Owner of Royal Studios
by Jon W. Sparks
The art of running an enterprise requires knowing when to change — and when to resist the temptation.
Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell has been cultivating that knowledge a good part of his life as part of the fabric of Royal Studios, a legendary hatchery that has, for 60 years, been drawing some of the world’s most accomplished hit-makers. His father, Willie Mitchell, took charge of the studio in 1970, and Boo, now 46, took over after Willie’s death in 2010.
Royal boasts of being one of the oldest perpetually operated recording studios in the world, and as the home of Hi Records in the early days, has spawned several million-sellers. Trumpeter Willie Mitchell came aboard as a session player in 1963 and made several hits while becoming increasingly involved in the studio’s operation. He eventually took over Royal and in the early 1970s would develop a singular expression and, aided by his collaboration with Al Green, give the world a distinctly Memphis sound.
Growing up in that atmosphere, Boo Mitchell performed and played plenty of music and, with his Pop at the control board, it was inevitable that he’d become increasingly interested in how the tunes were made. As a teenager, he was playing keyboards and writing songs. “That’s pretty much all I wanted to do,” he says. “And I loved the technology. My cousin and I used to say, ‘Oh, come on, Pop. We need this new, modern board and speakers,’ and Dad was always like, ‘Man, that stuff back there’ll do anything you want it to do.’ Eventually I go, ‘Man, he’s got more golden records than we do — he’s probably right.’ And he was.”
Sitting in his chair at the board, surrounded by studio equipment and furnishings that might well have been there in the 1970s — the studio has changed little since then — Boo says that vintage is now the future. “I had a meeting with a gentleman yesterday who wanted to redo his songs. He had stuff made in the late 1990s, early 2000s and it was dated. His synthesizers weren’t the old, old ones, they were more modern. I told him, “We’re gonna redo your stuff in a traditional way with real instruments and it’s gonna make it sound fresher than what you were doing back then — which was supposed to be futuristic.’”
The Education of Boo Mitchell
In 1993, the family opened Willie Mitchell’s, a Beale Street nightclub, where Boo worked and learned. The club closed in 1998 and Boo spent more time at Royal.
“For a couple of years I was doing odd things around the studio, a bit of engineering, getting into mastering, and eventually I started managing the studio in 2000,” he says.
His work was cut out for him.
We never had a logo and I think we were still renting a telephone from BellSouth,” Boo says. “So, I started getting more interested in the business of music around that time and just looking at things. I was like, ‘Pop, start looking at the bills and stuff,’ and ‘Pop, man, we’re still renting a telephone for $10 a month — we can buy a phone at Target.”
Boo wanted to streamline the operation, which was a commercial studio with a mom-and-pop feel and nothing even as basic as a logo and letterhead. “But my Dad was Willie Mitchell, you know, and he didn’t need a business card or a letterhead or any of those things.”
But business was picking up. They were doing some major sessions and Willie was producing records again, such as Al Green’s comeback records I Can’t Stop and Everything’s OK. “I was project coordinator for those two records,” Boo says, “so I started getting more into doing budgets and rounding up the musicians and making sure everybody got paid. That helped me look at the studio more as a business entity than just a great place to make music. It helped me dig into more of the business side of music. It was a good learning experience and good preparation skills for me.” That digging in helped him understand the workings of record sales, radio play, songwriting, and sync licensing. “It was a crash course for me,” he says.
“In 2004, out of necessity, I started getting back into the creative side doing engineering, producing more records, and engineering records with my Dad,” he says. With his management savvy, Boo was finding out when to resist the temptation to change but always striving to improve and stay current.
The State of the Music Industry
It’s still changing,” he says. “Man, I try to stay on top of technology in the industry.” For Boo, his membership in the Memphis chapter of The Recording Academy is crucial to that. He’s been a member of the Grammy organization for more than 10 years and a board member for more than five years. “It’s one of the smartest things I’ve done as a musician, an engineer, and a producer. It represents the whole music industry, not just specialized groups. The Grammys is at the forefront of fighting for musician’s rights, fighting for songwriter’s rights, and keeping up with new technology and trying to make sure that people are given proper credit.”
