Behind The Glass: Celebrating 60 Years of Royal Studios - Memphis

Bob Mehr

Memphis, Tennessee

September 27, 2017

For those who enter, walking into Royal Studios can feel like stepping into a time machine. Cross the threshold and it becomes a world of orange painted walls and purple shag carpet, of faded gold records and reels of two-inch tape. Move deeper and you’ll glimpse the instruments – Al Green’s RCA microphone, Al Jackson Jr’s Rodgers drum kit – of a soul music dynasty.

Located in South Memphis, Royal is the historic home of venerated soul label Hi Records. In 2017, both the studio and label are celebrating their 60th anniversary. Royal was famously the playhouse of Green and Ann Peebles, the laboratory of the estimable Hi Rhythm house band, and, in many ways remains, the product of the unwavering vision of late producer Willie Mitchell.

That rich history – and the new music that continues to come out the 102-year old red brick building – were among the topics of discussion during a late September Behind the Glass event at Royal hosted by the Recording Academy Memphis Chapter and the Mitchell family.  

Memphis Chapter president Gerbe Waddell moderated a panel that included Royal head Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, noted sound engineer Niko Bolas, and drummer/producer Steve Jordan. The 90-minute discussion and Q&A session offered a mix of fond recollections, deep insights, and much merriment, for an audience that included Bluff City music luminaires like Ardent Studios’ Jody Stephens, Jerry and Halley Phillips of Sam Phillips Recording, Fat Possum Records executive Bruce Watson, and Scott Bomar of the Bo-Keys/Electraphonic Studios.    

The audience was arrayed facing the control room, beneath a vaulted ceiling and drooping fiberglass insulation, along the dramatically sloping studio floor, the last vestige of its days as the Royal movie theatre.

What Royal lacks in modern conveniences and shiny façades, is more than made up for in the sound of the records it has produced “You don’t come here to look,” said Bolas, who’s been a habitué of the studio since the mid-80s. “You come here to feel.”

Since the Willie Mitchell’s death in 2010, Royal has continued under the direction of his son Boo Mitchell. It continues to be a sought-after workspace: in the last few years, Keith Richards and the Wu Tang Clan, Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers, John Mayer and Snoop Dogg, have all recorded there. Notably, Mitchell earned a GRAMMY for his work engineering the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars smash “Uptown Funk,” which was partly written and recorded at Royal, and became the first pop chart topper to emerge from Memphis since the mid-‘70s.  

The discussion began by examining Royal’s roots as the hub of Hi Records, originally a Memphis rockabilly label. Bandleader Willie Mitchell, who recorded as an instrumental dance artist for Hi, eventually became house producer and transformed the studio and label fully when he took control over in 1970.

Much of the evening’s stories involved fond recollections of Mitchell, a recipient of the Recording Academy Trustees Award in 2008. Affectionally known as "Poppa" or “Pops”, Mitchell’s nicknames were apt. He was patriarch to an extended family of musicians, father to a brood of blood kin and progenitor of a sound that would reshape soul music in the ‘70s.

“This is his fan club up here,” said Bolas, who joked that even after years working together Mitchell still referred to him mistakenly, but lovingly, as “Meeko.”    

Preserving the classic Hi sound has been a personal mission for Steve Jordan, who first came to Royal in 1987 while working on Keith Richards solo debut “Talk Is Cheap.” Mitchell produced the horn arrangements for Richards’ track “Make No Mistake.”

“Willie and I struck up a rapport from that moment on, he became a musical mentor to me,” noted Jordan. “I’ve continued that relationship with Boo and his family.”

More recently, Jordan, Bolas and Boo Mitchell have worked in tandem on several recordings made at Royal, including by Boz Scaggs 2013 album Memphis, one of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s final recordings, and the 2017 LP from Robert Cray, which teams the blues guitarist with members of the Hi Rhythm section, including bassist Leroy “Flick” Hodges and organist Rev. Charles Hodges.

Jordan noted that Mitchell’s sonic mastery and the temple of sound he created continues to enthrall musicians and producers. “Willie came up with a thing that can never be bettered,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for when we come here to make records. And that’s why we’re going to keep coming back.”

Boo Mitchell summed up the evening’s spirit and the celebration of Royal’s 60th. “Pops always felt like he wanted this studio he built and this sound he created to live on,” he said. “And it has.”  -- Bob Mehr 

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