One of Memphis' true musical landmarks, and one of its landmark musicians, will be honored today as Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios is recognized with a Tennessee state historical marker.
The marker will be unveiled during a private ceremony at the South Memphis studio. The marker is a testament to the life and work of the late Mitchell, an iconic bandleader, songwriter, producer and label head, who helped shape the sound of American soul music.
The marker will be placed in front of the studio at 1320 Willie Mitchell Blvd. -- a renamed stretch of South Lauderdale Street -- and many of his friends and former charges, including Otis Clay and Syl Johnson, are expected to attend the ceremonies.
"We've been working on it for a minute," said Mitchell's grandson, Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, of the marker. "There are a lot of steps you have to go through. We eventually got it before the historical commission and they approved.
"It is a huge honor," added Boo, who continues to operate the studio. "It's a landmark and it's always been special to us, but to have it officially recognized just makes it even more special."
Born in Ashland, Miss., in 1928, Willie Mitchell was a talented trumpeter who fronted some of the city's most renowned nightclub combos. In the late '50s he would find a home at Joe Coughi's Hi Records and its Royal Studios, a movie theater built in 1915 and later converted into a recording setup.
At Hi, Mitchell would record a series of popular instrumental records and dance hits like "Soul Serenade" and "20-75," while his band would back other notable acts like Bill Black, Ace Cannon, Charlie Rich and Jumpin' Gene Simmons.
In 1970, Mitchell took over the running of Hi Records following the sudden death of label owner Coughi. It was during that decade that Mitchell would go on to redefine soul music.
He assembled one of the greatest house bands ever, Hi Rhythm; and discovered and molded Al Green's million-selling career, as well as those of soul stars like Clay, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright. The Hi sonic signature was a sophisticated groove-fueled R&B sound that continues to be imitated today.
In the late '70s, Mitchell's partners sold Hi Records, although Mitchell retained Royal Studios. He remained a prolific producer throughout the next three decades, working on projects for the likes of Rod Stewart and Keith Richards, and reuniting with Green.
Mitchell eventually ceded day-to-day operations of Royal to his two grandsons, Boo and Archie, a decade ago, but remained a fixture in the studio until the final days of his life. He died in January 2010 at the age of 81.
-- Bob Mehr: (901) 529-2517