Boo remembers his astonishment and confusion when he first got an MP3 from iTunes. “It was Jack White’s Seven Nation Army, and I downloaded it, 99 cents. Then I’m looking all over my phone — ‘Where’s the credits? Where did they cut it? Who mixed it?’ That’s a real problem for creators because a lot of times we get our next gig depending on what our last gig was, so there’s this whole movement to try to get credits embedded into the MP3s.” He’s hoping that the current president of the Memphis chapter of The Recording Academy, Gebre Waddell, might be onto the answer. Waddell’s software company, Soundways, is doing innovative work in providing metadata in all the distribution pipelines so that credit goes where it’s due. The company also has developed sophisticated plug-ins for audio engineers.
Boo’s involvement with the Grammy organization’s efforts to keep up with technological advances is essential for him. “I’m connected with people all over the country that do what I do and are trying to make sure that there is a music business. Nobody wants to pay for music anymore, but we all have to live. There’s a lot to figure out, especially with streaming and all that. And the issues of rights where there’s a lot of money that American musicians don’t have access to because of our antiquated copyright laws.”
The Recording Academy, Boo says, is working to pass “Fair Play, Fair Pay” legislation, “because all over the world the musicians, and artists, and the background singers get paid for radio play. Over here in America, only the songwriters and the publisher get paid for radio play and because we don’t have that practice in America, there’s an excess of $200 million a year that is collected on behalf of American artists in places like Europe, Japan. But we don’t practice that and there’s no reciprocity, so the money stays in those countries.”
Evolving the Memphis Sound
It is somehow fitting that the historic 60-year-old studio with vintage equipment is also keeping on the edge of music.
“Memphis has so much rich history musically,” Boo says. “It’s like this big pie and Royal has a nice slice of it. We’ve kind of flown under the radar except for the inside people — the musicians and artists — that really know. But Royal was probably the second major recording studio opening after Sam Philips Recording Service and Sun Records. It was started with people who were working at Sun.”
Royal was bought in 1956 and officially opened in 1957 as the home of Hi Records. “It was known for its instrumentals and a lot of early rockabilly recordings were done here. When my Dad got here and started doing his R&B instrumentals, it gave the studio just a different breadth.”
From the get-go, Willie Mitchell brought a lot to the operation. His Willie Mitchell Combo was hugely popular, playing Beale Street clubs and parties (including one where Elvis Presley — a frequent club visitor — brought bride-to-be Priscilla). “The Beatles on their first North American tour rehearsed at Royal for a week,” Boo says, “because the Bill Black Combo was their opening act. That was in 1964, more Memphis music history that people don’t know much about. Royal has always survived.”
That included the riots after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “They were burning businesses and people were tearing up neighborhoods. My dad had to go out of town and he got a bunch of winos in here, bought them a bunch of wine and was just like, ‘Man, watch my place.’ He didn’t bother to lock the door. When he got back from his gig, he didn’t know what he’d find. He opened the door and saw like 20 winos all laid out. ‘Hey, Willie! Yeah, we got you. Everything’s cool.’ Nothing was gone.”
That’s the story Boo tells when people insist that he needs to get the studio’s historic artifacts out and into a safe place. “I tell them it survived the riots of ’68 and I think it will be fine.” Boo keeps the spirit of surviving and independence. “My Dad was always trying to be different even with his band. Most of the music in the early ’50s, was big band, you know? He was trying to find a sound that was different, so he was like, ‘Well, I’m just gonna use two horns.’ He did the same thing here at Royal with redesigning the room. He wanted to be different and when he was working on something, wouldn’t even listen to the radio because he didn’t want to be influenced by somebody else’s music.”
Boo quotes Knox Phillips — son of legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and a heralded producer, engineer, and Memphis music booster — as saying “Memphis represents the spirit of independent music.” Boo says, “I think my Dad and Royal are the epitome of that because he wanted all his stuff to be different and that’s why the studio looks the way it looks.”
