There is no gift shop. No T-shirts, no coffee mugs, no bumper stickers. Tourists aren’t lined up outside the door to gaze upon thigh-high go-go boots, gold records, or gold-appointed cars. There is no reproduction studio with a vestigial mixing board because the recording studio at Royal Studios in South Memphis has been operating consistently since its heydays in the 1970s.
Nothing against its big sister down the road — the one with the marquee, the MGs, the worldwide cachet. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music — exactly one mile from where Royal sits at 1320 Willie Mitchell Boulevard — was a gathering place for blacks and whites in a segregated 1960s Memphis, and has become a catalyst for rebirth in the blighted 21 st century. Its music academy and charter school are positives in the lives of children whose parents (or grandparents) danced to the grooves of soul born on that very land.
But Royal Studios has something Stax does not: continuity. It has a legacy of output, but also a legacy in name. And that name is “Mitchell.”
I stand outside the two-tone brick building with the Lamar Sorrento artwork on its facade waiting for owner/engineer/producer Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell to come to the door but the wait is futile, he isn’t here. He’s late. That’s okay, though, because it’s an unusually sunny and warm winter day. There on the worn steps painted as piano keys, I watch as neighborhood boys run past while rolling a hula hoop. People pass by on foot and say hello. When Boo arrives, he’s on the phone and whispers his own greeting as he lets us in the front door.
Boo Mitchell is busy these days. That day, he’d only just arrived home from Los Angeles where he’d hobnobbed with the likes of Taylor Swift at the Grammy Awards. But even without the Grammys (Boo is president of the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization that presents the awards show each year), it’s been a whirlwind year for the 44-year-old son of famed music producer Willie Mitchell. The marathon No. 1 hit album (the first such local accolade in 40 years) Uptown Special (with its hit single “Uptown Funk”) was recorded at his studio.
That studio was once a movie theatre known as the Shamrock, but Boo’s good luck isn’t predicated on any four-leaf clover. It’s steeped in the walls of his studio. The interior is wood-paneled with sound-dampening material that looks like insulation come loose and tacked to the ceiling. There are scraps of carpet laid here and there, and electric cords run back and forth like a spider’s web. Clamp lights, the sort for a workshop and picked up at any Home Depot, illuminate the place.
I’m standing in what looks like any garage anywhere set up as a practice room for high school, wannabe rockers. But your garage never heard Al Green sing. Teenie Hodges’ melodious guitar never filled the air shared by your parents’ SUV. And the Mitchell family never sat at a mixing console to churn out hit after hit in your garage.
Sure, there’s room for the décor to be improved. Any decorator with a sensibility leaning toward clean lines and polished surfaces could do wonders, bringing the look more in line with what a New York or London-based clientele might expect. And you could also take the bacon out of your beans and grill your chicken instead of fry it.
But then, you’d be taking the soul out of the equation.
Soul and funk and something intangible sprouting from the cracked sidewalks of South Memphis is what brings those New York and London-based artists to our city. It’s the grittiness and the just-this-side-of-clean décor that attracted one of those star-makers.
“Mark Ronson and Jeff Bhasker, two of the biggest producers in music, walk in the studio,” Boo recalls, sitting at a mixing board that isn’t original to the Al Green days, but which has a pedigree of its own: It is the board that mixed AC/DC’s Back in Black (1980).
“They were looking for singers,” he continues, “and they had this idea to rent a car and start in New Orleans and just drive up to Chicago, stopping everywhere along the way and try to find a new singer. A friend of mine from one of the local radio stations called me up out of the blue and said, ‘I got these two heavy producers in town and they’re looking for talent, so can you get some singers that you know and meet us at Royal?’ So they come in, I’ve got a couple of R&B singers, and when they walked in the studio they were just fascinated. Mark knew the history, but had never been here. They were just fascinated that it was still intact and just from the vibe.”
Still intact. That’s the key. The studio was founded in 1957 by Joe Cuoghi as a home for Hi Records (the “Hi” taken from the end of Cuoghi’s name). It was a rockabilly recording room for the likes of the Bill Black Combo and Ace Cannon, and would come to be known as “the house of instrumentals.”
The studio would become home to a young jazz trumpeter named Willie Mitchell from Ashland, Mississippi, who played with Al Jackson Sr.’s big band, behind B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, and fronting his own big band in West Memphis’s Plantation Inn, Manhattan Club, and Danny’s Club. Peter Guralnick writes in his 1986 tome Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom , “To young whites like Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, Jim Dickinson and Packy Axton, who made the [Plantation Inn] their second home, bands like Willie’s were the pinnacle of cool and provided a level of musicianship and formal elegance to which they could scarcely aspire.”
