Memphis, Tennessee, is one the most important cities in the history of recording soul and rock 'n' roll music. Historic venues like Memphis Recording Service, Stax Records, Royal, Sam Phillips Recording Service and many others created history. The "kid' among these studios is John Fry's Ardent Studios, now in its fortieth year. Having never been a musician, John has an unusual slant to the recording process. But according to some folks, he has worn this as an advantage, hearing frequencies and sounds beyond the initial concepts of notes and chords. He's also an intuitive businessman, and ventures into labels, production and publishing have helped keep the business vital. From the Stax "spillover" of Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs and Staple Singers, Big Star's trio of amazing and unsung-in- the-day power pop records, to recent successes with The Raconteurs and Cat Power — Ardent's history and future look pretty amazing.
Ardent Studios originally started off in your parents' garage?
Yeah, growing up I was a huge music fan, although I wasn't a player. I just loved music. I loved the radio. Me and my friends would sit around trying to hear some station that was different, coming from some other place because the big thing here was to listen to WLS in Chicago or listen to WABC or something like that. In '64 listening to WABC when The Beatles were first coming to the United States — it was just electric. It was just amazing. I love music and electronics and technology — we had our own pirate radio station, a low power thing which we had to have. Because we had some equipment we were able to fool around with doing live music recording, so that's kind of how the garage studio started. To be honest about it, it was really kind of an offshoot of the interest in radio, which was really the excuse for acquiring some homemade equipment to start with. The garage studio finally got rolling in '59 or so. The original equipment was really junky and homemade and adapted and cobbled together, but it finally — about '61 to '65 we had a fairly decent Altec valve console and an Ampex stereo machine and Ampex mono machine. While we were still in the garage, it got to a place that was fairly decent. At that point my parents made the decision that they were selling that house and buying another house, and that kind of precipitated me into a career decision. It's like, "Am I just fooling around here or do I really want to do this?"
When you were doing the garage studio, were you charging people for that?
Oh yeah, we did some fee-for-service work. Not as much because I was still going to school and there are supposed to be some laws about running businesses in residential neighborhoods and things like that.
How old were you at this time?
About twenty. I went out and we found a retail store building that had just been built. It was just open space. We rented that and basically built the National Street studio in there, and we got a Scully 4-track machine. With four tracks we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. Little did we realize that — that was '66 when we opened on National — by '68 we had 8-track, by '70, 16-track and I guess '73 or '74 a 24-track.
With that kind of progression happening so fast — was that a financial strain on you to make that happen — to jump from 4-track to 8-track and always having to keep your old deck in case clients bring in older stuff?
Nothing then was as breathtakingly expensive as it is today. Of course you have to look back in relative terms to the dollar and to the era and so on, but it wasn't nearly the cost that it would have been, say, to look at what it took to be state of the art in the early nineties.
Somebody expects you to have an SSL console...
...and probably at that time, a two-hundred-thousand dollar digital multitrack machine or something of that sort. But we were busy. Right from the outset we were as busy as we could be. Right at the time we were building, Stax had literally been two Ampex mixers and some mono and stereo machines and Atlantic was using their studio and had a relationship with them. Tom Dowd was very active and he was telling them, "You've got to upgrade this thing. You've at least got to get a 4-track and you've got to get a decent console." And it so happened that the guy who's building their console was the same one that was building our console. So they had essentially very similar equipment to what we had, which made their people very comfortable going back and forth. They were doing so much recording that there was no way they could do it all. Certainly there was the similarity of equipment, but why they would trust me to do anything? I actually knew what I was doing, but I was twenty-one years old and I looked like I was about sixteen — there was no reason for anybody to believe that I knew anything about what I was doing. That was the one great thing that happened to us. The other great thing that happened to me, I think for my own development as an engineer and a mixer, was the fact that there was a big radio jingle company here and we got a lot of work from them. You say, "Who would want to do that?" That just sounds like horrible stuff to work on and some of it was, but the neat thing about it was that they did all kinds and genres of music and a lot of orchestral recording that I never would have had a chance to do otherwise. I was recording genres, instruments, combinations of instruments that ordinarily I would never have.
Stuff nobody would ask for on a pop record.
Yeah, absolutely. Part of it was because of the arrangers — some were brilliant guys. A lot of the players were really excellent players and they were being driven crazy by doing this jingle stuff, so what they tended to do was come up with ever more bizarre experiments in term of arrangements and combinations of instruments.
