by Jon W. Sparks
The art of running an enterprise requires knowing when to change — and when to resist the temptation.
Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell has been cultivating that knowledge a good part of his life as part of the fabric of Royal Studios, a legendary hatchery that has, for 60 years, been drawing some of the world’s most accomplished hit-makers. His father, Willie Mitchell, took charge of the studio in 1970, and Boo, now 46, took over after Willie’s death in 2010.
Royal boasts of being one of the oldest perpetually operated recording studios in the world, and as the home of Hi Records in the early days, has spawned several million-sellers. Trumpeter Willie Mitchell came aboard as a session player in 1963 and made several hits while becoming increasingly involved in the studio’s operation. He eventually took over Royal and in the early 1970s would develop a singular expression and, aided by his collaboration with Al Green, give the world a distinctly Memphis sound.
Growing up in that atmosphere, Boo Mitchell performed and played plenty of music and, with his Pop at the control board, it was inevitable that he’d become increasingly interested in how the tunes were made. As a teenager, he was playing keyboards and writing songs. “That’s pretty much all I wanted to do,” he says. “And I loved the technology. My cousin and I used to say, ‘Oh, come on, Pop. We need this new, modern board and speakers,’ and Dad was always like, ‘Man, that stuff back there’ll do anything you want it to do.’ Eventually I go, ‘Man, he’s got more golden records than we do — he’s probably right.’ And he was.”
Sitting in his chair at the board, surrounded by studio equipment and furnishings that might well have been there in the 1970s — the studio has changed little since then — Boo says that vintage is now the future. “I had a meeting with a gentleman yesterday who wanted to redo his songs. He had stuff made in the late 1990s, early 2000s and it was dated. His synthesizers weren’t the old, old ones, they were more modern. I told him, “We’re gonna redo your stuff in a traditional way with real instruments and it’s gonna make it sound fresher than what you were doing back then — which was supposed to be futuristic.’”
The Education of Boo Mitchell
In 1993, the family opened Willie Mitchell’s, a Beale Street nightclub, where Boo worked and learned. The club closed in 1998 and Boo spent more time at Royal.
“For a couple of years I was doing odd things around the studio, a bit of engineering, getting into mastering, and eventually I started managing the studio in 2000,” he says.
His work was cut out for him.
We never had a logo and I think we were still renting a telephone from BellSouth,” Boo says. “So, I started getting more interested in the business of music around that time and just looking at things. I was like, ‘Pop, start looking at the bills and stuff,’ and ‘Pop, man, we’re still renting a telephone for $10 a month — we can buy a phone at Target.”
Boo wanted to streamline the operation, which was a commercial studio with a mom-and-pop feel and nothing even as basic as a logo and letterhead. “But my Dad was Willie Mitchell, you know, and he didn’t need a business card or a letterhead or any of those things.”
But business was picking up. They were doing some major sessions and Willie was producing records again, such as Al Green’s comeback records I Can’t Stop and Everything’s OK. “I was project coordinator for those two records,” Boo says, “so I started getting more into doing budgets and rounding up the musicians and making sure everybody got paid. That helped me look at the studio more as a business entity than just a great place to make music. It helped me dig into more of the business side of music. It was a good learning experience and good preparation skills for me.” That digging in helped him understand the workings of record sales, radio play, songwriting, and sync licensing. “It was a crash course for me,” he says.
“In 2004, out of necessity, I started getting back into the creative side doing engineering, producing more records, and engineering records with my Dad,” he says. With his management savvy, Boo was finding out when to resist the temptation to change but always striving to improve and stay current.
The State of the Music Industry
It’s still changing,” he says. “Man, I try to stay on top of technology in the industry.” For Boo, his membership in the Memphis chapter of The Recording Academy is crucial to that. He’s been a member of the Grammy organization for more than 10 years and a board member for more than five years. “It’s one of the smartest things I’ve done as a musician, an engineer, and a producer. It represents the whole music industry, not just specialized groups. The Grammys is at the forefront of fighting for musician’s rights, fighting for songwriter’s rights, and keeping up with new technology and trying to make sure that people are given proper credit.”
Boo remembers his astonishment and confusion when he first got an MP3 from iTunes. “It was Jack White’s Seven Nation Army, and I downloaded it, 99 cents. Then I’m looking all over my phone — ‘Where’s the credits? Where did they cut it? Who mixed it?’ That’s a real problem for creators because a lot of times we get our next gig depending on what our last gig was, so there’s this whole movement to try to get credits embedded into the MP3s.” He’s hoping that the current president of the Memphis chapter of The Recording Academy, Gebre Waddell, might be onto the answer. Waddell’s software company, Soundways, is doing innovative work in providing metadata in all the distribution pipelines so that credit goes where it’s due. The company also has developed sophisticated plug-ins for audio engineers.
