With my last two installments here I have mostly sniped at what is left of the “Memphis music industry” (see, there I go again) and gone after easy targets like vanity recording and the role of NARAS in propping up wobbly, waning hopes of turning Memphis back into the money making music town it was in the mid to late 2oth century.
Well, today I’m going to break pattern and attempt something like a fond appreciation of the institution that sponsors The Warm Up and has ties with many of the writers and musicians here on The Vinyl District: Ardent Studios and also the man who has run the place since its inception at the old studio on National Street in the 1960s, John Fry, pictured above at right with Big Star’s Jody Stephens.
Doing a session with Ron Franklin a couple of weeks ago in Ardent’s Studio C prompted this unexpected wave of sentimentality. Frankly, it had been years since I had set my drums up at Ardent. The type of recording projects I tend to be involved in usually do not have budgets that allow recording at a studio the quality of Ardent. Affable Adam Hill engineered the session and the ever reliable, always humorous producer John Hampton worked out a few kinks with the new analog tape setup in Studio C.
Of course, the session went well and sounded great even though I had more than a few problems playing along with a drum machine track Ron Franklin had programmed. There is nothing like recording in a state of the art, world class recording studio to remind you what a pleasure making music can be.
But what touched me more than the talent, skill and knowledge of the people I worked with that night were the memories that came flooding back from almost a quarter century ago. There was a time when John Fry allowed Alex Chilton access to Ardent Studios on what might be termed an as-needed basis. That usually meant that Alex and often an accompanying crew of musicians and merrymakers would tumble into the studio around midnight (or even later) and proceed to, well, make music and merriment, the latter often taking precedence over the former.
For Alex in the mid to late 70s, music seemed to happen in a social context and he usually brought that context along with him when he was in the mood to record. Observing Chilton working at Ardent was often a chance to witness genius. That was also the case working with the late Jim Dickinson. And watching the two of them work together at Ardent was always fascinating. Let’s just say that you felt their respective presences, separately or together, whenever you walked into any room they were occupying.
And the generous, indulgent man who kept this late night learning lab open for the now deceased Chilton, Dickinson, Chris Bell, and Tommy Hoehn was John Fry. I know him only slightly, I should add here. He is polite, gracious, reserved, refined, a gentleman, I guess you might term him . . . everything I am not.
What I do know about John Fry is that he allowed the aforementioned roster of sadly departed musical artists a chance to learn their way around a recording studio and to produce some of the most touching and beautiful sounding music recorded during the last century. Fry himself was and is an expert recording engineer and producer; that should never be forgotten. Ardent sounds so good because he planned it that way. He has kept some great musicians, engineers and producers employed during the last few decades: Jody Stephens, John Hampton, Joe Hardy, Jeff Powell, and Adam Hill, just to name a few. And when Stax went under and Memphis music stopped being a for-profit business, Fry kept the doors at Ardent open and maintained Memphis’s reputation as a music town alive by doing so.
Please pardon my sentimental tone. I promise it won’t happen again anytime soon, but if anybody deserves credit for keeping the dream and reality of a Memphis music scene alive it should be John Fry.