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VOL. 121 | NO. 170 | Tuesday, August 29, 2006

... Look Who's 40

Ardent Studios celebrates fourth decade in local, national music biz

By Andy Meek

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MEET THE CREW: From left are Ardent Studios' assistant engineer Adam Hill; mix engineer John Hampton; Jody Stephens, a manager at the studios; Jack White, guitarist/singer for White Stripes; and The Raconteurs' Patrick Keeler. -- Photo Courtesy Of Ardent Studios

As a teenager, John Fry made regular trips to the Satellite Record Shop on McLemore Avenue, where Estelle Axton would sell him 45s over the counter and play him new recordings from countless music labels.

"What do you think about this?" he would be asked by Axton, who herself owned the famed Stax Records label in Memphis with her brother, Jim Stewart, in 1960.

By the time he was in high school, Fry already had caught the music bug in a big way, operating a makeshift recording studio in his garage. And by the time he was 21, he was the one overseeing the recordings that were sold to the music-hungry consumers who frequented record shops.

In 1966 - the same year The Beatles performed their last official concert as a touring band - Fry founded Ardent Studios, setting up shop in a newly built storefront that was available for rent on National Street in Memphis. The operation since has moved to 2000 Madison Avenue.

And this year, Fry's studio celebrates its fourth decade of recording such artists as B.B. King, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Al Green and others, including many successful local acts. Modern groups like Evanescence, Sister Hazel and 3 Doors Down also have recorded at Ardent.

'A place to play'

October is about the time the studio's first incarnation got up and running, Fry said, so celebrations of Ardent's extraordinary history are still a few weeks away. But to paraphrase a line from The Beatles, an icon of Fry's youth: It was 40 years ago today, Ardent gave the bands a place to play.

"To me, it's as amazing as anything, because I don't look at it as something I've done or caused," Fry said. "I've just had this incredible blessing of having what I think are just the best musicians, producers and writers and people like that around me.

"And it's been great to be able to facilitate their art, because that's what we do."

The famous faces who've made some noise in Ardent's three recording studios are obvious to anyone who's ever gazed at the album covers that line the hallways there.

Perhaps less well-known may be stories like the fact that commercial jingles for William B. Tanner were recorded there. Tanner, a Memphis businessman whose business interests through the years included everything from Kia car dealerships to billboards, died in December 2005. In the early part of his career, he peddled radio jingles and products like deodorant.

Then there was the Memphis power-pop group Big Star, named after the local grocery store chain, whose Ardent recordings are still in high demand, Fry said. One example: The theme song to the Fox television sitcom "That '70s Show" is a re-tooled version of "In the Street," a song from Big Star's first record.

The band's song "I'm in Love With a Girl" also was featured this year in a TV commercial for Heineken.

And for the 1996 film "That Thing You Do!" Big Star member Alex Chilton was approached to contribute the lead song in the film, which was about a "one-hit wonder" pop group.

Much-storied history

And that, of course, barely scratches the surface of the stories to be told about Ardent.

"Certainly, they've been the studio of choice for some of the biggest names in the business," said Jon Hornyak, senior executive director of the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy. He's also played on several recording sessions at Ardent.

"And I think that just helps the credibility of Memphis as a city that's still relevant and viable and where you can come and make great records," Hornyak said. "Typically, the stars get all the attention and the studios try to keep a low profile, so that their business happens largely by word of mouth.

"But even when music journalists write about the artists and the songs, they rarely bring the studio into the story; it very much is a key part of the creative process."

Said Deanie Parker, who's long been affiliated with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music: "(Ardent) was very, very important to our production, from the time that they began until the time that Stax Records was forced into involuntary bankruptcy (Dec. 19, 1975)."

Parker, today, is president of the Soulsville Foundation, the organization focused on fund-raising for Stax.

Ardent's tie to Stax goes way back through the years, back when both studios were buying recording equipment from identical sources, making a partnership among the studios almost inevitable.

"They started sending all their outside and overflow work to us, and that was the best thing that ever happened to me," Fry said. "Because when I was there I was 21, I looked like I was about 16, and there was not much reason - I knew what I was doing, but there was not much reason for anybody to think I knew what I was doing."

Another chapter unfolds

So much of the Ardent story is well-established history already, and more is still left to be told.

The studio long has been and continues to be a haven for contemporary Christian recording artists. A few months ago, the music for Memphis director Craig Brewer's coming film, "Black Snake Moan," was finished in one of Ardent's studios.

In April, Ardent engineer and producer John Hampton won a Grammy for his work as a mixing engineer on an album by The White Stripes.

"Forty years is a long time in the Memphis music industry, and I applaud John for his leadership and his staff for their ability to change with the changes that have taken place in the industry," Parker said.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 291 21,272
MORTGAGES 0 160 16,194
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 23 1,487
BUILDING PERMITS 258 692 41,920
BANKRUPTCIES 1 117 6,579
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 23 3,097
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0