In Tape Op # 44 we did a feature on Memphis, Tennessee, and its rich music and recording history. We vowed to return to Memphis, especially for Ardent Studios and Terry Manning - key figures in any history of Memphis music recording, along with Jim Dickinson whom we interviewed in #19. This issue has a special spotlight on Ardent, and some of the people and activities that have occurred around that special place. Big Star were a special band, not given much notice in their heyday but going on to become influential all over the world. We talk with Jody Stephens (page 30), their drummer, and The Posies (page 34), who have become latter-day members of this band. Mark Rubel talks with Terry Manning (Page 48), who got his start at Ardent and now runs Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. And to start it all off, we chat with John Fry (next page), the man that started Ardent in his parent’s garage 40 years ago! Hats off to the late Chris Bell and the unpredictable Alex Chilton, the songwriters and driving forces that created and carried on Big Star in the first place - we’d all be nowhere without the great songwriters and musicians of this world!
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.
Alongside Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens is the likable drummer and only other constant member of Memphis' legendary rock band Big Star. Big Star was basically created out of John Fry's generosity towards younger musicians, allowing original members Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and their friends to come in an learn the recording ropes. Since then, Jody's been working at Ardent for several decades now, in various capacities.
Your introduction to Ardent Studios was through Andy Hummel and Chris Bell?
Andy said, "Hey, some of my friends and I are putting a band together. Do you want to come out and jam a little bit?" We got together in Chris Bell's back house that was on his parent's property. Terry Manning was there, maybe Tom Eubanks, and Chris, Andy and myself — maybe Steve Rhea, too. It was loose and everything, but there were all these suggestions of something really creative coming out of it. That led to late night sessions at Ardent.
How did that lead into Ardent?
Chris Bell was friends with John Fry. Chris, Andy and Steve Rhea were getting into the studio in the off hours and I think Steve was getting ready to go to college. He played drums, so they were looking for another drummer. I got introduced to Ardent via Chris and Andy and played in the off hours and really didn't see much of John Fry. It was like Disneyland for somebody into music. I thought what Chris and Andy and Steve were doing was so different from what everybody in Memphis was doing at the time. It's what I was into — very, very British invasion. I've always been fascinated with the whole creative process and how things just spring from people's minds. I felt pretty lucky.
So, Big Star — you go through the era of that — 1975 was the last recording for Big Star's Third?
Yes. I came back to Ardent in January 1987. I was on the fourteen-year program at the University of Memphis. I started in '70 and graduated with a marketing degree in '84. I continued to wait tables for a while and then had a pretty straight gig for a year and then was looking to change jobs. I handed in a resume to a radio station and I called John Fry to let him know that I'd used him as a reference. I hadn't talked to him in a while and he said, "I'll say something nice about you." He rang me up the next day and said, "Hey wait a minute. We're creating a new position here at Ardent — somebody to do the marketing." I managed to wind up with the job and I was ecstatic. My first day in the studio I discovered The Replacements were here — I didn't know who The Replacements were at the time, mind you. I was really lucky because it was the time Joe Hardy was developing as a producer/engineer. John Hampton was developing as a producer/engineer. We had Terry Manning here. We had just exceptionally talented people to work with. Also John Hampton and Keith Sykes, a fairly well known singer-songwriter here, were doing a little artist development themselves and had a guy named John Kilzer. John Kilzer's project became the first that I shopped. I wound up placing it with Geffen, but it open the door to relationships at A&M and some other places. The next project to shop was a band called Tora Tora. I wound up placing them with A&M and again, developing other relationships in shopping this band. Then there was the Eric Gales Band. We had talented producers and engineers and we also had this talent pool that we were drawing artists from. The guys that produced the demos were able to produce the records when the artists got signed.
Yeah, keeping things in-house. At that point, were you a studio manager, did you stick with doing the label type thing?
No, we had a dedicated studio manager at that point. My efforts were focused on the production company and the marketing. The production company helped tremendously with marketing because A&R people don't necessarily want to hear about a studio over and over again. But they were always interested in new artists. Ardent Productions was a potential source of a future signing for them. I'd talk a bit about the artist and the engineer/producer that did the demo, so we gained a lot of exposure for our talent behind the...