Cutting Tracks at Royal Studio for Barbara Blue by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

Posted on 9/20/2010 by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

(Memphis, Tennessee) This week we take a journey to the famous Royal Studio, housed in what was originally a movie theater located on the 1300 block of South Lauderdale in Memphis. It is within these magic confines that so many great hit records from Hi and Goldwax labels were cut, along with Al Green's phenomenal hits.

After it's beginnings as a movie theater, it's transformation into a studio where Bill Black and Ace Cannon recorded, this place blossomed under the leadership of the late Willie Mitchell, a great musician, songwriter and arranger in his own right, a major music force in producing and directing so many artists, in particular, the Hi Rhythm Section musicians who played on so many great blues and R & B hits.

Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell remembers his grandfather at Hope Church

Willie Mitchell is mentioned in these earlier American Blues News articles:

Where the Music Came From

Willie Mitchell Dead at 81

Willie Mitchell One Last Time Down Beale Street

Willie Mitchell Memorial Service

Surrounded by gleaming gold records, Boo Mitchell maintains the tradition

It was with a tremendous reverence that I entered this hallowed studio on a beautiful Thursday afternoon in the first week of September, 2010, to cut some overdubs for my friend Barbara Blue's upcoming CD. After being buzzed into the front door I was ushered to a comfortable chair in the front lobby.

After entering the studio I waited a few moments in the lobby for Boo Mitchell to arrive. He is an extremely busy man, deftly balancing the responsibilities of family, record making and a veritable procession of friends and loved ones who almost continually visit the famous studio.

As I sat in the lobby catching up on my phone messages, a small lizard appeared through the front door, seemingly coming from nowhere. Fearing he would possibly scare the young receptionist at the front desk, I alerted her that a lizard was resting on the front baseboard. Totally nonplussed, she replied, “Oh, it's ok. That's Pop's pet lizard. He comes in at certain times of the year.” As mysteriously as he had appeared, the studio lizard simply vanished.

When Boo came in the door, work in hand and talking on his phone, I introduced myself and mentioned that Pop's lizard had returned and then disappeared back out the front door. Boo said, “Yeah, I offered to shoot him with my BB gun but Pops wouldn't let me. Pops said to leave him alone because lizards eat bugs. I haven't seen him in a long time...I've been wondering where that little dude was.”

We have few lizard sightings in Memphis. I have seen lots of them in New Orleans and out west in Arizona, but very few in West Tennessee. I wished I had taken the magic studio lizard's picture.

Almost as soon as Boo entered he was covered up with guests. Gene Mason, a longtime club owner had dropped in to visit. Gene at 72 is spry, witty and has some great stories about Memphis and it's many musicians as he has owned many nightclubs going back into the past century. Gene managed Stax artists such as the Bar-Kays and William Bell. He currently owns the nightclub in the Executive Inn on Brooks Road, a rather famous old music spot for blues and R & B.

The enchanted Royal Studio mixing board...where hit records are made.

A two track and eight track 2 inch tape machine stand at the ready.

Old school tape splicing station..this is how we edited in the old days, digital tricks at all.

Without a doubt, one of the kindest, most affable and genuine personalities I have ever met in the music business is Boo Mitchell. He is quick to laugh and smile and always takes time to visit with the many folks who visit the studio. As he chatted with Gene Mason, a procession of a tour driver friend of his and his 3 tourists from New York came in the door. Without hesitation, Boo stopped what he was doing and gave them a quick tour of the studio.

The magic vocal booth and Al Green microphone

As I carried my old microphones, harps and 1949 Fender Champion 600 into the studio I overheard him telling the folks, “This is Al Green's microphone...” and entertaining them with grace and charm that was genuine and heartfelt. He obviously loves living in this great monument to Memphis music history. After the folks left to catch their flight back home, I told Boo that it certainly was kind of him to stop what he was doing to show the folks around and that he had a lot of heart. He said, “Oh yeah, man. You know, I mean, you have to do that.” To do otherwise would never cross his mind.

When once asked what was the greatest advice his grandfather had ever given him, Boo answered, "The greatest piece of advice would be to treat people with compassion."