They would have fun with it.
Yeah, they would do some pretty outrageous stuff and the suits in the front office didn't know — it just blew right by them. They didn't know that some of the instrumentation they were using [was] somewhat unusual.
What years did that jingle work proliferate for you?
That was mostly '66 through maybe '69 into '70 a little bit. More of it was on the front end because again, the jingle people had some studios. The company initially was called Pepper and was owned by a guy named John Pepper, who also owned WDIA, which was one of the first black format radio stations here, and then there was a guy named Bill Tanner who bought it and it became Tanner. We did one of the first stereo production library services, which was called Tanner Total Sound — they called it the TTS library. Of course to me and all the arrangers, we had another name for that: "Tiny Terrible Songs". You had to be careful who you said that to! It was challenging, but it was fun. They would show up and we would record up to forty pieces simultaneously on the 4-track. We'd have rhythm, woodwinds, brass, strings at the same time.
Mix on the fly?
Yeah. It kind of separates the sheep from the goats. You either figure out how to get it done or you have a nervous breakdown.
In the National Street era were there other engineers working out of your studio?
Yes. Going back to the garage studio, Jim Dickinson was coming in and producing stuff. Guys that were in some of these local bands, like Terry Manning, started to learn how to engineer. When we moved over on to National Street, Terry was really the first engineer other than myself, and then it wasn't long before some other guys were learning how to do that. A guy named Richard Roseborough, who's an excellent drummer, and then when you get over into the Big Star era, then Chris Bell and Andy Hummel start to learn how to do some of that stuff. We just had the one studio, so a lot of times it would be Terry working in the day and I'm doing it at night and vice versa. Some of the Stax producers would engineer some of their sessions, notably Steve Cropper. He wouldn't always, but he actually could and would engineer. The other person who started with the jingle company — most people don't realize — was Jim Gaines. There were a lot of alumni from that thing.
It seems like early on you had kind of a policy — Chris Bell is a great example — of letting people come in on the off hours and mess around and learn something.
It is an extension of the garage ethic, or the family concept or whatever you want to call it. It also has some practical applications. If you think there's a chance that any of these people might make some good music and you want to be in the production company, the record label or the music publishing business, you want some guys that you think can write some good songs and record some good masters. It had another practical advantage as kind of an engineer training mechanism. There's only so much you can show somebody or tell somebody, and then you've got to give them a chance to actually do it. So, if they're in there doing it, not experimenting on your paying clients, but they're experimenting on themselves, that's a little better venue for their experimentation. It's the only way anybody is ever going to learn, because recording schools are great — I'd wish they'd had them in the '60s and made it easier for me to learn in an organized program — but there's only so much hands-on, practical experience that you can get in that kind of a setting.
What kind of rates were you charging in that era? Were there different rates for jingles or albums, music projects?
A typical studio rate in 1966 would probably be something like $50 an hour. I ran into an inflation calculator — you can do it based on monetary inflation or consumer price index or the producer prices. You can input what something cost in 1978 or whatever and figure out what it ought to cost in the current year. I did a horrifying experiment one time. I put in what we were able to charge for studio time in 1978 and converted it into maybe 2002 or 2003 dollars and it turned out that just to stay where we were, we should have been charging something like $280 an hour, and obviously [we were] not.
It's one of the few industries where the price almost stays the same because of the changing technology and things like that happening.
If the facility that we have today were not totally paid for, we'd never be able to build anything like that again. Nobody in their right mind — unless they were someone who was extremely wealthy and wanted to play — would build a high dollar facility and expect to see a return on an investment. To be perfectly frank, if we didn't also use it as a production tool for our label, there would be much less motivation for having a nice facility. We still do a lot of fee-for-service work, but the other reason for having it is for our artists to have a nice, creative environment. I think that makes a better record. I don't want to get into the argument about recording at home — some music people can do just perfectly well at home in their bedroom. There's other music that I think benefits from a creative community of some kind — if everybody is just going to hole up in their bedroom I think people are going to miss something by losing that sense of creative community.
Ardent's kind of been a part of Memphis history, with talented pools of players. I mean, Big Star didn't come out of a vacuum, it came out of a bunch of different friends playing music together — and that goes back to Stax.
