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VOL. 125 | NO. 143 | Monday, July 26, 2010

‘Holy Grail’ of Recording Uncovered

Mitch McCracken | Special to The Daily News

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The 1958 Ampex 351 mono tape recorder recently was discovered in a storage room full of recording equipment. It originally was used at Sun Studio. It’s considered the Holy Grail of the music industry.  Photo: Mitch McCracken

A 52-year-old tape recorder described by some as the Holy Grail of the music industry has been discovered in the storage room of the owner of a used bus dealership in Marion, Ark.

But this isn’t just any bus dealership owner. Bob Tucker, owner of Bob Tucker Motors on Interstate 55, is a music industry veteran and one-time leader of the Memphis band that toured with the Beatles in 1964.

The equipment in question is a 1958 Ampex 351 mono tape recorder, which was an updated version of the Ampex 350 that Elvis Presley, Bill Black and Scotty Moore used to record “That’s All Right” in July 1954.

Sun Studio owner Sam Phillips replaced the two original Ampex 350s with two new Ampex 351s in 1958. The 351s were retired from Sun Studio in 1960.

“I was surprised at the significance of the recorder,” Tucker said. “I thought most of the famous musicians had left Sun by the time Phillips bought the machine.”

Cameron Mann, Memphis Music Foundation director of the Music Resource Center, said the recorder is a significant discovery.

“Having worked in a studio during the change from analog to digital as the standard means of recording, I can attest to this find being unique and museum-worthy,” Mann said.

In fact, one of the Ampex 350s is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the other one is at the Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis.

“Great news,” said Andy Tanas, a local Memphis musician and former member of Black Oak Arkansas. “Glad they found the last Ampex in the chain. Hopefully, it will end up in some kind of music museum where it belongs. If this thing could talk … .”

The recorder was in a room full of recording equipment that Tucker has had in storage for years. Tucker knew the recorder was from Sun Studio, but he didn’t realize its importance to music history until recently. He thought most of the famous musicians had left Sun by the time Phillips bought the machine. As it turns out, many prominent musicians used the machine when recording at Sun.

“The Ampex 351 is to the music business as close to the Holy Grail as it gets,” said Carl Blue Wise, owner of Blueboy Records and a musician who also worked with Willie Mitchell of Hi Records, a famous Memphis label.

“Imagine the artists who recorded on it,” Wise said. “The missing pieces of the early rock and roll recordings are discovered here in Bob Tucker’s possession. Bill Black, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charley McLain, Rick Nelson, Shylo and the list goes on of artists that recorded on that machine.”

Tucker, who did a stint teaching music business at the University of Memphis, is perhaps best known as the leader and guitarist for the Bill Black Combo, a Hi Records band that performed a mix of pop, country, blues and rock.

The band was founded by Black, who stopped touring in the early 1960s when his health began to fade. In 1962 Black handed over leadership of the combo to Tucker (Black died of a brain tumor in 1965 at age 39).

As leader of the Bill Black Combo for 30 years, Tucker was part of music history in 1964 when the Bill Black Combo was the opening act for the Beatles on their tour of America after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Meanwhile, before his death, Black opened a recording studio, Lyn Lou Studio (named after his son and daughter), with engineer Larry Rogers and bought the 1958 Ampex 351 mono tape recorder that Phillips had retired from his studio in 1960.

Tucker and Rogers bought Lyn Lou Studios and the right to use the name Bill Black’s Combo after Black’s death. The studio recorded many Bill Black Combo Albums and produced country hits for Charlie McClain, T.G. Shepard, Billy Swan and others.

That’s how the Ampex 351 that was used at Lyn Lou studios ended up in Bob Tucker’s possession.

“Thanks to Bob Tucker we have found another missing link of the roots of rock and roll,” Wise said. “This find is priceless.”

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