With the relaunch of Stax Records via the Concord Music Group, the 50th anniversary of the studio that once stood at 926 East McLemore Avenue is in full swing.
But just around the corner, Royal Studios, the home of Hi Records, is also celebrating its 50th this year. The studio -- built in a former movie theater, like Stax -- opened in 1957 with an Ampex 350 mono recorder installed by founder/chief engineer Bill Cantrell. Today, the building belongs to Willie Mitchell, who came on board as a producer in the 1960s.
Now Mitchell's reinvigorating the Waylo label he started in the '80s for artists such as Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, and Lynn White to introduce Mashaa, a former backup singer who cut demos at Royal a year ago.
Sitting in his usual perch at the front desk at Royal, which is located on Willie Mitchell Boulevard, the legendary producer shows off his gray Waylo sweatshirt and explains, "I started the label back yonder, when we were taking a lot of our Memphis soul artists overseas. My friend Tom Cartwright, who was in charge of The Right Stuff [the Capitol Records subsidiary that re-released Hi's soul output on CD], and I were talking about records and what-have-you ... the chances of an R&B album succeeding now. We thought that we oughta put out a record now and see what's going on."
So Mitchell partnered with Cartwright's RNB Entertainment Group -- which has distribution via Universal -- for a joint-venture deal which will be inaugurated with the release of Mashaa's debut single, "Someone Else's Bed," due to drop on May 1st.
Memphians will get a sneak peek of the single when Mashaa performs at the Gibson Beale Street Showcase Friday, March 9th, with The Total Package Band in tow.
"We're also gonna go to Chicago for some gigs," Mitchell says. "We're just getting started on this thing, taking it slow and getting everything together."
But Mashaa isn't the only newsmaker at Royal these days: Thanks to recent Grammy winner John Mayer, the studio has been enjoying its share of the spotlight.
"I did some arrangements on horns for his new album," says Mitchell, "and when he came to town [Mayer played FedExForum early last month], I went to his concert."
Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, Willie's son, laughs. "John called about 6:30 p.m. on my cell phone to ask if we wanted to come downtown. I thought it was somebody from his office, and I was in the middle of a session, so I asked, 'Who is this again?'" Lawrence worked behind the board as an engineer on Mayer's Royal sessions.
"I've engineered other projects, like Ron Franklin's last record, Marti Pellow, and some Buddy Guy stuff," says Lawrence, who began engineering to help out his brother Archie Mitchell, who has run the board since William Brown retired after a stroke several years ago.
"Archie does more of the hip-hop stuff, and I'm more into the rock music," Lawrence says. "John Mayer was awesome."
Explaining that the studio will get a certificate from NARAS for Mayer's Grammy win, plus a platinum record from RIAA for album sales, Lawrence notes, "Pops will just add it to his pile, but it's a big deal for me, a real big deal to engineer on a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning record."
The younger Mitchell, who also oversees the day-to-day operations of the studio, credits Steve Jordan for bringing Mayer to Royal: "He's been a catalyst in bringing a lot of the big names here -- Keith Richards, who recorded at Royal in '88, Robert Cray, and Buddy Guy. He took John Mayer to Sun Studio and brought him by here just to show him around."
Though few local folks might realize it, the Mitchells -- and Royal Studios -- have had a hand in several projects currently on the national charts.
"I was just looking at a recent issue of Billboard, which had John Mayer at #2 on the pop chart and [Belgian singer] Axelle Red on the international chart. Buddy Guy was up there on the blues list, and Al Green's Greatest Hits package was up to #11 on the catalog reissue chart. I think it's been on there for 587 weeks. The same week, his Definitive Greatest Hits climbed to #19 on the R&B chart. So I tore out the page, circled the records, and had it framed," says Lawrence.