Yeah, and hanging out in studios and everything like that. That was the norm — the band was always around, or maybe two or three bands. In the Stax Museum orientation film, you hear something from an outtake, and it's somebody saying, "Go and get the drummer! I think we got us a record."
Over the years it seems like steady growth. What was the impetus to move from the commercial space to the new space?
Well, we were really, really busy, so we wanted more than one studio and there's no way in the rented place that we could get a second studio of any size. The other was to quit renting. If we're going to be spending money, we might as well spend the money on owning something. We started building the building we presently have in 1970 or maybe early '71 and we actually got moved in in November of '71. We did the last session on National on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. As soon as the session was over, we unhooked everything — we had stuff pre-wired over here — and we were back at recording in the new studio by the Monday after Thanksgiving. Nobody got much sleep.
No. Oh my god.
In one way or another, the whole time that we've had a studio we've always had some kind of label, production company and publishing company. When we had the garage studio, we were recording and putting out 45s on the Ardent label and trying to sell them — in some cases selling a few — only in the local or regional area, but at least we were trying to be entrepreneurs. We had the iteration of the Ardent label that was distributed by Stax, that Big Star was on, because Stax at some point decided, "We want a rock label." It was great, except we were kind of naïve to think that Stax was supposed to do the marketing and promotion and distribution. We were making a different kind of music than what their promotion and marketing apparatus was used to dealing with. Their desire was extremely sincere, but the immediate result in the short term turns out that we were making a lot of records that the rock critics, and at that time the avant-garde FM stereo rock stations that nobody listened to, loved — but that doesn't necessarily translate into sales.
It seems like that the bigger problem was distribution and getting them to the stores. Also you're dealing with Stax going into bankruptcy.
And that was all stunningly fast. Going into Big Star's first album, Stax had independent distribution and six months into the release of #1 Record, they made this deal with Columbia and took this six million dollar advance, which was a huge amount of money at that time, and moved the distribution over. I said, "Oh boy, Columbia! This is going to be great for our music." But by the time they got it moved and got the interface working it was too late — that was in probably the middle of '73 when they made that deal, and Stax closed down by late '75. It was stunningly fast.
Plus when you change distribution with a record that has just come out, it's probably just lost in limbo.
Still, all of that set aside, our association with Stax was the best thing that ever happened for me professionally and even relationship-wise. I think of those guys today with great affection.
You could have seen Stax becoming one of the largest independent labels in the country if they'd done it right, with a big say in changing many things in the marketplace.
It was such a neat, creative environment a lot of times. Steve Cropper wanted some mix time and he came over with what was going to be a Booker T. & The MGs' single, and he thought what he had was the a-side. He mixed that and then he said, "I've got this b-side, and I don't know what to do with it. There are these big gaps and I need to work up something on this thing." Because of the jingle people, there happened to be a marimba sitting in the studio — something that wouldn't ordinarily be around — and he says to Terry Manning, "Do you know how to play that thing?" Well, Terry Manning didn't know how to play the marimba — he was a keyboard player and not a percussionist — but of course he said, "Yeah, I know how to play it." So, we mic'ed the thing up and Terry goes out there and they start playing the track back, and the track has kind of a reggae feel — so Terry starts playing something on the marimba that sounds like steel drum parts. Well, the song turns out to be "Soul Limbo". After Cropper's face lights up he's saying, "This is the a-side now." I think we sold a million plus of that.
Was there anybody in your early stages of recording that you could go to as a mentor?
Information was hard to come by. There were no formal programs. There were a few books, but most of them weren't even oriented to music recording. Most of them were oriented to broadcast practice. One of the guys that was a big help to me was Welton Jetton, who owned Auditronics — who built the consoles. He had built the jingle company's studio — Pepper's studio. He had formed a business selling equipment and building consoles. He was a real helpful source of information. There's another guy that was no older than me, but he's one of these whiz kids and he helped with the garage studio, a fellow named Charles Brandon. When he was sixteen years old he was working as a transmitter engineer at local radio and television stations. We had an Ampex 2-track, and we were the only people around who had sync on our 2-track because I said, "You know, I'd like to have sync" and he said, "No problem, I'll modify it." My background had a scientific curiosity about it and the result was that we did a lot of stuff right at a time when, in our part of the country, it was not common. For example, we actually aligned our tape machines. If you're not doing all of those things, particularly in the days of analog recording, you can't achieve any kind of consistency or predictable results, so we always paid attention to maintenance. What was driving what the people at the studio were doing was soul music, because a lot of us grew up listening to soul music and R&B music, but the other kind of odd mixture was all things British. I can remember getting the first Beatles single on Vee-Jay and just listening and being amazed. Those were not just the musical influences, but they were the influences on what we thought about recording and the kinds of equipment that we wanted to have and techniques that we wanted to use. I don't care if it's back in the '60s or '70s or today, what you wind up doing is derived a lot from what you enjoy listening to and want to emulate — who do you respect and who would you like to be like?