Willie was a composer, arranger, and producer, as well as a musician, and found a modicum of success with Hi Records in 1962 with the instrumental “Sunrise Serenade” and again two years later with “20-75.”
He would go on to produce O.V. Wright and Bobby Bland for Hi, but it was in a small club in Midland, Texas, that his — and Hi’s — fortunes would change forever. He convinced the opening act at the club, a young man from Forrest City, Arkansas, named Albert Greene, to join him at the little studio in South Memphis, assuring the singer he’d make him a star inside of two years. It took some time, but Al Green made his way to Memphis and the theatre-cum-studio, and found that success with his first recordings, backed by the Hi Rhythm Section of the Hodges brothers — Teenie, Charles, and Leroy on guitar, organ, and bass, respectively, along with Howard Grimes and the MG, Al Jackson, on drums. First came a cover of the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” followed by “One Woman” from Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and then the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You.”
Preceding Green’s arrival by a few years, and continuing for several years after, Stax was being dealt a one-two-three-and-beyond punch. Atlantic Records, with whom Stax had an exclusive distributorship deal, was absorbed by Warner Bros. in November 1967. With that merger, Stax lost all of its master recordings as well as the hit-making duo of Sam & Dave. The following month Otis Redding, Stax’s premier artist, died in a plane crash in Lake Monona, Wisconsin. April the next year saw the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, with it, the crumbling of the integrated system that had worked so well at Stax for years. Enter the larger-than-life personality of company PR man and co-owner Al Bell, and the selling of the company to Gulf & Western, and the recipe for chaos was in place. Sure, there were hits — Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul became the best-selling soul record ever (though Hayes was under contract with Stax, the album was recorded at Ardent Studios and released on the Enterprise label), Shaft was released, and WattStax was held in Los Angeles.
But with the beginnings of Stax’s demise only a mile away, Hi Records would release “Tired of Being Alone” in 1971 and the world would come to know Al Green and, by affiliation, Royal Studios would begin its upward trajectory. “Tired of Being Alone” became a number-one hit and for the next four years Willie and Al teamed up for a number-one hit each year.
Green found religion and gave up the secular life and muse in the late 1970s, but the end of the Mitchell-Green team didn’t mark the end of recording at Royal. Others would follow, hoping to ingest just a pinch of this melodious medicine, to breathe the air that swirled in and out of the horns, the kick drum, and that flowed down the sloping floor of the onetime movie theatre. Peter Guralnick reports: “There’s something about the floor,” he [Mitchell] told more than one reporter. “As you go down that slope, the music gets bigger, it separates.”
“Everybody was trying to record here in the ’70s,” Boo says. “Even John Lennon tried to book the studio.” The Beatle was enamored with Ann Peebles, a Royal chanteuse, calling “I Can’t Stand the Rain” from the album of the same name, recorded in 1973, “the best song ever.” Lennon requested recording time, but Willie turned him away. “He said, ‘Man, I’m cutting Al Green now,’” Boo recounts.
In 1975, federal marshals seized Stax Records and the home base for soul music worldwide was forced into involuntary bankruptcy. With that communal center of soul went the neighborhood. Already on a downward slope, along with Downtown Memphis after the death of King, the streets of South Memphis would become desolate and blighted for block after block. Yet the little studio on South Lauderdale (as the street was named at the time) kept swaying with the time, booking in artists who wanted some of that buttery soul for themselves.
Others looking for that big sound include Elton John, Keb’ Mo’, Buddy Guy, Robert Plant with the North Mississippi Allstars, the Staple Singers, Tom Jones, Jesse Winchester, De La Soul, Robert Cray, My Morning Jacket, and John Mayer. Portions of Keith Richards’ 1988 solo album Talk is Cheap were mixed here.
In 2009, the Mitchell house on Mendenhall in East Memphis caught fire, Boo recalls. The chaos made Willie late to the studio to meet Elvis — Elvis Costello that is — who didn’t believe the excuse at first.
Boz Scaggs’ Come On Home (1997) was born here, and he returned in 2013 for Memphis , paying tribute to the studio. Produced by drummer Steve Jordan, the album features Ray Parker, Jack Ashford of Motown’s The Funk Brothers, Keb’ Mo’, and features a cover of Al Green’s “So Good To Be Here.”
“I worked on one of Rod Stewart’s albums in 2008 called Soul Book ,” Boo says. “That was one of the last two projects I worked on with my dad. And Solomon Burke’s Nothing’s Impossible . That was Pop’s last album he produced and it was also Solomon’s last album that he performed. Pop died in January 2010 and Solomon died later that year.”
The notoriously dysfunctional Wu Tang Clan came together at Royal Studios to record A Better Tomorrow (2014), using many of the same session players that performed on Al Green’s hits.
