By Noah Schaffer
A beloved figure to both the local gospel community and deep southern soul collectors, Bishop Lee Mitchell has passed following a long illness, according to social media reports from his friends and family. Mitchell was 75.
One of the leading deep soul websites called the Alabama-born Mitchell “one of the great unknowns who never made a bad disc” because of the staggering secular 45s he released in the ’60s and ’70s.
After moving to Boston in 1958, Mitchell replaced the renowned Bill Moss in the Bibletones. In 1967 he cut a record for Sure Shot, a label owned by the infamous Texas wheeler and dealer Don Robey. The discs he made in the ’70s weren’t big hits, but in recent years they’ve been spun by the legendary British DJ John Peel and fetched upwards of $350 on eBay. According to one story, Mitchell was offered “Let’s Stay Together” before Al Green cut it but turned it down. Sessions for the great Alabama producer Neal Hemphill resulted in a few 45s, but the full album has still never seen the light of day.
Even when he was making secular soul, Mitchell’s intense vocal style never strayed from his gospel roots, and by the ’80s he was back to making a joyful noise in Boston. He was a mainstay at the gospel brunch at the original House of Blues in Cambridge and appeared at venues such as the Orpheum and Vermont’s Discover Jazz Festival. Along with his wife Rev. Mary Mitchell, he led his own congregation at Dorchester’s Salvation Christian Center Church.
But Mitchell was also comfortable singing soul when asked. He was a vocalist with doo-wop promoter Harvey Robbins’s revues and recorded “Rev. Lee Sings Songs of Love” with former LaVern Baker music director Peter Marshall. He also sang with Boston-bred soul singer Eli “Paperboy” Reed.
Earlier this fall Boston’s gospel community came together for a tribute to Mitchell – or as the gospel song says, they gave him his flowers while he was here. According to one attendee, Mitchell, despite his illness, sang the gospel chestnut “I’m Still Holding On.”