"Are you a fan of music?"
I don't think anybody is going to be any good at any occupation if they don't start out from a fundamental premise that what they are doing is worthwhile and has value, if you don't believe that you're just going to be a hack, no matter what you're doing.
When was the last time you engineered a session and when did you stop? I had heard stories that Big Star's Third was one of the last things you did.
Well actually, I continued for some time after that because that would have been around '75. Stax closed in December of '75. Certainly the whole Stax coming to an end was very discouraging. "Is the music business in Memphis now going to come to an end?" The atmosphere surrounding the Big Star Third album was discouraging. There's been plenty written about that. I was having questions as to whether I wanted to continue to do this professionally, because the other thing I had gotten very interested in growing up was aviation. I had a private pilot's license as soon as I was old enough and then kept on with it. There was a time when I thought that I was going to have a career change and go into aviation professionally. In the end I didn't do that, but it could've gone either way. I kept on engineering into probably the early '80s, but I would get more and more selective over time as to what I wanted to fool with. This is just going to [make me] sound like a contrarian, but as we moved up into the 24-track, and even locking two 24-tracks together, the whole recording process was getting really boring to me. I liked the idea that "Hey, here are the guys in the band and they're at least going to play the track as a band," and they were going to be able to hear where the song is headed. Instead I found myself sitting there listening to these people overdub one instrument at a time and wondering, "Well, where is this heading?" A lot of times I'd feel like I didn't even really know what to do in order to be helpful, because I was clueless. I got to the place later in the '70s where just about all I wanted to do was re-mix work. I didn't want to track sessions. I didn't want to sit there and do overdubs. When I was re-mixing I wasn't bored, and at least it was all there. I could push them all up and I could figure out what this song is about. I didn't have to be guessing while listening to some guy sit there tap, tapping on a snare drum and wondering, "Is this really going to be a tune at the end of the day?" I enjoyed doing some stuff in the latter part of the '70s. I was doing a lot of Leon Russell stuff and would track for him too. We did some pretty interesting records. I didn't mind tracking for him because he put a big band in there. He did a Freddie King record with some of the top L.A. session players. When you're tracking that kind of thing — that's fun! As the studio got bigger and there was more going on, somebody had to run things. I had the airplane business and I had the studio thing going — plus you get to the age, or at least I did, where I didn't want to sit up all night. It was getting to where we had more and more good engineers. We had had a lot of people who learned in house. Terry Manning was in and out of town. Richard Roseborough had become an excellent engineer. John Hampton and Joe Hardy were starting up. We had several of the Stax recording engineers that came looking for employment too — William Brown, Robert Jackson, Henry Bush and Ron Capone.
It's an important point that running the studio becomes a job too.
I think if somebody doesn't see about that, the whole thing will fall apart on you pretty quickly. By 1980 we had a third studio and a mastering room. When Stax had closed I went and bought their lathe and hired their mastering engineer, Larry Nix.
Any parting thoughts on running a studio for forty years?
Well, I'm not sure in good conscience that I would advise anyone to do that. I don't think if all I had done was run a fee-for-service studio for forty years, I would have found much job satisfaction. The fact that we've had production companies, record labels and been involved in music publishing — there is a creative process going on that wasn't just simply, entirely client controlled. For about twelve years now we've had our contemporary Christian record label and that is just great fun. We've had great artists over that period of time and that's primarily what I spend my time on now. I spend more time on things that are related to the label and to the music publishing. I would encourage anybody in a similar situation to explore those possibilities. There's a difference between just being able to be competent at making a recording and being either competent or lucky in an A&R sense. For people that think that they've got some chops in that direction, it gives an added dimension, not only as a way to make income. But I would much rather be an intellectual property owner than to be somebody that says, "You know, if somebody doesn't show up to record tomorrow we can't pay the light bill." That is what has made it work for me. But different things make different people tick.