There’s no doubt that talent can run in the family genes. Yet, at the same time, results ultimately rest not on reputation but on the ability to put that talent to good use.
The Memphis Royal Brothers know that all too well, and while each of the players involved can be referred to as superstars, ultimately, it’s the music they make that matters. With their self-titled debut album scheduled for release in Spring 2023 on Royal Records, this exceptional ensemble is ready to bring a storied past forward to the present while sharing timeless music spawned from the wellspring of their roots.
Overseen by Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer Boo Mitchell, son of the renowned producer Willie Mitchell (owner/operator of Hi Records, the label that launched Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright, and some of the greatest names in the history of Memphis soul) and co-producer Richard Bolen, an astute marketing professional and film producer, the appropriately dubbed Royal Brothers Band boasts a line-up of living legends. Six of them are Grammy Award winners, and several are nominees, along with an Academy Award-winning writer.
Gary Bolen, Richard Bolen’s younger brother, composed much of the material in collaboration with Wes Hamil and plays guitar with the band. Notably, Oscar, Grammy, and Johnny Mercer Songwriter Hall of Fame winner and current President of ASCAP, Paul Williams, co-wrote a song for the band as well.
Initially inspired by the documentary “Take Me to the River,” which was filmed on location at the Mitchells’ legendary Royal Recording Studio in Memphis, the Bolen brothers brought the idea of creating a namesake band around the studio’s iconic environs while enlisting Boo to recruit the musicians and provide the facilities to bring the dream to fruition.
“Richard and Gary have such great energy, and they have really good hearts and spirits,” Boo said. “They just felt like family from the first introduction. And when the energy is that good, it always makes me want to go the extra mile, pull out all the stops, and do everything I can to make the project a success.”
Boo’s enthusiasm was evident from the outset. The musicians he enlisted are part of an extended family that worked closely with his father, and they still retain their ties to Boo and the Royal Recording Studio legacy. Between them, they’ve played on thousands of albums spawning rock n’ roll, blues, soul, R&B, country, jazz, and Americana country, featuring some of the greatest musical acts of all time.
“Richard was awesome because he had a lot of fresh ideas and outside-the-box stuff that was kind off the beaten path,” Boo recalls. “They were things that, as an experienced producer, you wouldn’t necessarily think about. So, I told Rich I would love to be involved with this. I said, ‘Do you want me to produce this with you?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely!’ So, when that door was opened, brought to the personnel to the table. I opened up my Rolodex and called my honorary uncles.”
The band’s remarkable keyboard player, the Rev. Charles Hodges, is a revered member of the Memphis music scene, whose songs and keyboards have graced any number of classic recordings by the Hi Records roster, as well as such leading lights as Albert Collins, Bob Scaggs, Tom Jones, among the many.
Guitarist Michael Toles is a multi-instrumentalist who worked with the elder Mitchell on albums by Isaac Hayes, The Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Margie Joseph, Sam & Dave, Al Green, Otis Clay, Ann Peebles, William Bell, Johnny Taylor, and Al Green.
Keyboardist Lester Snell is another veteran of the Stax Records roster, whose playing has graced records by The Emotions, Isaac Hayes, Shirley Brown, Little Milton, Inez Foxx, Mavis Staples, Joe Simon, Albert King, the Staple Singers, and hundreds of others. Drummer Steve Potts’ immense array of credits includes playing behind the leading lights of the Hi Records stable as well as Gregg Allman, Neil Young, Booker T and The MGs, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Kirk Whalum, Cat Power, David Crosby, Maria Muldaur, Eddie Floyd, Terence Trent D’Arby, Buddy Guy, Joe Walsh, Tony Joe White, Johnny Lang, Wynonna Judd, Robin Ford, Rufus Thomas, Irma Thomas, Ike Turner, Mavis Staples, Shemekia Copeland, Otis Rush, and Luther Allison, to name a few. “Steve is like a member of the family,” Boo insists. “He’s one of the best drummers in the world.”
Bassist Jackie Clark has played with Dionne Warwick, Angie Stone, Shalamar, Denise Williams, and Howard Hewitt. Jackie’s mother, Fanny Clark, was one of the singers in the renowned gospel group, The Clark singers. Notably, Willie Mitchell produced their records. “Jackie and I go way back,” Boo noted. “He’s such a prolific bass player.”
So too, a storied group of singers take turns at the microphone — Marcus Scott, formerly of Tower of Power; Grammy Award winners Bobby Rush and Jim Lauderdale; Grammy nominee Charlie Musselwhite; Wendy Moten, a protégé of Vince Gill and Julio Iglesias.
Additional instrumentalists also participate, including Grammy nominee Luther Dickinson, the Memphis Horns, led by Marc Franklin, and featuring saxophonists Lanny McMillian and Kirk Smothers. In addition, Bobby Rush and Charlie Musselwhite are found playing harp.
What resulted from this incredible combination is an album for the ages, songs that share a timeless tradition, performed by masterful musicians and produced in a place that reflects one of the essential bloodlines of roots, blues, and rock and roll, that being Clarksdale, Mississippi. The songs echo those strains of classic American music — Rock, Delta Blues, Memphis Soul, Gospel, and R&B. Notably, Clarksdale is where the Bolen brothers were born. Their family history in Clarksdale goes back to the late 1800s, where Gary Bolen composed most of the songs on the album.
Kicking off with the easy lope and brass-infused sound of “Good God (I Got the Blues),” the album settles into an easy groove with “Goin’ South.” It’s followed by another southern turn, courtesy of the earnest and engaging “Brand New Heart.” “Ready To Rise” slows things down with a hushed reverence, only to have things kick back up with the steady strut that propels the sassy yet soulful “Gimme Back the Keys to My Cadillac.” “Hot Night In June” evokes a decided sense of time, space, and psyche, just as the deep resolve of “What Mothers Do” conveys an absolute sense of duty and devotion.
Notably, the album’s sole cover, a take on the classic Patsy Cline standard “I Fall To Pieces,” was the biggest challenge. “I told them that if we’re going to do this song, we have to do it completely differently,” Boo recalls. “It can’t be done rote; otherwise, we’re just doing famous karaoke songs. They’re fun to do, but as a producer, I like to do something a little more creative. So to do that, I felt it was my job to persuade them to do something special.”
This is just for starters. Boo says there’s another album already in the can. So the reign of the Memphis Royal Brothers Band has just begun.
“I’ll always work with all of these guys, these great legends, as much as possible,” Boo insists. “I keep them engaged anytime I do a session with the elders. I mean, why wouldn’t I? But I never thought about putting put them together as a super group. So yes, it’s beautiful and was Richard’s vision.”
He agrees it is part of a remarkable legacy that spans sixty years of a great Memphis musical heritage that’s coming together now to create new musical magic.
“There’s history here,” Boo suggests. “But it’s also a continuum. So the legacy lives on as a testament to a timeless tradition.”