Welcome to the New Memphis Beat

Welcome to the New Memphis Beat, a blog dedicated to covering the recording business in Memphis, Tennessee.

New Memphis Beat grew out of our desire to tell the continuing story of music being made in Memphis studios.

Few cities can boast of as many historically significant, still-operational, and analog-capable studios as Memphis. And while it’s true that Memphis has one of the richest and deepest musical legacies of any city in the world, it also has one of the brightest futures. The reason? Its world-class studios and recording professionals. Continue Reading

Royal Studio’s Boo Mitchell: The Tape Op Magazine Interview

Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell. Photo by Larry Crane, Tape Op Magazine

Here’s an epic interview with Royal Studio’s Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell in this month’s issue of Tape Op Magazine. Boo gives a vibrant oral history of Royal Studios, Hi Records, and his father, the late Willie Mitchell, one of the greatest record producers in American musical history. He talks about what it was like to grow up watching his dad work with greats like Al Green, and his own development into one of the country’s hottest producers today – thanks in no small part to Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”, the first #1 out of Memphis since “Disco Duck”, the first #1 out of Royal since “Let’s Stay Together”, and the first Memphis recording to ever win a Grammy for Record of the Year.

The article also provides an insight into the intersection of race and the recording business in Memphis in the 1950’s and 60’s, when Willie Mitchell was coming into his own as a producer and engineer. Hi Records started out as a white-owned rockabilly label, and engineer Ray Harris wouldn’t allow Mitchell, who was black, to touch the console, or even have his picture on his own record cover.

I think it was sometime around ‘64 that Ray Harris sent somebody to get something out of his car. The guy opens his trunk up, and there’s this fucking KKK outfit in his trunk. One of the black musicians was walking by, saw it, and knew. He was like, “What the fuck?” Pop had a meeting with Joe about Ray, like, “What are we going to do about Ray?” Joe said, “I don’t know.” Pop replied, “Let me buy him out.” So Pop bought Ray out. Pop told him, “Ray, I learned a lot from you.” Ray said, “What’s that?” Pop said, “Never cut a record like you cut it.”

It’s a fascinating interview for anyone interested in Memphis music and history, and anyone interested in the art of making soulful records.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I serve on the board of the Recording Academy Memphis Chapter with Boo, and I also consider him a dear personal friend. Congratulations to Boo and the Mitchell family as they celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Royal, and as they launch new ventures like Royal Records and Royal Radio. Love and happiness!

 

Sounds Around Town, July 2017

Welcome to Sounds Around Town, a semi-regular column about who is recording what and where in Memphis. Pictured, L-R: Ken Coomer, Jeff Powell, Susan Marshall, Richard Alan Ford, McKenna Bray, Dave Smith, Wesley Graham, and David Cousar, at Sam Phillips Recording Service. Photo by Mary Brand.

  • Plenty of activity over at Ardent Studios this month. Boston, MA band The Push Stars recently tracked a new album in Studio A with Adam Hill. The Reputations from Austin, TX recorded a 10 song LP produced by non other than legendary Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. And Los Angeles-based recording artist Fernando Perdomo tracked his latest, The Golden Hour, with Adam Hill in two days. Here’s a great video Fernando made where he talks about the sessions. As he says, Ardent is “one of the Abbey Roads of America.”
  • Over at Sam Phillips Recording Service, producer Susan Marshall has been working with Memphis singer/songwriter McKenna Bray on her full-length debut for Madjack Records. The sessions were engineered by Susan’s husband, Jeff Powell and feature former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer.
  • Speaking of Jeff Powell, he’s been busy cutting lacquers in his vinyl mastering room at Phillips, Take Out Vinyl. In addition to a box set of Al Green’s complete 7″ singles, Jeff has cut lacquers recently for Margo Price, Lukas Nelson, Wage War, Marshall Crenshaw, and two 12″ LP projects for yours truly: my band Motel Mirrors‘ full-length debut, In the Meantime, and my 4th solo LP, Heart Shaped Shadow, both for Little Rock’s Last Chance Records. Jeff also engineered some overdub sessions at Phillips for the forthcoming Titus Andronicus record.
  • Scott Bomar at Electraphonic Recording has been mixing the new record from Memphis singer/songwriter Mark Edgar Stuart.
  • The High/Low Recording crew has been busy at their new digs, the former American East studio (aka Easley/McCain), finishing up the Marcella and Her Lovers full-length debut, and recording Memphis-native Jake Vest (brother of High/Low honcho Toby Vest).
  • Memphis producer/engineer Matt Ross-Spang has been in Nashville engineering the new John Prine record with Dave Cobb producing.

