With all the emphasis on Stax, most folks don't realize that just around the corner from Soulsville U.S.A. the Mitchell family has been pumping out hits for nearly half a century. Patriarch "Poppa" Willie Mitchell -- 74 years young last March -- still calls the shots from behind his desk at 1320 South Lauderdale Street, while his sons, 33-year-old Archie and 31-year-old Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, focus on their own Bum Rush Entertainment label.
Today, Mitchell calls his company Way-Lo, but he started with Hi, the Memphis-based label founded by Sun musicians Quentin Claunch, Bill Cantrell, and Ray Harris in 1957. The label initially specialized in rockabilly and rock-and-roll instrumentals (including artists such as Ace Cannon and the Bill Black Combo). Joe Hall, a piano player with the Combo, worked with Mitchell at Danny's, a club across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Mitchell's ground-breaking arrangements crossed both jazz and soul boundaries, and as Hi began to face stiff competition from the Stax label, "Poppa" Willie was pulled in to up the ante. By the mid-'60s, Mitchell ran the sessions at Royal, producing hits for bluesman Bobby "Blue" Bland and soulster O.V. Wright, as well as his own chart-topping instrumentals, including "Sunrise Serenade" and "20-75."
In 1968, Mitchell recorded Ann Peebles' debut album, This is Ann Peebles. The album featured a version of Little Johnny Taylor's "Part Time Love," which hit pay dirt. The song eclipsed every other Hi release up to that point, breaking into the R&B Top 10 and establishing Peebles as a rising star. Two years later, Mitchell hit again with Arkansas native Al Green, discovered on tour in Midland, Texas, a few years earlier. It was one of the greatest pop collaborations ever. Under Mitchell's tutelage, Green scored big with "Tired of Being Alone" at the start of the '70s and racked up hit after hit over a seven-year run.
After Green left secular music at the end of the decade, a nonplussed Mitchell soldiered on, producing a bevy of hard-hitting blues and R&B albums at his Royal Studio, churning out such acclaimed releases as the late Jimmy King's Soldier for the Blues, Ike Turner's comeback album Here and Now, and Beale Street stalwart Preston Shannon's All in Time. Lately, the soft-spoken producer has been raving about Scottish crooner Marti Pellow, who recorded the blue-eyed soul album Smile at Royal last summer.
Like Stax, Royal was built inside an old movie theater, complete with a sloping studio floor and control room where the projectionist's booth once stood. The studio hasn't been renovated since it was completed in the 1960s, and strips of insulation hang from the well-padded ceiling, giving the room a tent-like feel. During the day, former Mad Lads vocalist William Brown runs the control board for acts like the Ron Franklin Entertainers, who have cut several sides at Royal over the past two years.
After the sun goes down, it's a completely different vibe at the studio. Archie and Boo -- who practically grew up at Royal, when they weren't attending classes at Christian Brothers High School -- work late into the night on their own projects, including upcoming releases from local rappers 201 and former Three 6 Mafia MC Gangsta Blac.
"We record 90 percent of our stuff on analog," Boo explains. "We use digital equipment strictly for postproduction and mastering. We still cut with those fat two-inch analog tape players, which, in my opinion, is the best sound for the most funk." Studying the gold records in the studio, it's impossible to disagree with his theory.
The Mitchell brothers are just realizing the potential their name carries in overseas markets. "Right now, me and Archie are setting up a deal with Sanctuary Music in England for Bum Rush Productions," Boo tells me. "Basically, we solicit beats for independent producers like the Free Agents, a five-man team that produced Gangsta Blac's new album. Their stuff is on a whole new level, stuff that Memphis has never heard before." 201's new album, Who Callin' da Shotz, is another priority. "Two rappers, zero busters, one mission," Boo says, laughing. "Look for their CD real soon."
Andria Lisle writes about the local music scene. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.