Royal Studios: 60 Years of Soulful Sounds

Nov 17, 2017

For 60 years, a small recording studio in South Memphis, near the corner of East Trigg and Willie Mitchell Boulevard, has survived changing music styles, economic ups and downs and generational shifts.

Royal Studios is now one of the oldest continuously-operating recording studios in the world.

A year-long celebration of the studio’s legacy culminates Saturday night at the Orpheum, with an all-star performance by label alumni. Those musicians represent a range of genres and eras, from rockabilly to jazz to hip-hop.

And that’s not surprising, given that the Royal Studios’ story begins in 1956, when a group of musicians and producers affiliated with Sam Phillips' Sun Records set off on their own to form a rockabilly label called Hi Records.

They needed a place to record, so they rented an old neighborhood movie theater, originally built in 1915 to show silent films.

One of the first guys to show up with his band was Elvis Presley’s bass player, Bill Black. He cranked out a number of sax-heavy instrumentals that were popular for dance parties.

A few years later, a young bandleader, arranger and trumpeter, Willie Mitchell, arrived at Hi Records. He would eventually take over the recording studio, shaping every aspect of the sound.

Inside Royal Studios, dim lighting, cotton insulation, orange carpeting creates a unique atmosphere for music making.
Credit Christopher Blank - WKNO-FM

The acoustic signature that Mitchell created still exists today. Sheets of cotton insulation draped from the ceiling dampen the reverb. The dividers between players are covered in burlap. Mitchell believed that the sloping movie theater floor contributed to the room’s sound and feel.

Mitchell’s son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, now runs the studio, and has kept its authentic flavor. Artists can record on equipment dating back to to the '60s and '70s.

“It was about ’69 when Pops just got the room like he wanted it,” says Boo Mitchell. “And I think the first record was ‘Tired of Being Alone’.”

That song marked the beginning of Al Green’s rise to the top of the charts for the next few years. The studio followed up with classic soul hits “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love with You” and “Look What You Done for Me.”

Over the next few decades, Willie Mitchell would record hundreds of local bands and a host of international stars such as Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Ann Peebles, Tom Jones, Anthony Hamilton, Robert Cray and Solomon Burke.

Mitchell died in 2010 at the age of 81, but his family is carrying on the legacy. In just the past few years, Boo Mitchell says there has been renewed interest from major artists looking to lay down tracks in the historic space.

A historic marker stands outside Royal Studios where a painting of Willie Mitchell guards the door.
Credit Christopher Blank - WKNO-FM

“It’s like we’re finally getting that word out,” Boo says. “Hey, you wanna make a great bluegrass record? Go to Royal! You wanna make a great whatever record… the one constant that our records have is vibe, and that’s what we want to be consistent, is the feel of the records.”

That “feel” brought Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars to Royal Studios in 2014. They walked away with the Grammy-winning hit “Uptown Funk.”

That song has become a calling card, of sorts. Royal isn’t just a studio where history was once made. It’s a place where history is still being made.

Royal Studio’s 60th Anniversary series: Sixty Soulful Years featuring Anthony Hamilton, Boz Scaggs, Robert Cray, Dee Dee Bridgewater, William Bell, Syl Johnson, Tony Joe White and Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics. 7 p.m. Saturday at the Orpheum theatre. Tickets: $103-$1003. Call 525-3000.