Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, co-CEO of Royal Studios, had been thinking about producing a show that paid homage to the musicians and the studio that are often forgotten as part of Memphis’ musical history. He just hadn’t made time to do so.
Then he felt the outreach of Ron Jewel, vice president of Halloran Centre Operations, who was instrumental in booking Mitchell, son of Royal Studios’ founder Willie Mitchell, and “The Musical History of Royal Studios.” The show, narrated by Mitchell, opens the 2022-23 season of On Stage at the Halloran Center.
The art series showcases music, theatre groups, magicians and singer-songwriters and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. “The Musical History of Royal Studios” debuts at 7:30 p.m. next Friday (Aug. 26) in the 361-seat Halloran Centre, one of the Orpheum Theatre Group’s venues.
For the past several years, Jewel has been intentional about beginning the series with Memphis greats.
“I am always trying to find ways to showcase and pay tribute to Memphis talent,” said Jewel. “In the past, I have kicked off the seasons with Memphis icons, like William Bell, The Bar-Kays, Booker T. Jones, and now this year, Boo Mitchell.”
Serendipity played a part.
“When Ron reached out, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to curate something amazing about the legacy of Royal Studios,” said Mitchell.
“I’ve never done a show like this before and I thought it might be cool to tell some stories, play some music, and showcase the band who played all of this great music that came out of Royal Studios, the Hi Rhythm Section.”
The band, Hi Rhythm Section, was responsible for the instrumentation played behind iconic artists such as Al Green, Ann Peebles and Don Bryant and will be the main feature of the show.
“I’m heavily leaning on the band. Those guys are like my uncles and we’re lucky to have most of the original members still here,” said Mitchell.
“They’re always my motivation – they’re national treasures. I want to keep them lifted and engaged, and for people to know how much great music they created. Those dudes are my inspiration.”
Mitchell and his sister, Oona, co-run Royal Studios. Mitchell handles more of the production side, while Oona handles the business and radio show.
But it wasn’t always this way. At one point, well before their father passed in 2010 at the age of 81, Mitchell had joined the Royal Studios team as the business manager, catapulting the company into the 21st century.
“We had just closed the club, Willie Mitchell’s, where I was the manager and learned a lot about the music business, from booking to contracts to sound and what moves a crowd,” said Mitchell.
“And I went back to help at the recording studio. We never even had a logo – we were just flying under the radar. In fact, my father was still renting a phone from AT&T.”
Mitchell’s time as business manager was his second stint at Royal Studios following his first as a hired musician and later a producer.
“I was hangin’ out at the studio at 9 or 10 but started officially working there at about 14/15 years old. My first paying job was playing keyboards for Al Green on a gospel song that ended up winning a Grammy,” said Mitchell.
“My dad had bought me and my brother, Archie, a synthesizer and a drum machine. We had turned a little corner of the studio into a little rehearsal hall. And Pop was producing this gospel album on Rev. Al Green.
“Rev goes to the bathroom and heard me and my brother jamming. He says to my dad, ‘Willie, let’s let the boys play on this next one!’ Next thing I know, we’re taking the instruments up the stairs and we’re playing on the record.”
Mitchell was full of these kinds of stories throughout the interview for this story. He talked about producing his first record for local crooner Will Graves, and his time as a member of one of Memphis’ first hip hop groups, The M Team.
Wouldn’t you like to know how the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit “Uptown Funk” magic happened?
You’ll have to go to the show to hear that story, along with music by Hi Rhythm, Marcus Scott, (former lead for Tower of Power), Lil Rounds (from “American Idol”), Gerald Richardson (Cameo) and more.
“My father contributed so much to Memphis music and world music,” said Mitchell. “There are so many unsung heroes. Some know the music but don’t know the history and stories behind the music.
“I want to do what I can to get my dad’s story told and am humbled to do so at the Halloran Centre.”