Recording studio

How a Memphis recording studio became a successful factory thanks to unchanged architecture

An autumn afternoon at 1971 To Royal Studios in Memphis, singer Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell met keyboardist Archie “Hubbie” Turner, drummer Al Jackson, Jr., percussionist Howard Grimes, guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges and organist Charles Hodges to create records that sounded more intimate and delicate than Green’s revolutionary hit “Tired of Being Alone”.

Green and Mitchell, along with the session musicians, known as The Hi Rhythm Section, are committed to creating a chemistry between them and taking their time on the music. Obviously, their method worked, as the first song to come after this conversation was Green’s lasting signature recording, “Let’s Stay Together.”

Opening with Charles’s evocative organ riffs to back up Green’s breathless whispers, “Let’s Stay Together” features the Grammy-winning minister crying and pleading for reconciliation on a warm, warm groove. “We decided to let everything come naturally and be guided by the Spirit,” Charles says. “We all smiled and laughed and congratulated each other once we were done with this.”

“We were never in a hurry,” adds Leroy, Charles’s brother. “All of our business has been built from scratch. Willie would let everyone know if something was wrong.

Two years before the “Let’s Stay Together” session, Willie Mitchell had changed the layout of the Royal Studios so that musicians could feel what others were playing without facing each other. He placed the drums in a corner locker; seated the guitars standing under the plexiglass in the control room; and seated both the Hammond B3 organ and the grand piano near the exit.

Inside the Royal Studios.

Photo: Justin Fox Burks

The building was originally a movie theater built in 1915. It became a music studio in 1956; Mitchell joined in 1963 as a session musician and took over the venue in 1970. He retained the Royal’s sloping roof and floor to give his productions a floating and mystical essence. The conductor and trumpeter had fiberglass installed, orange burlap wall panels and a fall colored carpet for tighter acoustics, which is still the case today.

Laurent “Boo” Mitchell.

Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell.

Photo: Justin Fox Burks

“Pop told me that mixing the song brought tears to his eyes,” said Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, current director and engineer of Royal Studios and Willie’s grandson. “He didn’t want his records to sound like anyone else’s.”

“Let’s Stay Together” was released in November 1971, winning a gold record and number one spots on the pop and R&B charts in 1972. Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, the song was covered by Tina Turner, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, Maroon 5, and even then President Barack Obama.

Since that fateful recording, the design and equipment of the Royal Studios have not changed. The original MCI 536 analog console is still used in every session, Willie’s strategic arrangement remains and the interiors show their age. But despite the aged look of the space, the patience and camaraderie associated with Royal Studios has attracted artists like Rod Stewart, John Mayer, Wu Tang Clan, Keith Richards, Bob Segar, Joe Cocker, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Ann Peebles, Ike and Tina Turner and Boz Skaggs to record there, only further enhancing the appeal. In 2014, Marc Ronson and Bruno Mars used the studio to record one of the greatest songs of the 21st century to date, the Grammy-winning song “Uptown Funk”.

See the video.

According to Boo, Ronson attributes the success to the energy of space. “Mark Ronson said it best:” When you walk in, the room has a muse. It makes you want to play music. There is magic in space.

In addition to preserving the magic musical appeal, the furniture and equipment have been preserved in homage to Willie, who died in 2010 at the age of 81. “I just want to honor him by keeping the space the way he did,” Boo says. “I know the struggle Pop went through just to get his sound. If it works for him, it can work for me too.

Originally appeared on Architectural summary

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