Matt Ross-Spang Explains “Slapback Echo” at Sun Studio

 

Ever wondered how Sam Phillips got that great “slapback” echo sound on all those classic Sun Studio recordings? Memphis-based producer/engineer and Grammy-winner Matt Ross-Spang shows how it was done in this exclusive clip from Rolling Stone.  Elvis Presley – A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953–1955 Recordings comes out July 28th from Sony/Legacy.

Royal Studios Announces 60th Anniversary Celebrations

Royal Studios held a press conference this week at the Orpheum Theater to announce their 60th Anniversary celebrations. Royal’s Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell detailed plans for three events over the summer and fall to mark the occasion, July 28th at Royal, October 14th at the Levitt Shell, and November 18th at the Orpheum Theater. Bob Mehr over at the Commercial-Appeal has the full story.

The Mitchell family

#1 Records From Memphis’ Matt Ross-Spang and Boo Mitchell

L: Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell, photo by Charles Nardi. R: Matt Ross-Spang, photo by Austin Miller

Congratulations to Memphis producer/engineer Matt Ross-Spang for a big week. Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound, which was engineered by Matt and produced by Dave Cobb, is the #1 Rock, #1 Country, and #4 overall record the week of July 8, according to Billboard. Matt also worked on the new Blind Boys of Alabama album, Almost Home, which is featured over at NPR’s All Songs Considered. In addition to doing some remodeling of the Studio B tracking room at Sam Phillips Recording Service, Matt recently took time sit down with Tape Op Magazine for their podcast. Congratulations, Matt!

It’s been another big month for Memphis producer/engineer Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell. North Mississippi All-StarsPrayer For Peace was produced by Mitchell at Royal Studios and hit on #1 on the Billboard Blues Album chart the week of June 24. The album is Mitchell’s first #1 as a producer. It supplanted yet another Royal release at #1 on the Blues Album chart, Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm. These albums make the second and third releases from Royal Studios hit #1 in the last 6 months (the first was Melissa Etheridge’s Memphis Rock And Soul). Last but not least in Royal news, congratulations to Charles Hodges, Leroy Hodges, and Howard Grimes (as well as the late Teenie Hodges and Al Jackson, Jr.) for Hi Rhythm’s 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association.

 

Recording Academy – Memphis Chapter New Member Celebration

Photo by Greg Campbell/WireImage for The Recording Academy.
The Recording Academy – Memphis Chapter had its New Membership Celebration Monday night at the Halloran Center. I’m happy to begin my first term as a chapter governor, and I’m honored to serve with such a great group of people, including our new chapter president, Gebre Waddell. Exciting young Memphis artists Julien Baker and Marco Pavé performed, as did the legendary Don Bryant. It was a great night and it’s an exciting time to be making music in Memphis, Tennessee. More photos over at our chapter’s Facebook page.

Sounds Around Town

Welcome to our semi-regular column, “Sounds Around Town”, all about who is recording what and where in Memphis. (Pictured, Jackie Venson. Photo by Pooneh Ghana).

  • Royal Studio‘s Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell was working last week with Austin, TX-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Jackie Venson.
  • Memphis by-way-of Louisiana swamp-soul chanteuse Marcella René Simien and her band, aka Marcella and Her Lovers, recently began their new full-length at American. Produced by High/Low Recording‘s Toby Vest and recorded and engineered by Pete Matthews, this is the maiden voyage for their new venture at the old American East building, later known as Easley-McCain.
  • Scott Bomar at Electraphonic Recording recently produced and engineered the debut release for Atlanta-based artist Liz Brasher. Scott has also been working with local singer-songwriter Mark Edgar Stuart on an upcoming project.

(Liz Brasher and Scott Bomar. Photo courtesy of the artist’s Instagram).

  • Jeff Powell has been busy cutting lacquers in his mastering room at Sam Phillips Recording, including a box set of Al Green’s complete Hi Records singles (a total of 26 7″ 45rpm records), as well as vinyl releases for Dr. John, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Gregg Allman. He engineered the recently released Afghan Whigs record In Spades in part at Phillips, and produced his wife Susan Marshall‘s upcoming covers album, named after the studio’s address: 639 Madison.
  • Speaking of Susan Marshall, she produced the debut from singer/songwriter McKenna Bray at Phillips, which husband Jeff cut the tracks for. The first single, “The Way I Loved You”, drops today on MadJack Records.
  • There’s been a lot of activity the past couple of months over at Music + Arts Studio. Back in March, rapper and activist Marco Pavé did pre-production for his hip-hop opera there. Jazz musicians and twin brothers Carl and Alan Maguire recorded an album with the legendary Donald Brown producing.  In April, Kevin Houston mixed the Kevin Cubbins-produced debut from young local band Summer Avenue, as well as the soundtrack to a documentary film about famed Memphis dancer Lil Buck. In May, the studio did a remote live recording of the Lovelight Orchestra (featuring blues vocalist John Németh) at Bar DKDC, for a live album produced by Ross-Spang and engineered by Houston. May also saw sessions at Music + Arts for Ruf Records artists Big Daddy Wilson and Dana Fuchs.