And this is what shapes Boo’s vision of the studio and the music that comes out of it. “We’ve survived for so long because we haven’t conformed to any sort of traditional thing in any shape, form, or fashion. We could have replaced equipment, but why would anybody want to come to Royal if we’ve got the same stuff everybody else has got?”
It’s that idea of knowing when to change, and when to resist the temptation. “That’s how I run the business, just like he’s still alive — because he is. He lives in the music, he lives in the walls, you know what I mean? He lives in our hearts, so I’m always thinking, ‘I wonder what would Pop think about this?’”
Boo describes that as a baseline for him on how to improve the business and the music that comes out of it. “I still have my own ideas for what I think is going to make Royal better,” he says. “The beauty of that is I did a lot of that while he was alive, so I remember when I would present new ideas to him and how he felt about it. I learned and he let me evolve to where I understood that this place is already great, but that I could make more people aware of it.”
What does the future look like for Boo Mitchell and Royal Studios? “Man, I’d like for us to get back to our roots. My sister Oona and I started a label, Royal Records, so I’d like for everything to go full circle, to start producing amazing artists out of Memphis and get back to what that other thing Memphis was known for, and that’s amazing talent. We have some of the finest musicians and artists in the world. We just have to get them out there, get the world exposed to them. That’s a big part of what I want the future to be.”
If, in the process, Royal becomes an international destination for recording, then that’s fine with Boo. “To record at Royal is the most magical thing because we have the vibe. People come here and they get inspired. I’m inspired every time I walk through the building. There’s a magic here and there’s a gift here. I just want to share it with the world.”
by Frank Murtaugh
Alex Turley is a Memphian. But a Memphian with perspective sharpened by his days in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, not to mention a college semester in Ireland (where he happened to meet his wife, a native of Phoenix). A city’s dynamics — how it breathes, functions, and grows — are now Turley’s tool kit as vice president of real estate at Henry Turley Company. His understanding of how other cities thrive, though, has come to enhance Turley’s skills with that tool kit.
“I spent my childhood back-and-forth, between Memphis [where his dad lives] and D.C. [his mom’s home],” says Turley. “I’m glad I had that experience, living in different places. I actually spent my sophomore year of high school in D.C. [before graduating from Christian Brothers High School in 1997]. Those experiences made me who I am today.
by Frank Murtaugh
Rola Obaji grew up in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and Amman, Jordan, where her father, Ali Alhindi, ran travel agencies. She and her two younger siblings traveled the world for what amounted to business trips with their dad. As a result, Obaji’s world view comes from a variety of perspectives, from Paris to Istanbul, from Los Angeles to New York City. The new CEO at McDonald Murrmann Women’s Clinic has called Memphis home for more than a quarter-century now — she fell in love with her husband, Dr. Suhail Obaji, on a visit to Memphis in 1989 — but continues to draw from her global journeys in raising a family and running a business. Perhaps most poignant are her memories, not that long ago, of college life in Syria, at Aleppo University.
“My mom is Syrian, my dad Jordanian,” explains Obaji. “I was born in Aleppo, but I lived between Jordan and Saudi Arabia during my school years [before college].
“Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon . . . these places are beautiful. We have beaches, mountains. It’s very European. It’s nothing like what you see [in the news today]. It’s like judging the United States on the worst neighborhoods in Chicago or Memphis. My kids love to go to [the Middle East]. It has a lot of history, and for all religions. It was inspiring, growing up there. Traveling as I did, it made me more open-minded, more accepting.”
by Frank Murtaugh
Gina Sweat and one of her heroes, Larry Bird, share two distinct foundational qualities: They each grew up in a small town (Sweat in Middleton, Tennessee; Bird in French Lick, Indiana) and they each played basketball. Sweat’s career on the hardwood ended after her college days at Freed-Hardeman, but you’d have a compelling debate in measuring which career was less likely. Bird, you probably know, became a Hall of Fame forward for the Boston Celtics. Sweat became — just last January — the first female Director of Fire Services in the history of the Memphis Fire Department.
