Ardent Studios 50th : Big Star, SXSW

John Fry, Ardent Studios Founder
John Fry, Founder

by Sean Jewell ::

We talked with label director Reed Turchi recently about this year being the 50th Anniversary of Ardent Studios, and we have some great news. Ardent has teamed with Apple Music to re-release three albums the studios regained this year. Big Star’s 3rd (of course), Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos, and Big Star Live at WLIR in 1974. Live at WLIR was released on Rykodisc as a CD, but has never been made available before digitally or as vinyl by an official label. Let me tell you that even if you have an old copy laying around you absolutely must possess this new one. The levels are completely different, likely due to running through Jody Stephens’s (Big Star drummer and Ardent GM) masterful hands, and it sounds better than ever. Crisp drums, cutting vocals and searing guitar solos. Just check the version of “O My Soul” above for proof.

Additionally, just for fun Ardent Studios is throwing a huge party at SXSW to mark the occasion. There’s a must see panel at Austin Convention Center with Adam Hill, David Fricke (Rolling Stone), Jimmie Vaughan, Jody Stephens (Big Star), Joe Hardy (producer) and son of great musician and ardent producer Jim Dickinson, Luther Dickinson (a fine act in his own right). That night there’s a showcase that’s going to feature some very special guests from Ardent’s past will be rocking the stage.

Since the mid sixties Ardent Studios has been making history. Beginning as the dream of John Fry, Ardent was initially relied on by Stax Records for overflow work –recording Sam and Dave (who became Redding’s opening act), finishing Booker T. & The M.G.’s “Soul Limbo,”  doing vocals for Staple Singers on “I’ll Take You There,” and “Respect Yourself”  came as an opportunity because John Fry had the foresight to build his studio (after moving from his parents garage) with the same input modules as the ones at Stax. Despite assets having been seized in various forms over the years, the guts of the original Stax console now also reside at Ardent.

Last month we spoke to Otis Redding‘s daughter Karla Redding-Andrews for a feature on the Grammy Museum‘s Otis Redding exhibit, and music nerds may know that the death of Redding in 1967 destroyed Stax records the first time. This would also be the beginning of the struggle for Ardent Studios, since so much of their work came from Stax. Both labels’ contributions, however, had already become part of America’s musical language. The strength of the soul of Memphis is undeniable, and despite years of well documented financial trouble for both, music refuses to let them die. James Taylor worked on Mudslide Jim, and Led Zeppelin mixed III there. Leon Russell, The Staple Singers, James Luther Dickinson and ZZ Top would all find their way to Ardent seeking that warm sound and convivial, creative atmosphere. Artists who’ve recorded at Ardent have told me that the sound is in the floorboards of the studio, and you have to make them vibrate to get it out. Through several iterations Ardent has survived, and is probably now best known as the studio that recorded all three albums for the initiators of power pop Big Star.

Big Star, Ardent Studios

Again, this was no accident. Alex Chilton had spent time recording there as lead singer of The Box Tops, a band he disliked talking about. Perhaps it’s that he never got a chance to flex his writing muscle in the band, but when he showed up with Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens as a newly formed band Big Star (previously known as Icewater, before Chilton), things were different. One could say that Chilton and Bell are the McCartney/Lennon of Memphis. It’s true in more than one way: label head John Fry founded Ardent during a time when he was fascinated with British Invasion’s pop. Ardent, it seems, was his own Abbey Road in Memphis. Big Star’s fascination with the Beatles’ music is well known and can be heard throughout their music. Like Lennon and McCartney, their relationship was volatile and short-lived. Still, they would record the confidently named cult hit #1 Record at Ardent, a forward looking effort that fell flat initially. Chris Bell would leave the band to record solo, but Chilton continued on with Hummel and Stephens to record Radio City. If #1 Record was Bell’s dream, Radio City is Chilton’s, though his vision might not have been as clear. All over Radio City can be heard the desperation to be something great. Still, by they time Big Star was recording Third/Sister Lovers at Ardent, the band was fading. Studio hands like Jim Dickinson filled in on the record because Andy Hummel had quit, and the album has it’s strange name because the group disbanded before officially naming the thing. Ironically, in 1975 Stax and Ardent were also in legal trouble again.

Ardent Studios, Studio CStill, Ardent, now a key ingredient in the Memphis sound, would not die. Music’s changing sound fit just fine there. Isaac Hayes (onetime STAX producer) had found a home recording Hot Buttered Soul there, and Anita Ward would record there in the ’70s. Alex Chilton would return to make solo records, slowly becoming a cult icon. ZZ Top recorded every goddamn thing they ever did there, and their dusty blues turned platinum rock would keep the greats rolling through. In a weird twist Ardent returned to gospel as John Fry became a Christian (coinciding with the death of Chris Bell in a car crash) and began attracting contemporary Christian artists. Not-so-Christian artists showed up, too. The Cramps recorded Songs the Lord Taught Us there. Al Green, Joe Cocker, and Joe Walsh came through. Steve Earle recorded Copperhead Road there. R.E.M., The Georgia Satellites and the Vaughan brothers –Stevie Ray and Jimmy started hanging out. The Replacements showed up to make their break up album, and recorded a song called “Alex Chilton.” Stax, Ardent, and Memphis have come full circle over and over again, reinventing and rebuilding, constantly moving and making themselves over to stay relevant.

Big Star Live at WLIR will be available at midnight on March 17th via iTunes, Apple music, etc.