There are but a handful of recording studios in the world that have operated continuously for over half a century. Abbey Road, EMI's flagship facility, dates back to 1931; the little-known SugarHill Studio in Houston was built in 1941; and Capitol's Studio A in Los Angeles and RCA's Studio B in Nashville both date to 1956.
Batting in the same league, and with as much worldwide impact as any of them, is Royal Studios, now celebrating its 60th year. Even as other Memphis studios have been recast as tourist attractions, Royal has unceremoniously chugged along with the same mission as it had on its opening day: Make records, and make them well.
This year, the unassuming little brick building on Willie Mitchell Boulevard in South Memphis started getting its due with a series of concerts honoring Royal's longevity.
In August, the Bo-Keys backed early Royal alum Don Bryant in the kickoff show. Last month, the Levitt Shell hosted more than a dozen acts who have cut in the studio, from Devil Train to Gangsta Blac to Preston Shannon.
And this Saturday, the capstone of Royal's diamond jubilee takes place at the Orpheum Theatre. Performers at the gala event will include Al Kapone, Frayser Boy, Kirk Whalum, Boz Scaggs, Robert Cray, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, William Bell, Syl Johnson, and Tony Joe White, among others.
Naturally, the house band for the evening will be the inimitable Hi Rhythm, still featuring players who helped forge the Memphis sound in the '60s and '70s. Drummer and producer Steve Jordan will serve as musical director.
Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, with sister Oona and brother Archie, inherited the business from "Poppa" Willie Mitchell — and its formidable legacy as well. But to him, it's just home. After flying back to Memphis the other day, he went straight to the studio for a bit of respite. "I just wanna roll around in the street. Ha ha — I'm home!" he exclaims, but then has second thoughts. "It's probably not safe. Maybe I'll just go out there [in the tracking room] and lay in the middle of the floor. Just lay on the slope."
Like Stax and other classic studios, Royal was built in the structure of an old cinema, and it still has the gently sloping floor, which, across the span of two world wars, received the spilled popcorn and soda of generations. That architectural feature also enhanced the acoustics of the space when partners Joe Cuoghi, Quinton Claunch, and John Novarese first remade it into a studio. Willie Mitchell began working there as a young band leader, but he ultimately moved into the owner/producer's chair, further refining the sonics of the main tracking room. Today, the sound insulation he hung decades ago is still visible, as are cabinets full of vintage microphones and other gear that Mitchell was loath to discard.
Perhaps it was his disdain for technological trends that gave Royal its staying power. Mitchell stuck with older techniques, even as digital workstations such as Pro Tools came to dominate other studios.
"When Pro Tools first came out," says Boo, "he didn't like it at all. He was like 'I'm the pro tool!' That's what he used to say." As digital technology became more reliable, Poppa Willie embraced it, yet he never abandoned the analog tape machines that gave him the powerful and pristine sound of hits by Al Green and other stars of the '60s and '70s.
When the industry came full circle, back to recording in analog, Royal was in the unique position of having well-maintained gear with which to do it. "Tape is in demand," says Boo. "You almost have to use both. I like to use both, because the tape just sounds better, especially on drums and bass. So a lot of stuff now, if I don't do it straight to tape, we'll do it Pro Tools and then run it to the tape. As long as there's some tape in the chain, it's gonna sound better."
Of course, it was more than Willie's gear that made the old records great, as Boo explains. Much, he says, depended on "how he treated people. That was just as important, if not more important, than the music. How he interacted with the musicians. He was good at figuring out the right thing to get the best performance. And he never bit his tongue. It was always 'what you see is what you get.' And he was always real frank," Boo laughs.
But even Willie's rapport with players was not the total key to Royal's success, as Boo sees it. "It's family owned and operated. That's one of the things that's cool about Royal. The family runs it, all the way down to the kids. My mom, my sister, my aunt. Nephews, children. There's always a Mitchell in the house."
Sixty Soulful Years, the final concert in Royal Studios' 60th Anniversary Celebration, takes place on Saturday, November 18th at the Orpheum Theatre, 7 p.m.