“Over the last few months, I’ve been asked how I got here a lot,” says Sweat. “Looking back, it almost seems purposeful. But I wasn’t focused [on reaching this office].”
Sweat spent her childhood days in and around her parents’ grocery and bait shop. Her mother was only 18 when Gina was born, and she gained a sister after her 10th birthday. So in some respects, Sweat had a peer leader in her own mom and an important leadership role to play for her only sibling. “Growing up,” says Sweat, “my mom was one of my best friends, and she is to this day.”
by Frank Murtaugh
Ashley Coffield grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with a twin sister. Walking the halls of Lakeside High School, both Ashley and Courtney grew accustomed to being identified as “the twins.” But never did they hear such a tag from their mother. And not once were they dressed as children to serve as mirror reflections of one another. They were raised as the unique, distinctive individuals they happen to be. Meet Ashley today and it shows.
“I went to a great public high school,” says Coffield, since 2013 the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region (PPGMR). “I was encouraged to be a leader and to get involved in my community. I was involved in student government; always wanted to make things better. I was the kid who talked out in class and said, ‘I don’t think that’s right.’ I’d go to the principal’s office and say we should do things differently.”
The Coffield sisters made a conscious decision to go their separate ways for college, with Courtney attending the University of Arkansas and Ashley heading to Memphis to attend Rhodes. (“I loved the urban environment that Rhodes sat in, and I wanted to try a big city. I liked the small class sizes.”) After graduating in 1992 with a degree in urban studies, Coffield earned a master’s in public administration at Texas A&M. She then moved to Washington, D.C., and started a career in healthcare advocacy, thriving on the buzz — and reach — found in the nation’s capital. “People there,” she says, “in their own nerdy way, think they’re the center of the universe. My focus when I left graduate school was finding a job with a focus on population health.”
Coffield seemed to have found a home at Partnership for Prevention, a nonpartisan collaboration between corporations and government leaders tasked with studying and implementing disease-prevention strategies. She was named executive director in 1998 (still shy of her 30th birthday), but chose to return to Memphis in 2001 when she and her husband, Mac, decided to start a family. (They’re now the parents of two boys, ages 12 and 15.) Coffield continued to work with Partnership for Prevention from her new Memphis home, and joined the board of Planned Parenthood, where she’d been a patient and volunteer during her days at Rhodes. Shortly after leaving the board, having served the maximum nine years, Coffield got a call with a request to help in the search for the local affiliate’s new president.
“The head of the search committee asked if I would help as a non-board member,” explains Coffield. “I said, ‘I’d love to do that, but let me think about it, because I might apply for the job.’ It took me a while to make the decision because I knew how hard this job would be and I wasn’t sure I was the right person. I wanted to connect with Memphis in a more substantial way. I was a little lonely professionally [telecommuting for Partnership for Prevention]. But this is a 24/7 job; we’re never really closed. I needed to know that I could fit that in and keep focus on my family.”
Leading an affiliate of Planned Parenthood means you are, to a degree, following the lead of the national entity (currently under the leadership of Cecile Richards). There are guidelines, standards, and a shared mission. Affiliate presidents gather quarterly to share ideas and exchange views on policies and procedures, and the national office offers expertise in public policy, law, and communications. But beyond the standard mission (healthcare, education, and advocacy), there is room for every affiliate — as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit — to steer its own course. “I had absolutely no doubt about the mission,” stresses Coffield. “I’ve been a Planned Parenthood donor for 25 years and a volunteer for much of that time. I believed in it very strongly. I’m a risk-taker and I don’t have a lot of fear in standing up for this mission. But at the same time, I knew I was going to be in the spotlight from time to time, and that made me nervous. I had always been a behind-the-scenes person.”
That spotlight Coffield mentions can be especially hot under the Planned Parenthood brand. The organization — which marks its 100th anniversary nationally this year, and 75th in Memphis — is often politicized and dangers exist, from sham videographers (depicting the “sale” of fetal tissue) to gun-wielding, pro-life radicals like the man who attacked a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs last November, killing three people.