Boo’s involvement with the Grammy organization’s efforts to keep up with technological advances is essential for him. “I’m connected with people all over the country that do what I do and are trying to make sure that there is a music business. Nobody wants to pay for music anymore, but we all have to live. There’s a lot to figure out, especially with streaming and all that. And the issues of rights where there’s a lot of money that American musicians don’t have access to because of our antiquated copyright laws.”
The Recording Academy, Boo says, is working to pass “Fair Play, Fair Pay” legislation, “because all over the world the musicians, and artists, and the background singers get paid for radio play. Over here in America, only the songwriters and the publisher get paid for radio play and because we don’t have that practice in America, there’s an excess of $200 million a year that is collected on behalf of American artists in places like Europe, Japan. But we don’t practice that and there’s no reciprocity, so the money stays in those countries.”
Evolving the Memphis Sound
It is somehow fitting that the historic 60-year-old studio with vintage equipment is also keeping on the edge of music.
“Memphis has so much rich history musically,” Boo says. “It’s like this big pie and Royal has a nice slice of it. We’ve kind of flown under the radar except for the inside people — the musicians and artists — that really know. But Royal was probably the second major recording studio opening after Sam Philips Recording Service and Sun Records. It was started with people who were working at Sun.”
Royal was bought in 1956 and officially opened in 1957 as the home of Hi Records. “It was known for its instrumentals and a lot of early rockabilly recordings were done here. When my Dad got here and started doing his R&B instrumentals, it gave the studio just a different breadth.”
From the get-go, Willie Mitchell brought a lot to the operation. His Willie Mitchell Combo was hugely popular, playing Beale Street clubs and parties (including one where Elvis Presley — a frequent club visitor — brought bride-to-be Priscilla). “The Beatles on their first North American tour rehearsed at Royal for a week,” Boo says, “because the Bill Black Combo was their opening act. That was in 1964, more Memphis music history that people don’t know much about. Royal has always survived.”
That included the riots after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “They were burning businesses and people were tearing up neighborhoods. My dad had to go out of town and he got a bunch of winos in here, bought them a bunch of wine and was just like, ‘Man, watch my place.’ He didn’t bother to lock the door. When he got back from his gig, he didn’t know what he’d find. He opened the door and saw like 20 winos all laid out. ‘Hey, Willie! Yeah, we got you. Everything’s cool.’ Nothing was gone.”
That’s the story Boo tells when people insist that he needs to get the studio’s historic artifacts out and into a safe place. “I tell them it survived the riots of ’68 and I think it will be fine.” Boo keeps the spirit of surviving and independence. “My Dad was always trying to be different even with his band. Most of the music in the early ’50s, was big band, you know? He was trying to find a sound that was different, so he was like, ‘Well, I’m just gonna use two horns.’ He did the same thing here at Royal with redesigning the room. He wanted to be different and when he was working on something, wouldn’t even listen to the radio because he didn’t want to be influenced by somebody else’s music.”
Boo quotes Knox Phillips — son of legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and a heralded producer, engineer, and Memphis music booster — as saying “Memphis represents the spirit of independent music.” Boo says, “I think my Dad and Royal are the epitome of that because he wanted all his stuff to be different and that’s why the studio looks the way it looks.”
And this is what shapes Boo’s vision of the studio and the music that comes out of it. “We’ve survived for so long because we haven’t conformed to any sort of traditional thing in any shape, form, or fashion. We could have replaced equipment, but why would anybody want to come to Royal if we’ve got the same stuff everybody else has got?”
It’s that idea of knowing when to change, and when to resist the temptation. “That’s how I run the business, just like he’s still alive — because he is. He lives in the music, he lives in the walls, you know what I mean? He lives in our hearts, so I’m always thinking, ‘I wonder what would Pop think about this?’”
Boo describes that as a baseline for him on how to improve the business and the music that comes out of it. “I still have my own ideas for what I think is going to make Royal better,” he says. “The beauty of that is I did a lot of that while he was alive, so I remember when I would present new ideas to him and how he felt about it. I learned and he let me evolve to where I understood that this place is already great, but that I could make more people aware of it.”
What does the future look like for Boo Mitchell and Royal Studios? “Man, I’d like for us to get back to our roots. My sister Oona and I started a label, Royal Records, so I’d like for everything to go full circle, to start producing amazing artists out of Memphis and get back to what that other thing Memphis was known for, and that’s amazing talent. We have some of the finest musicians and artists in the world. We just have to get them out there, get the world exposed to them. That’s a big part of what I want the future to be.”
If, in the process, Royal becomes an international destination for recording, then that’s fine with Boo. “To record at Royal is the most magical thing because we have the vibe. People come here and they get inspired. I’m inspired every time I walk through the building. There’s a magic here and there’s a gift here. I just want to share it with the world.”