The Legendary Memphis Recording Studio Where Celebrities Go for Soul Food
When stars like Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson record at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios, they get a soul food dinner as a bonus.
When you're a recording artist—one with abundant renown or hit-less and still hustling to make it, it doesn't matter which—there may come a time you find yourself driving with purpose down Willie Mitchell Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee. There certainly have been plenty who’ve made the journey over the last 60 years, from Al Green to Bruno Mars. Past the weedy lots and the South Parkway Food Market and Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church. To the studio that looks like a house, with painted piano keys on the steps leading up to the front door.
Any artist who arrives at Royal Studios will feel it, as soon as they cross the threshold into the anteroom. The same kind of instant understanding you get when you walk into, say, a soundproof room; you can feel it, without being told that something just happened. Ignore the little cozy reception desk that belies the history of the place. And Royal is not, let's be clear, one of those pristine, soulless L.A. hit factories. It has the vibe of a crowded house that could use a repair or ten. Until you turn to the left and make your way into the studio. Past the whiteboard where the visiting big shots have scrawled their signatures and messages. That's when you start to get it.
Maybe, for you, it's the vocal booth in the studio that still houses the “No. 9”—Royal’s shorthand name by which they refer to the iconic microphone Al Green used to record his classics. There, standing right there. The cherubic singer holding that microphone, and you can almost see him standing there, singing about how he’s tired of being alone, so tired of being alone, and about love and happiness and staying together. Maybe it's easiest to be charmed by the fact Royal, which turned 60 this year, is one of the oldest continually operating recording studios in the world. But this is not a monument, a thing to gawk at. No, Royal is as utilitarian as it gets.
You come here, as an artist, for the same reason Al Green and Robert Plant and Snoop and Bruno and too many others to count have walked up those steps. For the same reason John Lennon, the story goes, once thought about recording at Royal and was so taken with Ann Peebles’ “I Can't Stand the Rain”—recorded at the studio, with that lusty groove that makes you want to slip behind the wheel of an Eldorado and cruise into the heat of the night. Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson actually did decamp to Royal, back in 2014, to record their blockbuster “Uptown Special” album.
But it's not even just the music that makes Royal so idiosyncratic, not anymore. Impeccable credentials aside, the studio’s green room may be an even more striking example of what makes Royal such an uncommon place, as recording studios go.
It’s here, in the aptly named green room—a space both painted green and adorned with a large black-and-white photo of Al Green—that at some point during a multi-day recording session, bread will be broken. Yvonne Mitchell, the daughter of Royal’s late esteemed producer Willie Mitchell, will bring in a home-cooked meal she's prepared for each artist. A feast laid out buffet-style conveying vegetarian spaghetti, pound cake, collard greens and other assorted foodstuffs to satiate the hungry artists.
“When my daddy passed in 2010, we knew we had to reinvent ourselves,” Yvonne says. “I said, we’ve got to do something unique. So I told Boo (Willie’s grandson, who owns the studio today and who is its face)—usually people come in to record at 11 o’clock in the morning and don’t leave till maybe 2 o’clock the next morning. They’re bringing in pizzas and sandwiches... I said, well, if they stay for a week, what I’ll do is I’ll cook them a soul food dinner.
“It’s different every time. It’s always going to have some black eyed peas and greens. Might have macaroni. Vegetarian spaghetti. Might have red beans and rice. Black beans and rice. Cornish hen. We may have roast, tilapia, salmon—it just depends on where they come from. Because the people in New York, they like black beans and rice, and the people in New Orleans like red beans and rice. I do a lot of cakes. When Bruno and Mark Ronson were here, I made a rice pudding and put some bourbon sauce on it.”
That last part is a passing reference to one of Royal’s biggest records in decades. Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell won a Grammy for his engineering work on “Uptown Funk,” the 2016 Record of the Year, and uses it to help talk about the kind of place the studio is, and the way he does things as an engineer and producer. “There’s magic at Royal. I still feel it when I walk in. Everybody does.
“People seek us out and normally want me involved with the recording, just because I’m like—I bridge the gap between how (Willie) did things and the new day and new age. So I’m kind of, like... the best of both worlds, I guess?”
He’s also fairly easy-going, and can roll with whatever an artist needs. Like Bruno eventually deciding he wanted to record his vocals for “Uptown Funk” in the control room. Which would let him look out the window at the band in the main room. Easier said than done.
“He wanted to make his vocals in the control room, which is kind of an engineer’s nightmare,” Boo recalls. “You can’t use a really nice mic because of the feedback. So I was like, ok—I put him on the cheapest mic we have, like a $100 mic, and he’s doing his vocals in the control room, with the music coming out of the speakers. And I just knew they would replace it at some shiny studio. But they didn't! They kept the vocal on the $100 mic for ‘Uptown Funk.’”
The meal at Royal during the “Uptown Special” sessions, meanwhile, also preceded some, shall we say, improvised recording.
“Bruno, he had pound cake,” Yvonne says. “Black eyed peas. Because I asked him, when he first came in. I said Bruno, you know anything about black eyed peas? He said yes ma’am. I said, you know anything about greens? He said yes ma’am. I said, you know anything about pound cake, you like lemon pound cake? He said I like any kind of cake. I had chicken and fish and everything, and I said hell—you gonna be alright, just go on and eat. When I got ready to leave, I was telling Mark—Mark, I’m ready to leave. I said, I’ve been up since 5. And he said, can you put this little riff on at the end? Can you put this little riff on for us on a song? I said... who told you I can sing!!”
After the meal, Bruno had corralled Boo—“Boo, where’s the Royal family, man!” The crew wanted to stick some female backing vocals onto Mystikal’s addition to “Uptown Special,” onto the song “Feel Right.” Which is why, when it gets to the chorus and you hear the ladies singing in the background “Riiiight... riiiight... All niiiiight,” that, friends, is pretty much every woman in Boo’s family. Mom, aunt, sister, wife, daughters, and a few of his wife’s schoolteacher friends—their post-meal surprise addition to one of the biggest smashes to come out of Royal.
“It’s my mission in life to make things sound awesome,” Boo says. “I try to make it where I’m feeling it, you know? Where it’s getting a rise out of me. A lot of it is the spirit in how you do a thing. Like with Yvonne. Normally, she starts the session off with pound cake. And then dinner a few days later. It’s kind of a communal type of meal. We normally try to plan it for a day when the pressure’s not so intense. It lets the artist kind of come up for a bit of air. It’s like a pit stop, almost, from the pressures of recording.”
Scene: everyone’s piled into the green room. Mark Ronson, Bruno Mars, even Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who contributed lyrics to “Uptown Special.” You stand there in the green room, and if you're lucky or dumb enough to believe in luck, you might catch yourself thinking—this is how a meal is supposed to be enjoyed. Riotously, among fellow schemers and music makers soaking up each other's company and good humor.
It’s one of those meals where the consumption is an act. No passivity here. This is food that sticks to your bones. You tell and appreciate the stories and participate in the affair. With a picture of Al Green, towering over the assembly. In the photo, he’s leaning into the frame, both fists in the air. As if to say, congratulations. You made it. Welcome to the club. Now get your ass in the next room and make some music.
“It’s one meal,” Yvonne says. “Now, one time, when Melissa Etheridge came in, I cooked for seven days. I cooked a special meal for her. And a special meal for the band. It was two meals a day.
“But it’s fun. It is! Hey, baby—every day is Christmas. And every night is New Year’s Eve.”