREEN: Yeah.

GROSS: So you already had it written...

Mr. GREEN: Yeah said well, after we got done cutting all these other people's
songs, the Beatles and all these blues songs and the Temptations, "Can't Get
Next to You" and all these songs, I says, I got a song too. So Willie says, oh
please, because he'd been cutting all day - we'd been cutting all day. It was
one o'clock in the morning. I says, I got me a song and I wrote it on my own.

So Willie told one of the guys go out there and see what he's got, would you
please? I got to have a drink. Willie had a little shot of Vodka or something,
and after he went to feeling better he says, all right, what we got out here?
And it was this song "Tired of Being Alone" and I had worked it up with the
band. And I sung it and it became our first million sale.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to play it.

Mr. GREEN: Let's play it. Come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREEN: Let's play it.

GROSS: This is Al Green's first big hit, the song he wrote, "Tired Of Being

(Soundbite of song, "Tired Of Being Alone")

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) I'm so tired of being alone, I'm so tired of on-my-own,
won't you help me, girl, just as soon as you can. People say that I've found a
way, to make you say, that you love me. But baby, you didn't go for that, me,
it's a natural fact that I want to come back, show me where it's at, baby. I'm
so tired of being alone, I'm so tired of on-my-own, won't you help me, girl,
just as soon as you can. I guess you know that I, uh, love you so, even though,
you don't want me no more, hey, hey, hey, I'm crying tears, all through the
years, I tell you like it is, honey, love me if you can. Ya baby, tired of
being alone here by myself, I tell ya, I'm tired baby, I'm tired of being all
wrapped up late at night.

BIANCULLI: That's "Tired Of Being Alone" by Al Green, produced by Willie
Mitchell. Now, let's listen to a bit of Terry's conversation with Willie
Mitchell from 1995.

GROSS: "Tired Of Being Alone," is that the recording that you think really
established his sound, both as a songwriter and a singer, and maybe your sound
as a producer as well?

Mr. WILLIE MITCHELL (Musician and Producer): Right. I think that was the

GROSS: This has not only great singing, but it has a great arrangement behind
him. Did you do the arrangement yourself?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Can you tell me a little bit about what went into that arrangement, into
the horns and the backup singers?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I used to be a jazz player and we always used strange
chords, not regular chords that other people use and I think we had some minor
nines in there that people weren't using then. So, the arrangement was built in
chords that really weren't used in R&B records.

GROSS: More of jazz chords?

Mr. MITCHELL: More of jazz chords, right.

GROSS: What about the backup singers that come in? How did you decide to use
backup singers and what kind of sound were you looking for in those singers?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, you're speaking with Donna and Sandra Rhodes, they share a
country show. They come on every Saturday and I would watch them. And they were
like 16, 17 years old. And we had the studio way over in the ghetto. So, I
called their mother and I said your children have really good sound to their
voice. I said, I'd like them to come over to studio and work with them. She
said, I don't know about that.

But anyway, sooner or later they came to the studio, Donna and Sandra Rhodes.
And we began to do some background on different things and they sounded great
and I loved the sound. They went through The Bee Gees. They sang for everybody:
Frank Sinatra and everybody.

GROSS: Now I'm surprised that the singers that first captured your attention
were country singers.

Mr. MITCHELL: It was the sound they had. It was the sound they had. I was
trying to really do something that no one else had done in Memphis. And once I
put that together and put the right musicians together, I had a sound that was
different but still had that feel to it.

GROSS: You said you were putting together a sound nobody else had done before.
What was different about your sound?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, we're speaking of Al Green things. So, I was trying to get
Al Green to sound jazzy on top and softer, and the band to be down on the
bottom of it and pretty in the middle. And that's what, down in Selma, Donna
Rhodes and them done. They were pretty in the middle and they had Al
Jackson(ph) drums and it was down on the bottom and they was on top doing jazz
chords and everything. So that was the difference.

BIANCULLI: Willie Mitchell speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1995 interview with musician and record
producer Willie Mitchell. He died yesterday at age 81.

GROSS: You grew up in Memphis, right?

Mr. MITCHELL: Right.

GROSS: What kind of music did you hear when you were growing up?

Mr. MITCHELL: A whole lot of bebop music. And everybody wanted to be Charlie
Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, including myself. Then there was a guy came from
Chicago, he lived in Memphis, his name Andre Horne(ph). He went to school with
Quincy Jones and Billy Strayhorn. He came to Memphis. He changed the whole
picture of music in Memphis. He organized a big band and this guy was so great.
He – one of my elders, he taught me everything. In fact, that's his arrangement
on "Shaft" for Isaac Hayes.

GROSS: Oh, really? That's great. I love that arrangement.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, that's Andre Horne. He passed away a while back.

GROSS: So he taught you a lot about arranging?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, yeah. He taught me everything.

GROSS: Willie Mitchell, how did you first join Hi Records?

Mr. MITCHELL: Now, that's funny. I had a real popular band in Memphis, and we
used to work in Arkansas, across the river.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MITCHELL: At a club is called Danny's Club(ph) and it became real famous
because Bill Black used to come in. Elvis would come in.

GROSS: Bill Black used to play with Elvis.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, he was his bass player. So, they decided to make a record
with Hi Records. And I had a piano player named Joe Hall, who is really good.
And they wanted to use him. So, I came to Hi and they made a record called
"Smokie Part II." And it was a big seller. And after that he was trying to come
up with other hit records. They couldn't do it, so they called me and I became
Bill Black's arranger. And that's how I got into Hi.

GROSS: So, you started recording your own band at Hi Records.

Mr. MITCHELL: Right.

GROSS: You did mostly instrumentals. In fact, why don't we hear one of the
instrumentals you recorded? This was "Soul Serenade," which was a hit for you
in 1968.

Mr. MITCHELL: Right.

GROSS: It's one of your compositions, why don't we hear it?


(Soundbite of song, "Soul Serenade")

GROSS: You know, back when you first got to Hi Records and you were recording
and producing instrumentals, what was the record label like?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: There was like two guys - myself and Ray Harris. That's what it
was like. We'd stay there all night until we'd come up with something. We
called Joe, and Joe said – he'd approved and then he put it on the street.

GROSS: Had you worked with recording technology before?

Mr. MITCHELL: No, not really. No.

GROSS: So did you teach yourself?

Mr. MITCHELL: I taught myself, right.

GROSS: Were there mistakes you made early on before you learned the ropes?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I made mistakes, but I made them but once.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What's one of the mistakes that you made?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I told a guy once. I said, you know, you are a great
producer, but you taught me more than anybody I have known. He said, what did I
teach you? I said, you taught me not to never make a record like you make it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What was the record?

Mr. MITCHELL: I'm not going to tell it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was there a special way you had of miking Al Green's voice and did you
mic him any differently on "Can't Get Next to You"?

Mr. MITCHELL: No. I had one mic. It was a DX-77 mic I used on Al all the time.
And I wouldn't let anybody else use the mic. And I had a (unintelligible) on it
and I'd keep it there all the time. And it was the mic he sang all of his
records on.

BIANCULLI: Trumpeter and record producer Willie Mitchell, speaking to Terry
Gross in 1995. He died yesterday at age 81.

You can download podcasts of our show at And you can follow
us on Twitter at nprfreshair. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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