Memphis is the Mecca of recorded music for fans as interested in myth as in music. Although time has collapsed most of the shrines of the glorious sounds of the past, one tiny studio “Royal” still stands proudly as a testament to its prominence in pop culture. The working studio is a literal time capsule; it has changed little physically since it began operating in 1959. Its small, homey room is Shakti itself, containing vibrations from thousands of notes that converged into hundreds of hit records. The cosmic energy can literally be felt, silently enveloping anyone standing within its aura willing to absorb its flow.
Royal will always be best remembered as the recording home of Willie Mitchell, respectfully called “Poppa” or simply “Pops,” who passed away in January 2010. Pops was a maestro, an award-winning producer/musician/recording artist—the consummate professional, humble and personable—admired by the biggest names in the music industry who visited his unpretentious studio to pay homage to the man who made so many hit records.
I first met Poppa Willie in the mid-Fifties when I was teenager dancing to his band’s live music. Years later while working as a journalist, I’d visit him on an assignment. I could find him almost any afternoon about one o’clock holding court at Royal Recording behind a metal gate ironically enclosing the reception room.
Strangely enough Pops was more interested in listening to my family stories about the history of the Royal building than in being interviewed. He learned my grandfather’s WW I draft card showed the building was named the Shamrock (housing the Royal Theater) when listed as his place of business. Royal is one block south of Trigg Avenue (roughly three miles south of downtown), which was the city limits in the 1920’s. The Capitol Theatre, about a mile away, was twice the size of the Royal. The Capitol also became a recording studio and was renamed Stax. The two converted movie theatres were the oases for recording American soul music in the Sixties.
Royal also had a connection with Elvis Presley, whose cousins lived across the street from my grandparents in 1947. They were allowed into the Royal free and watched many matinees within Royal’s walls. Elvis wasn’t Elvis then, so it didn’t matter much to anybody that he was there.
Pops and Elvis became friends years later when Pops’ band played at Elvis’s private parties. Elvis also loved listening to Hi’s records, but for some reason never recorded at Royal. There was never an Elvis song cut at Royal either, until Barbara Blue came along and recorded a hauntingly impressive rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
I met Barbara at Silky O’Sullivan’s nightclub on Beale Street one Sunday afternoon at the urging of Adalah Bennett Show, the owner of Hi Records, following Willie Mitchell’s reign. “Barbara’s the best singer in town,” Adalah insisted: “She’s forceful, passionate, brazen, sassy and makes the audience wild.” It took hearing only one song for me to agree.
A native of Pittsburgh, PA, BB discovered on a visit to Memphis that her favorite records were cut here and fell in love with the city’s funky, southern lifestyle. Barbara paid five dollars to sing a song with the dueling piano players at Silky O’Sullivan’s, and when the Silky asked her to wait until his lovely wife Joellyn arrived to perform again, she agreed, and they hired her on the spot. Fourteen years later Barbara Blue has performed a historical amount of gigs on Beale Street.
It was almost a certainty that Barbara and Willie Mitchell would eventually pair up on an album. In 2007 BB asked her sax man Lannie McMillan (long time Royal sax man and close associate of Pops) to take her to meet Mr. Mitchell and talk about producing her next CD. “I took him my records,” she remembers. “We met a few times talked about possible songs we could do. At last he shook my hand and said, ‘I’ll produce your next record.’ I couldn’t believe it. Willie’s heath problems started after that, so we never got to it.”
That’s where Willie’s son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, stepped in. Boo had sat at the controls along side Pops almost since he was old enough to see the top of the board. More importantly, Boo had absorbed the instincts and nuisances of the maestro producer and his ability to configure some of the best musicians in the South with some of the top singers in the world. “Boo was phenomenal,” says Barbara. “He was the perfect person to take over the project.
Royal Blue is dedicated to Willie Mitchell and every note is an honest homage to him the man and his music the legend. You can hear the love everyone has for Pops in every note.”
It is obviously the intent of Royal Blue to capture the vintage sound of Royal Recording—the simple, honest-to-the-core integrity and romantic intimacy that are uncompromisingly evident when the records are played even decades later. There is, however, something more—an ease and flawless satisfaction one senses when music is created just for the sake of love.
~Rose Clayton Phillips