On Saturday, the history of Royal Studios, one of the Bluff City’s great musical institutions, will be the subject of a star-studded celebration at the Orpheum, with a concert event titled “Sixty Soulful Years.”
The climax of a three-part series of shows in 2017 celebrating Royal’s 60th anniversary, the Orpheum lineup will feature R&B crooner Anthony Hamilton, pop hit-maker Boz Scaggs and bluesman Robert Cray among a couple dozen performers saluting the South Memphis studio that birthed Hi Records.
Royal Studios — the historic home of Hi, the Hi Rhythm Section, late producer Willie Mitchell and R&B stars like Al Green and Ann Peebles — opened in 1957, and the studio would famously become the home base for Mitchell and his chart-topping soul productions into the 1960s and 1970s.
Since Willie Mitchell’s death in 2010, his son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, has carried on the tradition admirably, earning a Grammy Award last year for his work on the Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson hit “Uptown Funk.” He’s also re-established the studio as a sought-after workspace, with Keith Richards and the Wu Tang Clan, Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers among the many acts who’ve made pilgrimages to Royal to record in recent years.
“We’re looking at the Orpheum show as a way to relive Royal’s past but also celebrate its present and future,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell, who is producing the show, promises a mix of performances, digging deep into the catalog of Hi and Memphis soul. “The artists appearing will do songs from the Hi Records catalog, some things that were just recorded at Royal, and we may do songs that the artists are known for, but do them in Royal fashion,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of unbelievable folks coming out to show their love for Royal and the music that’s come out of here.”
In addition to Hamilton, Scaggs and Cray, the lineup boasts an eclectic mix of artists, many of whom have worked at Royal in recent years. This includes soul songstress Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics, Stax great and Grammy winner William Bell, as well as Hi Records star Syl Johnson and swamp-rocker Tony Joe White. Noted producer and drummer Steve Jordan will serve as the event’s musical director, with Hi Rhythm and the Royal Horns making up the house band.
Mitchell has been adding artists to the lineup and expects to do so until close to showtime — with a few big names still being bandied about. In the meantime, he’s also confirmed appearances by Al Kapone, Frayser Boy, Kirk Whalum, Charlie Rich Jr. and Natalie Stovall from “The Voice.”
As Mitchell notes, much of Royal’s renaissance began about five years ago, with record producer and Orpheum concert musical director Jordan helping to bring a spate of new projects and fresh momentum to the studio.
In 2013, Jordan produced “Memphis,” an album by Scaggs that proved to be one of the most satisfying of the singer’s five-decade career. Earlier this year, Jordan also produced and released (on his own label) a project pairing Grammy-winning blues-rocker Cray with Royal studio’s famed house band, Hi Rhythm. Cray and Jordan tracked the album with Hi Rhythm members Rev. Charles Hodges, Leroy “Flick” Hodges and Archie “Hubbie” Turner.
Cray’s association with the studio dates back two decades, to when Royal/Hi patriarch Willie Mitchell provided some horn arrangements and material for Cray’s 1999 album, “Take Your Shoes Off.”
Another Orpheum performance will feature Dave Stewart — one half of British pop duo Eurythmics and close collaborator with Tom Petty and Mick Jagger, among others — and Australian songstress Vanessa Amorosi. Melbourne native Amorosi is a multiplatinum superstar in her home country and completed a soul-flavored LP with Stewart at Royal last year.
The senior act on the bill will be Chicago-by-way-of-Mississippi soul singer Syl Johnson, who recorded some of his best-selling records for Hi Records in the 1970s, including the original version of “Take Me to the River.” Johnson remains a magnetic performer well into his 80s.
One name not on the bill, but who would be a fitting surprise guest, is the Rev. Al Green — perhaps the artist most identified with Royal and Hi. As Mitchell jokes, “Al is always 50/50 on whether he’ll show.”
Regardless what the final roster of acts turns out to be, Mitchell is confident that the evening will be one for the ages.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he says, “getting all these great people together to celebrate 60 years of music made in Memphis.”
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