Lester Snell, keyboard legend
Veteran Stax Records session musician, member of the 1970's Isaac Hayes Movement

After the procession of tourists departed, a cab pulled up to the front door and a crazed looking woman stood at the door requesting an audience. The receptionist instantly bolted out of sight of the woman, obviously having had to speak with the poor crazy woman in the past. Boo spoke in calm friendly tones with her for a few moments and she departed back in the waiting cab. He chuckled as he walked in saying, “you know that's the first person I ever met that had so many parents, Jackie Onassis, Elvis and Priscilla, maybe a few more.” He handles it all with aplomb and a sense of humor, never diminishing the poor lady or even as much as shooing her away from the door. He is a man of patience and tact, qualities that made Willie Mitchell such a class act and a successful producer...and Boo learned his grandfather's lesson about compassion well.

I love this's an overhead coat rack for mics and cables...genius.

Looking toward the control room from the main recording room.

Altec A7 Voice of the Theater wall-mounted upside down. I own one of these...beautiful sound.

Tape library, look at the talent on these tapes.

Boo Mitchell plays one of his grandfather's songs, "Let's Stay Together"

Before cutting a couple of harmonica overdubs for my friend, Barbara Blue, I had a chance to relax and play a couple of tunes on the beautiful Royal Studio Yamaha grand piano. Later when I was talking with Lester Snell I mentioned great sound of the piano, which had been recently tuned by Tony Thomas, another great Memphis musician. Lester agreed and added that he particularly liked the light elegant action on the piano. This feel can only be gained by an instrument that has been played and lovingly maintained for many years.

Boo at the Yamaha grand piano

I also got to witness a special moment when Boo played a song that always moves him, "Let's Stay Together," the monster Al Green hit that was cut in this very room. The song was written and produced by his grandfather and adopted father, Willie Mitchell, who was a seminal proponent of the Memphis sound, a great trumpet player and keyboardist who had a tremendous feel and knowledge of music and an incredibly inventive mind. His arrangements are unbeatable by any standard.

Boo played a few bars and looked up at Lester at a part of the song which featured a rather difficult flourish. They smiled at one another, Boo tried to reproduce the part and stopped, looking up at Lester. Like your favorite uncle, Lester lovingly bent over the instrument and added the perfectly executed flourish, just like the record. We all laughed and marveled at the richness of the song, the sound in the room, the history of this place and the magic that still hangs thick in the air at Royal Studio. Boo and his brother, Archie, are keeping it alive in Memphis.

Lester Snell quietly shows us all how it's done
That's a vintage 160 watt Sunn Model T with four 6550 power tubes in the background.

Barbara Blue working on her soon to be released CD

After laying down some harp tracks I got out of the way for Barbara Blue and Lester Snell to practice their parts, piano and vocals that Boo would engineer. As Barbara ran through the song a couple of times with Lester, Boo kindly walked me out to my car.

I asked him to call me sometime so I could come back to this magic place. Smiling he said, “yeah, next time we'll get you on the organ. You look like a B-3 player.” We laughed and as I drove off toward the Memphis Blues Society blues jam, we waved at one another as he greeted yet another neighborhood passerby who had hailed him as he walked back to the studio. On Lauderdale Street, everybody knows and loves Boo Mitchell.


© Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

Wed: National Correspondent - Monica Yasher
Monica is our executive director and artist interview specialist. You can catch Monica singing the blues around Pittsburgh or working on some country music songs in Nashville.

Thurs: Washington, DC Correspondent - Virginiabluesman
Geraldo offers inteviews and reviews. You may have seen him at an Ana Popovic concert or conversed with him on her websites, as he offers administrative support with her music.

Fri: Northeast Photographer - Nelson Onofre
Nelson offers a Friday column of blues photography and pictorial support for the interviews covered by the team.

Jim Stick in Colorado
Jim will be focusing on the Blues Festivals in the beautiful state of Colorado, and the artists that live and visit there.

Maureen Elizabeth, our resident art correspondent, will be focusing on blues art as she explores the creation of CD covers, or speaking with artists who also have a love of creating pictorial art in addition to their music! She may also feature some of her good friends in the Pittsburgh area. In her love of art, you may find Maureen's photography accompanying writer's articles on our pages. Maureen is also our marketing director.

Pittsburgh correspondent and photographer, CR Bennett, will share the Pittsburgh scene with all of you. You may also see CR's pictures accompanying other writer's articles.

We head to the big state of Texas! Abby Owen, our Texas correspondent.

Another big area to cover, the West Coast with Casey Reagan, Casey will feature many artists and events on this ocean's shores.

Lastly, we have our roving blues entertainment writer,
Chef Jimi.

And of course, we will surprise you sometimes!

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