By Ray Chelstowski
There are certain recording studios that are as important to modern American music as the songs that emerged from their walls. As a teen I would pour through liner notes on album jackets and certain places began to pop up with regularity. There was the Power Station, Sunset Sound, Electric Lady Studios, Criterion, Record Plant, Sound City and so many more. But at one point there was a place that I began to notice quite often. It seemed like albums by some of my favorites artists were all being recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, at Ardent Studios. The Vaughan Brothers (Family Style), Robert Cray (Midnight Stroll), Danny Gatton (Cruisin’ Deuces), Joe Walsh (Got Any Gum?), Joe Cocker (Cocker) and The Allman Brothers Band (Shades of Two Worlds) were all laying down career-defining music at almost the same time, doing it in the same place, and adding to Ardent’s already rich history.
What began as a hobby in radio for a trio of Memphis-based teens has 50+ years later become an American music landmark. In addition to the acts above, seminal records by ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, Keith Richards, R.E.M., James Taylor, The Gin Blossoms, The Replacements and, of course, Big Star were recorded here. The studio was also home to a wide range of well-sought-after producers and engineers. They were all drawn to the vision set by founder John Fry, a production/engineering genius whose business acumen was as strong as his musical ears.
Ardent is in the process of remodeling the space, upgrading some of the equipment and ensuring that the facility continues on for another 50 years. We spoke with Ardent president and chief manager Keith Sykes and studio manager (and Big Star drummer) Jody Stephens about the history of the studio, the changes underway, and the importance of carrying forward founder Fry’s vision.
GM: Ardent has always had high technical standards with well-maintained equipment, both vintage and cutting edge. So with the remodel, how important was maintaining this kind of balance?
KEITH SYKES: One of the things that I love about Ardent is exactly that. It’s ironic that some of the equipment that John put in here is now considered vintage, especially the SSL 6056 and the NEVE VR-60 (consoles).
JODY STEPHENS: Not to mention the Fairchilds (660 & 670 stereo compressors)!
KS: (laughs) Well, the Fairchilds have been vintage since transistors came about. It’s just really neat that our two biggest consoles are essentially “vintage.” We just upgraded to the very latest Macintosh computer and complemented it with our vintage tubes. When we finish this remodel, we will be as world class as John (Fry) always had this place.
GM: Did you change anything with the studios themselves?
KS: I love the sonics in the studios just the way they are. We changed equipment like the new converters. We had new cabinets built for them instead of the road cases that were in. Things like that, new video monitors. But the rooms are essentially about the same as they have been for at least the last 10 years, if not 30.
GM: You are said to be home to an eclectic collection of vintage instruments that at times get pulled into the studio. What’s been used the most?
JS: We have a Hammond A100 (with a Model 147 Leslie cabinet), and it was used on “Green Onions,” which gives you a sense of its lineage. And we have some Fender amps and other vintage gear.
KS: Ardent owns some real cool stuff. Though most of the time, when people get to Ardent, they want their own stuff. Ardent is not a “beginner’s studio.” It’s for people who have been around. They have their own guitars and rigs that they want to try out here.
GM: I agree that it’s not a beginner’s studio. So with four studios at Ardent, how do you direct artists to the one that’s best for them?
JS: People have a tendency to know what room they want. Bob Dylan spent a couple of days back in Studio C as did Stevie Wonder. John Hiatt did Master of Disaster back there. The Fabulous Thunderbirds and even Keith Richards and The X-pensive Winos spent a few days back there.
Each studio has its own little stories about the amazing recordings that have been made there. Both rooms sound amazing. But people who have cut in A like The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Joe Walsh and Robert Cray like its flexibility. It has huge baffles so that you can really damp things down to where it’s almost a ’70s studio. Or you can take that stuff out and let it ring like a modern classical type of room. We can easily put 30 pieces of an orchestra in there with plenty of room for their stands. It’s that flexible.
GM: The studio has successfully recorded all kinds of music.
KS: John Fry wanted this place to be a chameleon of sorts. He didn’t want it tuned into one specific kind of music. Instead, he wanted the studio to be flexible. Jody used to say, “That room is your embassy. You do what you do in there.” There’s so much history here that it’s easy to get lost in it all. But if you’re feeling experimental and want to break away, you’re in the right place.
GM: Your original location on National Avenue that was across from the Big Star grocery (an inspiration for one band’s name) is now a convenience store. It’s hard to believe that big productions were recorded in such a small space? What made its way from there to your current location?