In 2014, the documentary Take Me to the River was released to critical acclaim. Bringing together artists from the golden years of Memphis soul with contemporary musicians, the film seeks to bridge a gap. A memorable scene has Charles “Skip” Pitts (that’s his “wah-wah” guitar on “Theme From Shaft”), Marvell Thomas, Ben Cauley of the Bar-Kays (and only survivor from the Redding plane crash), with Bobby Rush and rapper Frayser Boy on vocals recording Rufus Thomas’ “Push and Pull” at Royal.
It’s a family affair at Royal, Boo having had his start under the tutelage of his famous father. “I was crawling around down here when I was a little boy,” he recalls. “When I was about 9 or 10, I started spending summers here and by the time I was 13 or 14, I was completely hooked. I did my first paid session when I was 17. Al Green had this gospel song called ‘As Long As We’re Together’ that eventually won a Grammy, so playing keys on that, I got a real union check.”
And while it’s the history of the storied building that brought Ronson and his team, it may have been the food that kept them. Boo’s mother Lorraine and aunt Yvonne prepare a feast of soul food for all recording musicians. Who could say no to that?
“When they got ready to leave, Mark comes to me and says, ‘Man, I think I want to record my album here,’” Boo says. “I got a call a week later asking for 10 days and they came back two weeks later.” When Ronson came back, he brought with him Trombone Shorty, the Dap-Kings, Emile Haynie (Lana Del Ray’s producer), Steve Jordan, Willie Weeks, and Andrew Wyatt of the Swedish band Miike Snow, Bruno Mars, and Mystikal.
Also along for the ride was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon who contributed lyrics. “Michael was just roaming through the neighborhood,” Boo laughs.
“This is so classic for Royal,” he continues. “Some people hire us for one thing but the moment they step in the door, it becomes all these other things.” Neo-bluesman John Mayer booked the room to record horns on his 2006 album Continuum . “Then John’s like, ‘Man, can I try a vocal? Can we get a keyboard player?’ It just snowballs because of the vibe, there’s a magic in the room.”
Ronson told Rolling Stone late last year: “[Royal Studios] breathes music . . . You want to start playing the minute you walk in.”
And it isn’t all history. The popularity of Uptown Special and its affiliation with Royal marks a new beginning for the facility. “It’s definitely started something, and for Memphis, too,” Boo says, a Cheshire grin spreading across his bearded face. “It’s a great thing for our studio, but it’s a great thing for the city, too, putting attention back on the city.”
Musicians at all levels once flocked to South Memphis, drawn there like moths to the twin beacons of Royal and Stax studios. Since the mid-1970s, there has been very little reason for a musician or producer to venture to this side of town, but a band of organizations are working to change that. The Soulsville Foundation oversees the Stax Music Academy and, just across College Street, Community LIFT has reimagined the Memphis Slim House as a “collaboratory” for musicians of all ilk to come together and bounce ideas off each other; think: “Community center for music.” The LeMoyne-Owen CDC works to put the community back in the neighborhood and bring population density back to the area. And, of course, there is Royal Studios, still a workhorse of a production company, and a symbol of what the neighborhood used to be and what it may return to.
The soaring popularity of Uptown Special did not catch Boo off guard. He was ready for it; it was the jumpstart to a vision he’d had all along. “It was like a dream come true for me. I had this vision of the studio after my dad died: What did I want the studio to be doing? My sister, Oona, helps me down here and my mom, and my aunt, and we kind of get together and have these meetings about what we want the studio to be.
“We have three control rooms here; the old control room is still upstairs completely vintage and intact like it was. We had a preproduction room in the back that we called Studio C, and my vision was for all of these rooms to be making music and for big-name artists to come here.”
It was during the Uptown Special recording sessions that the vision was realized.
“I’d be back here with Mark, we’d record something in here, run it up front to the small studio and Jeff Bhasker and Keyone Starr from Mississippi, the singer they found, they’d put a vocal on it, and then it’d go from there upstairs to Emile who’s up there with his laptop and MPC [music production controller] just making the sickest stuff you ever heard. So it was like a music factory.”
Royal Studios may not be sleek and scrubbed, but then neither is Memphis. (“Memphis has that ‘secret ingredient,’” bluesman Charlie Musselwhite says in Take Me to the River .) In the end, it’s more clubhouse than garage. When a musician enters Royal, it feels like home and he’s welcomed in that way with a grin and a hug from Boo, and a meal from his mother and aunt. There are signatures of famous folks on the wall, soul food on the table, and a variety of microphones for the choosing. (But not the one in the corner, the one with a number 9 on it. That’s Al Green’s, and it is not for mere mortals.)
“It’s like the musical Jerusalem,” Boo says. “There’s just some kind of magic here that, when you walk into Royal, you feel something that you just don’t feel anywhere else in the world.”