(Lovelight Orchestra at Bar DKDC. Photo by Nikki Boertman, Commercial-Appeal)

  • Speaking of Matt Ross-Spang, he recently finished work over at Sam Phillips Recording Service on a new record for California artist Nicki Bluhm. May also saw the release of the Ross-Spang produced Sweet Kind of Blue from British folk artist Emily Barker, recorded at Phillips last year and engineered by Jeff Powell.
  • Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records comes out this month. Produced by Tamara Saviano and Luther Dickinson for the Americana Music Society and engineered by Matt Ross-Spang and Kevin Houston, all proceeds go to St. Jude’s Research Hospital. The sessions were divided between Sun and Phillips, and feature performances of classic Sun material from artist like Valerie June, Jimbo Mathus, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Shawn Camp, Chuck Mead, Amy LaVere, and more. I was lucky enough to play guitar in the house band on the sessions, and I have my own track, a cover of Warren Smith’s “Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache”. (Thank you to Alex Greene at the Memphis Flyer for the write-up).

 

FOCUS: “Nothing Sounds Like Memphis”

I had the pleasure of writing this piece for the MAY+JUN 2017 issue of Focus Mid-South Magazine. Photos courtesy of Shenanigans Photography.

In the summer of 2016, rising British folk star Emily Barker found herself passing through the Bluff City. A native Australian, she relocated to the UK several years ago and launched a career there. Her group Red Clay Halo found success, and one of her songs was used as the theme for a popular BBC television show Wallander. After making several solo records in Britain, she recorded a side project in Nashville called Applewood Road. It was almost time for her next solo record, and the plan was to make it in Nashville as well.

On her way there, however, she stopped in Memphis for a couple of days to meet with producer Matt Ross-Spang. Matt gave her a tour of the newly revamped Sam Phillips Recording Service (est. 1960). After that visit, Emily decided she wasn’t going to make her next record in Nashville after all.

Instead, she made her new record, Sweet Kind of Blue, in Memphis, with all Memphis musicians, many of whom she’d never met until they started cutting. I was around at the time and I would describe Emily’s demeanor as beaming. Memphis swept her off her feet. I know the feeling.

Continue Reading

RED HOT Tribute to Sun Records Out 6/16; High/Low Moves to American East

Coming from the Americana Society of Memphis on June 16 is Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records. The album was produced by Luther Dickinson and engineered by Matt Ross-Spang at Sam Phillips Recording and Kevin Houston at Sun Studio. Proceeds go to St. Jude. (Full disclosure: I played on it, and have my own track, a cover of Warren Smith’s “Red Cadillac And a Black Mustache”). Bob Mehr has the full story at the Commercial-Appeal.

Also in the same article: Memphis’ scrappy upstart studio, High/Low, is moving into a new location: the old American East studio. The studio was originally built by Chips Moman in 1968 to handle overflow business from his American Studio, which at the time was one of the most in-demand recording studios in the US. A lot of great records were made in that building, especially in its later incarnation as Easley-McCain, where artists like Townes van Zandt, Sonic Youth, the White Stripes, and Wilco made noteworthy albums. Congratulations to owners Toby Vest and Pete Matthews!

Emily Barker: From Australia to London to ‘The Cape Canaveral of Studios’

Australian-born, UK-based singer/songwriter Emily Barker has a new record out this week, Sweet Kind of Blue. The album was recorded last year at Sam Phillips Recording Service was produced by Matt Ross-Spang, and features all Memphis musicians. London’s Financial Times visited Emily in “the Cape Canaveral of studios”.

Memphis in the sunshine is like a city in slow motion. Cars glide dreamily down Madison Avenue as they pass the tram stop and the minty-fresh looking Sam Phillips Recording Services building. The street is warm and soupy, and so quiet that it’s hard to imagine the Yardbirds belting out “Train Kept A-Rollin'” inside, or Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash drinking with Phillips at the bar on the penthouse floor, leaving cigarette burns in the Formica counter.

Emily has been a guest at my Lafayette’s shows a couple of times, and she stayed at my place some while she was here making the record, so I was lucky enough to get to hear some of it while it was being made. It’s a really lovely record.

Sweet Kind of Blue is out May 19.