Everything about Royal Studios oozes music—from the records painted on the bricks to the piano key steps leading up to the front door.
In a back hallway, gold and platinum records adorn cinder block walls while photo albums line bookshelves and anarrangement for “I’m So Tired of Being Alone” sits on a piano like a child’s homework. One can almost hear the ghosts of sessions past reverberating from the walls, if only they could talk. Today, the studio is quiet. Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, studio manager and grandson of Willie Mitchell, is eating barbeque while on the phone with legendary Stax producer Al Bell.
Having grown up around the studio, Mitchell is no stranger to success or celebrity. “I always knew the studio and I would come here. It just felt like it had some kind of magic to it. I would meet all these famous people and would hang out with them—the Jacksons, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Temptations, just everybody. It was great, my childhood was great,” says Mitchell. Started in 1956 by Willie Mitchell as the home of Hi Records and the Hi Rhythm Section, the studio has produced such hits as Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” Last February, producer and musician Mark Ronson visited the studio andreturned three weeks later to record his album Uptown Special, featuring the number-one hit “Uptown Funk.” On the studio’s wall of fame, Jeff Bhasker, Ronson’s co-producer, wrote: “Tonight magic happened.”
Indeed, it did. The song, which was released in November, has topped both the US and UK single charts and reached number one in several other countries. The album itself was released in January and debuted at number five on the Billboard charts.
“I was involved every step of the way; we all kind of had each other’s back,” says Mitchell, who served as an engineer on the album. He and fellow engineer Joshua Blair took turns working the 14-hour days.
Uptown is just one of the ways Mitchell is keeping the Royal legacy alive. He was always told by his ‘pops’ not to make the place a museum and that its purpose is to make music, so that’s what he does.
He also works to make Memphis better and share its culture with the world. He serves as the current president of Memphis’ chapter of The Recording Academy, and last year he helped produce Take Me to the River, a documentary highlighting Memphis music’s past and present. “People can say whatever they want about our city, but we gave the world popular music,” says Mitchell.
That music has inspired artists across genres to come to Memphis to work with the Mitchells and Royal—artists such as John Mayer, who was provided horn arrangements on his 2006 album Continuum; and rapper Snoop Dogg, who was featured in Take Me to the River. “I want the studio to be known for having its own vibe, but no matter what style of genre it is, that we’ll do it well and with our own signature and way of doing things,” says Mitchell.
Another Royal project coming out this year is one with the North Mississippi Allstars and Robert Randolph called The Word. “It’s a different kind of record than Mark’s record, but it’s still funky and soulful and cutting edge,” says Mitchell.
Thanks to Uptown and Royal, the Bluff City has felt the limelight once again, exactly as Mitchell wants. “I would like to see us have an industry again because right now, we just have a music scene. This is still the mecca so I’d like to see the spotlight shined back on Memphis. As forerunner to the world’s music, I’m going to do my part every time I stick the key in the door,” says Mitchell.
A Royal Legacy
Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” gives Royal Studios and Memphis their first number –
one hit since the 1970s.
Story & Photos by Mary Eckersley