“When we’re attacked,” says Coffield, “we can all feel scared and confused for a few moments, but it’s remarkable to me how quickly we all come together. When the shooting happened in Colorado, we were on the phone with Cecile by the end of the day, with legal counsel. It happened on Thanksgiving weekend and we had made the decision to close. But we talked all weekend about what we’d do Monday morning to make our staff and patients feel safe. How would we move forward?”
Leadership is easily measured by how a person acts. Less clear are the qualities that go into not acting at times of duress. “There’s a lot of support for us in the community,” says Coffield. “I can’t focus on what’s important if I’m distracted by [threats of violence]. I’m not going to let those things distract me from what’s important. It’s a total waste of time. It’s important for the staff to see that I’m ignoring it. By and large, they do too.”
The local Planned Parenthood affiliate is one of 58 across the country and, with a staff of 30, one of the smallest. It’s staffed almost entirely by women — with a five-person management team — but Coffield emphasizes her team’s greatest strength is its diversity. “I have a very consultative management style,” she says. “I like to hear from everybody’s perspective, and I like to synthesize that before I make a decision. I don’t like to bark orders, I like there to be consensus. It’s worked out really well, people appreciate it. A diverse staff makes a stronger organization. If you can’t work with people who have really different life experiences than you have, and you’re not willing to listen and be open-minded to the way they’ve experienced the world, this is not the right place for you.”
If Coffield’s career ambition was to impact population health — and particularly here in Memphis — it’s hard to imagine a better fit than the role she now plays, and the impact is measurable. Abortion makes the news, and PPGMR performed more than 3,300 in 2015. But that’s a fraction of the difference in health quality the organization is making. Almost 13,000 patients visited the clinic last year. More than 170 classes on sex health were conducted. More than 4,000 HIV and STD tests were administered. And 645,000 free condoms were distributed.
“We stand for full equality and dignity for all members of our region,” says Coffield. “We’re going to be here to provide you healthcare regardless of who you are or what decisions you’ve made. We’re going to come at you with no judgment. It’s an important part of the culture. We listen; we hear what the patient wants. There are so many options for women today. We’re living in the golden age of family planning.”
by Frank Murtaugh
There aren’t many guarantees in life, but you can take this to the betting window: Jen Andrews knows more about the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy (SFPC) than you or anyone else. The 32-year-old Andrews is the newly named executive director for the nonprofit that manages — and is currently transforming — the 4,500-acre park. She was also, you see, the SFPC’s first employee.
Upon graduating from Rhodes College with a degree in English literature in 2006, Andrews set her sights on a graduate program at the University of Arkansas. But she needed a year to raise money, so she applied for a new position with what was then called the Shelby Farms Park Alliance. “When I took the job, we didn’t have office space or computers,” says Andrews. “No phones. It was just the two of us. [Laura Morris was the founding director.] Some of my first duties were calling FedEx and First Tennessee to see if I could go into their warehouses and take some of their old furniture.”
Andrews grew up in the tiny (pop. 4,000) town of Marianna, Arkansas. (“You grow up and either become a Little Rock person or a Memphis person,” she explains. “We were always Memphis people.”) She developed a love for lakes and green space by visiting her grandparents, whose property sat on a former junkyard on the edge of town. “I grew up scraping my knee,” explains Andrews, “getting dirty, climbing trees, making mud pies. I spent a lot of time alone out there. I’m very comfortable being alone. I’m independent, introverted. I feel like I developed my imagination out there, learned how to dream. It was really a magical place.”
Andrews took to sports, first as a gymnast, then as a basketball player who led Lee Academy to a runner-up finish in the 2002 state tournament. “Basketball is my true love, but unfortunately I’m 5’2”,” she says with a smile. As a sprinter (100 meters and 200 meters) for Lee’s track team, she caught the eyes of Rhodes recruiters and became the first member of her family to attend college.
In addition to taking on the pole vault at Rhodes, Andrews discovered a passion for post-colonial literature. “I was studying literature from places that had been colonized and then decolonized,” she says. “African, Pacific rim, Caribbean, some Irish. Growing up in a small town, there are things you don’t get access to. I was really interested in broadening my horizons. I hadn’t really considered literature from places other than England and America. I knew it existed, but I hadn’t given it credibility. I was moved, and got excited; there was so much I could still learn.”
