Let’s be clear. Willie Mitchell and Royal Studios is a BIG DEAL and not just in Memphis.
Yes, it’s a huge part of the fabric and legacy of Memphis music. Hi Records and Royal Studios was the home of Memphis favorite Al Green, where he and the immensely respected Mitchell cranked out a number one hit every year. They far outpaced the success of contemporaries, accumulating international recognition and accolades along the way.
The hitmaking tradition carries on, 60 years later, through Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. That to say, Royal Studios is hardly a relic of the past. It encapsulates the best of then AND now.
Boo has created hits for local artists such as Gangsta Black and hip-hop legends Wu Tang Clan. The studio is known for its R&B track record but the production credits crisscross genres, leapfrogging from the horn arrangements on John Mayer’s multi-platinum album “Continuum” to work for Melissa Ethridge and, of course, the Grammy-winning “Uptown Funk” with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.
Boo says he gives his all to the work no matter who it is.
“Whenever I go to work I don’t care what it is that I’m doing, I give 110 percent just like I’m recording for Bruno Mars. But I might be recording for the dude around the corner.”
Uptown Funk was such a big deal. So I had to ask him what he’s probably been asked a zillion times: “What’s new and next?” He emphasized that he is not in the business of trying to top himself or his last project.
“I think we are the future of Memphis Music and music (in general). We have something unique that people are looking for – vibe…People are definitely talking about us because of their experience….”
But he is being humble. They are launching Royal Records, working with some new talent, which will be announced at some point after the 60th anniversary festivities have wrapped. And his sister, Oona, has launched the Royal Radio app, which streams Royal Music and Memphis music in general. She has a show, along with shows from Preston Shannon, Rev. Charles Hodges and Al Kapone.
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Royal Studios, their team has planned two concerts – this past weekend’s show at Levitt Shell, followed with a star-studded concert at the Orpheum on November 18th.
But there is a plot twist here. As they celebrate the longevity of the company and properly lionize Willie Mitchell, Boo and company have taken it upon themselves to pour into the next generation via their partnership with Memphis Music Initiative (MMI).
MMI is a great out-of-the-box nonprofit organization that funds music programming and training in schools and facilitates learning opportunities outside of the school environment. They came together with Royal quite organically and to have several conversations around how they (Royal) could give back in a way that was authentic. This resulted in Royal taking about nine interns under its wing to learn the production and technical side of the business.
I spoke with Darren Isom, Executive Director and Founder of MMI, as well as Brittney Boyd Bullock, youth program manager. Of the initial connection, Darren says, “We are always thinking about how to create a thriving arts ecosystem …that is equitable and exclusive. One that black and brown kids in South Memphis, North Memphis… can look out and see something happening and see that it’s for them. For us, Royal definitely demonstrates what that is in Memphis.”
In no time at all, Darren came to understand that, “Boo is recognized by all parts of the city as someone who understands the power of Memphis music, not just in a historical sense but in a current and future sense…
He sees himself as a product of Memphis and he sees himself in the kids.”
Boo talked about his legacy, mentoring and the need for communication that is honest and earnest.
“No one is engaging anyone. Mentoring helps older people as well as younger people. It’s not a one-way street. It is teaching us to be better adults.”
The next group has to hear the real deal so they know that “…there are no Cinderella stories,” he said. “There is no easy road…. even me being the son of a famous multi-platinum producer. People assume I had a head start but…I had to work my butt off!”
A native Memphian, Brittney understands the importance of a success model that young people can reach out and touch. She speaks fondly of Boo’s giving nature, ease with the students and willingness to share then expands on how their example is important optically.
“Our sense of place defines in a lot of ways what you believe…I think that Royal Studios given not only its historical context…(and its) strong and rich presence here…is a perfect example of what that longevity looks like.”
The internships allow for an up-close view of what success looks like on the production side as well the performance side, broadening their perspective and understanding of the industry,” she said.
“This is an industry that employs lots of different people doing lots of different things. Everybody brings something to the party, not just the person performing,” says Darren.
Kudos to Royal and MMI for their intentionality in removing the boundaries of the box and preparing the next generation of leaders! Stay tuned!