VOL. 132 | NO. 152 | Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Royal Studios Celebrates 60 Years of Music-Making
By Andy Meek
Royal Studios owner Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell is celebrating the studio’s 60th anniversary this year. Influenced by his father, Willie Mitchell, Royal has recorded music by R&B and soul legends like Al Green and more contemporary artists such as John Mayer and Bruno Mars. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
For Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, the workday starts around 10 in the morning, when he arrives at Royal Studios to start miking up the drums. He’ll spend the next few hours getting the rest of the instruments set up and “dialing in sounds,” all the technical work that has to be done before the acts and artists show up at Royal and start running through their songs.
And when Mitchell is overseeing the recording sessions for those songs – as he’s done for artists from Bruno Mars to John Mayer who’ve decamped to his legendary Memphis studio to record – it’s still with advice from his father in mind.
Legendary producer Willie Mitchell played a major role in elevating the Memphis soul sound, producing recordings from the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles, among others. One thing he urged is that his son not to sweat things too much.
It’s advice that, yes, covers the particulars of a recording session. But it’s also an object lesson in how an institution like Royal that was founded in 1957 can endure, such that it’s able to celebrate a milestone anniversary this year, its 60th.
“One of the main things Pop taught me was to trust myself and trust my ears,” the younger Mitchell said, reflecting on the hit-making music legacy of his father and the recording philosophy he passed to his son. “That it’s not always about perfect notes. It’s about capturing the energy and emotion and the feeling. Because sometimes people can play music and everybody plays every note correctly, but it could just have a sterile feel to it.
“He taught me how to recognize when something feels good and to not get caught up with somebody hitting a bad note. If it feels good, that’s what you go for, because that’s the magic that’s hard to capture.”
Instruments, microphones and amplifiers are scattered throughout Royal Studios. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
Making music that feels good, capturing magic, those lightning-in-a-bottle moments – one of the best encapsulations of how that happens at Royal still, even after all this time, is the Bruno Mars hit track “Uptown Funk” from 2014 that spent spent several weeks at the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
It remains a point of pride for Mitchell that the pop star ended up not only recording the hit track at Royal, but writing much of it there, too.
And never mind that Mars is a worldwide pop sensation – Mitchell still recalls with fascination how the singer recorded his vocals in a control room at Royal on a Shure SM57, a microphone that costs around $100.
Because that’s what you do when you’re a producer, musician, studio owner, whatever – you figure out what works, even if it’s unorthodox. You make better music that way, Mitchell and his father figured out a long time ago, when the vibe is relaxed and everyone is comfortable.
It’s why when artists book sessions at Royal, they’re likely to get sat down at some point to enjoy a full home-cooked meal from Mitchell’s aunt, who loves preparing dinner for the musicians.
“You come in from out of town, you’re in the studio five, six days, you’re eating out all the time, you’re grinding trying to get it done – having a home-cooked meal is a good relaxer, and it’s a good change of momentum,” Mitchell says.
Royal was built as a theater in 1915 and converted into Royal Studios in 1957, becoming the home of Hi Records and the Hi Rhythm Section.
Elizabeth Cawein, principal at music publicity firm Signal Flow PR, describes Royal as a place that occupies both the past and present – a “home of so much of our musical legacy, but it’s also a core piece of our vibrant contemporary music scene.”
Events that have been scheduled to celebrate Royal’s anniversary include a concert at the Levitt Shell on Oct. 14, as well as a concert at the Orpheum Nov. 16, “Sixty Soulful Years,” celebrating music that’s come out of Royal.
“I want people to look at Royal as the place where you go to get inspired,” Mitchell said. “There’s always a magic that happens here.”