That yearning to grow — in mind and spirit — fueled Andrews’ early days in support of Shelby Farms, her initial mission simply to secure the land from the threat of development. “What we were trying to do in those early days,” she reflects, “was get a conservation easement [a legal designation that protects the land as a park], so we could stop fighting. Once we protected the park, which meant the county couldn’t sell it to developers, we transitioned from a defensive posture to an optimistic, future-focused organization. What could the park be?”
Fast-forward to 2016 and the SFPC is nearing completion on its $52 million “Heart of the Park” project, its largest component being an expansion of Patriot Lake from 52 to 80 acres. There will also be a new visitors center, an events center (with a restaurant), lakeside pavilions, and a pedestrian promenade adjacent to the lake. Taken together, the massive transformation has further reinforced the art of the possible.
“I think I was the first true believer,” says Andrews, “other than the people who had been involved [before SFPC]. When I was at Rhodes, I didn’t even know the park existed. I was part of a first wave of people who were willing to dig in, see the potential, and do something about it. It was hard in the early days because there was no job security. There was no guarantee we could raise enough money to pay salaries. The county budget for the park at the time was $575,000. We were creating an organization that didn’t exist.”
Now overseeing a staff of 30, Andrews hasn’t had to look far for leadership standards. “Linda Brashear, our director of park operations, has been a great mentor and a great example,” says Andrews. “We have very different personalities. I’m an introvert, logical. She’s one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet; extroverted, loves people. She shows me a different path. I’m interested in things that are different from my experience. Tina Sullivan at the Overton Park Conservancy is another great leader, the ultimate diplomat and highly principled.”
Andrews’ parents were teenagers when Jen was born, so there’s a form of leadership in their simply keeping a family together, and growing. “My dad [Mark Andrews] may be the only person even more introverted than I am,” she says. “He’s brilliant and totally independent, completely nonjudgmental. He taught me from a really young age to think for myself and question assumptions, my own and others.”
A military contractor in Afghanistan for 10 years, Mark now teaches work-skills to inmates as part of a rehabilitation program while Andrews’ mom, Lori, is a preschool teacher. Andrews’ only sibling — a younger sister — is a middle-school teacher. “I’m the only non-teacher in the family,” notes Andrews. “Leadership and service are big deals in my family. My parents really focused on integrity because it’s something that can’t be taken away. You can always tell the truth. You can always be generous, even when you’re poor.”
Now in a position where her hiring skills are important, Andrews has paid special attention to a few qualities she considers seeds of leadership. “I enjoy building a team and fostering talent,” she says. “I’ve hired a lot of young and hungry people. I always look for critical thinking; they’re likely to have good judgment and be resourceful. At a small nonprofit, resourceful people tend to do very well. And accountability, someone who can demonstrate they’re willing to take ownership of something. I can’t think of any leaders who aren’t highly accountable.”
Andrews is convinced opportunities for talented young people will bring new leaders, and help Memphis grow as a city. “When I graduated from Rhodes, there were two people in my class who planned to stay in Memphis,” she says. “It was unusual. At last year’s graduation, they polled the students and something like 60 percent said they would be staying in Memphis. I didn’t plan on staying until I got involved with building something that would make Memphis a better place, and that was addictive.”
Andrews’ appreciation for good leaders extends into the realm of science fiction. An avowed Trekkie, she lights up at the chance to distinguish her preferred Starfleet captain. “Jean-Luc Picard is a great model of leadership,” she says. “James Kirk was impulsive, where Picard is logical and rational. He’s highly intelligent. He was an amateur archaeologist, very interested in people and cultures.” A life-sized Spock stand-up poster greets visitors to her office. The universe’s most famous Vulcan is wearing a Memphis Grizzlies headband. Stoicism with a little grit-and-grind. Let’s call it a Jen Andrews recipe for progress.
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