Being at Royal Studios for recording our fifth album Heart of Memphis earlier this year was a magical and humbling experience. It wasn’t the gold records that got me, or the signatures of famous musicians on the wall. The key moment was when I was in the vocal booth, where there was an old microphone in the corner, and Boo Mitchell pointed to it casually and said, “That’s Al Green’s mic.” Wait, what? I grew up listening to Al Green – just being in the same room with his old microphone was an honor (and no, I didn’t touch it).
How did we get to that point? Well, in 2018, while we were preparing to compete in the Washington Blues Society’s IBC challenge, we had a band meeting and decided we would go to Memphis as a group regardless of the outcome. We made it to the finals (and lost to Sammy Eubanks) but our album, Wiggle Room, did very well on the Roots Music Report (#1 for 13 weeks) and two of the songs won Global Music Award bronze medals. It seemed like a great time to go, so we made our travel plans.
At the same time, I was setting things up to make the most of the trip. I let the Washington Blues Society know that we would be in Memphis as a group during IBC week, and that we’d love to play the Pacific Northwest Showcase. I also put my name in with the National Women in Blues, which chooses their showcase participants by lottery. Both showcases came through, and then I got the idea to record an album while we were in Memphis. I had already written several songs, some of which we had been performing live. The song Another Sleepless Night, which opens the album, was part of our WBS IBC finals set.
I thought long and hard about where to record – Sun Studios came to mind, of course; and then a friend recommended Royal Studios. A bit about Royal – it’s in a building that was originally a theater and was converted to a studio in 1957. It’s one of the oldest perpetually running studios in the world! Willie Mitchell, who was originally a trumpet player, was instrumental to the modern Memphis soul sound and brought the studio to a new level after taking on the producer role in 1969. In addition to Al Green, Mitchell worked with Ann Peebles, George Jackson, and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, to name a few. Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, Willie’s son, runs the studio today and has worked with his own amazing roster of talent. When I reached out to him about recording there, and sent some of our past recordings, he could not have been more gracious, and we lucked out because there was a night open for us!
Fast forward to late January 2019. The band is in Memphis, we’ve performed at both the Pacific Northwest showcase and the National Women in Blues showcase, and have been having a great time seeing friends, listening to the bands in the challenge, and doing some sightseeing; Michele D’Amour and the Love Dealers band being me, Patrick McDanel (bass), Dave Delzotto (drums), Jeff Cornell (guitar), Brian Olendorf (keys), and Noel Barnes (sax). One of my favorite moments was Patrick and Brian buying matching black satin embroidered jackets at Lansky Brothers! (Brian is wearing his jacket in the photo.)
We all piled into the van and drove to Royal Studios, unloaded our gear, set up, and dove right in with Memphis Soul Stew, the King Curtis classic, and the only cover on our album. Royal Studios has an atmosphere I can only describe as magical; certainly the energy of all the great players who have worked there and the music they’ve made permeates every pore of the place.
We ended up recording six songs that night, ending at around 1:30 a.m. Boo handed me my hard drive with the recordings that I guarded with my life until I handed it to Steve Feasley, the amazing engineer here in Seattle with whom we’ve worked on all our albums.
We weren’t sure what we were going to title the album until Jeff Cornell, our guitarist, and I co-wrote the song Heart of Memphis shortly after we got home. We recorded that and one other tune here in Seattle, added some backing vocals here and there, recorded a horn section on three tunes, added some solos, and we were on to mixing and mastering and all the fun finishing work that goes into an album.
As of this writing (May 15) we’ve learned that Heart of Memphis debuted on the Roots Music Report’s jazzy blues chart at #3, two weeks before its release date! Wiggle Room is still on that same chart at #6, more than eight months after its release. We never expected to have two albums on the charts at the same time!
We’re proud of this release and excited to see what more will come from it.