JS: The floor in the studio on National (Avenue) was actually pretty big, but the ceiling was low. Isaac Hayes did Hot Buttered Soul there, and a lot of gospel and jingles were recorded there, too. It was a pretty big floor. We had a 1927 Steinway move over from that location.
KS: We’re about to complete the first major restoration the Steinway has ever had. It’s just such a wonderful piano, and I can’t wait for them to finish it up. And then have it and the Yamaha over in Studio C is really cool. The Yamaha’s a lot newer than the Steinway, and there’s a difference in their sonics. But between the two we can cover just about anything you want, from a honky-tonk country thing that just plays on the high end to classical.
GM: Clients came to Ardent from far and near. Led Zeppelin, Leon Russell and James Taylor all sought out the place. What was said in “the word of mouth” that got things rolling?
KS: It really boils down to the engineers. I mean after you get to a certain level with the equipment it begins to come down to the engineers. They keep the clients coming. Terry Manning, Joe Hardy, Paul Ebersold, John Hampton, Skidd Mills and Jim Dickinson were all working out of here. A lot of the artists would read record credits and get psyched up about what had been recorded here and want to come just because of that. Day in and day out it’s going to be your engineers who really drive that side of the business.
In the ’90s, John Fry started the Christian label and that brought clients in. We will keep doing that. Not Christian music per say — but just having a label here where the studio’s involved in putting capital in to an act. That’s one of the main reasons for Ardent’s success. When John Fry saw talent, he wanted to be a part of he made deals. He helped a lot of artists that way.
GM: Unlike a lot of other famous American studios, Ardent never closed, always weathered the storm. What helped them survive where others failed?
JS: John Fry being diverse, having publishing interests, having a record label and deriving income from more than just studio time is why we are still here.
GM: John Fry began with a love for radio. Was there ever a plan to launch a station?
JS: Radio was the first thing that he, John King and Fred Smith (future founder of FedEx) did. But they were doing short wave and pirate radio stations. Somewhere along the line John Fry and John King began programming KCAT in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The station owner was Jerry Scanlon, and KCAT must have been the coolest station on the planet. John Fry and John King had these standing orders with a record store in London. They sent the store this list of artists with acts like The Beatles and The Kinks. When they came out with new records, the store would automatically send them to Fry and King. So they had that. Then they’d go over to Stax and Satellite Records and get the latest stuff from Estelle Axton (co-founder of Stax Records). It was real grassroots marketing as she was playing this new stuff for these kids. They were big into Motown, too. That kind of made up the programming at KCAT. I wish Jerry Scanlon had opened a radio station here!
GM: You are well-known for working with Memphis artists (Isaac Hayes, Justin Timberlake, Cat Power, etc.). Is that something you want to continue?
KS: As a producer I want two acts to work with exclusively here at Ardent. I may end up with more than that. Also, I’d like to find two more producers or producer/engineers to be based at Ardent. Not exclusively, but the kind of guys who will make a home here. We can make their records, and they can know that they’ll have the time to develop artists. Those folks might come from ZIP codes from right around here. That’s the idea that will work for Ardent and for any other larger studio. You know dinosaurs couldn’t learn how to weather the gigantic fireball coming out of the sky. I’m trying to learn that!
To find an act like Otis Redding who was from Macon, Georgia, who came into Stax as the driver for the main artist, and who wound up becoming a star on his own is just a wonderful story. I’m about to produce a record with a guy named Konner James. He’s from a little town in Louisiana that’s between Baton Rouge and Lafayette — so it’s not hard to understand why the guy’s got country leanings. There’s so much talent in this area. There always has been. Young people around here seem to get into music early and stay in it for a lifetime. It’s a fun place to watch this stuff go down.
GM: Are you doing anything special to re-open the doors?
KS: At the end of this quarter we should have everything finished and be ready to announce that we have redone the studio.
GM: John Fry said that “good things can happen here.” Based upon Ardent’s track record, that sure seems accurate. What part of his vision helps guide things moving forward?
KS: I have only been here as an employee for two years and I don’t do a single thing where John Fry doesn’t enter my mind before I make a decision. I think that’s like having a guiding hand from a genius at your side helping you along.
JS: I think that’s wonderful. John was big into mentoring. There is obviously a standard of quality here in the studio, the gear and what’s offered. There’s also an open mindedness. Big Star never had John Fry looking over our shoulder saying that we shouldn’t do something. John instead was into mentoring and nurturing artists. That’s what Keith is doing now. In the long run, if John’s guiding what Keith’s doing to some degree, that “mentoring” would certainly be part of John’s vision.