Monday, March 29, 2010

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | 'Goodbye El Goodo' By Robert Gordon

Alex Chilton became a public figure at the age of 16 when, not long after he’d first seen the inside of a recording studio, a song from that session became a #1 worldwide hit, “The Letter” by the Box Tops. At that impressionable age he became a product packaged and sold, considerable talent yielding considerable profits—for the manager and not the artist. Soon, the monkey walked away from the organ grinder to do his own thing.

His thing: He channeled the future by capturing the underground zeitgeist, three times in the 1970s alone—an audience for the clean pop of the first two Big Star Records caught up to the music a decade after it was made; the third Big Star album was nihilistic and beautiful (hello Elliot Smith and the ‘90s); the shambolic 'Like Flies on Sherbert' deemed hip the wealth and diversity of Americana roots while becoming a punk rock classic. The art of these efforts has become canonized, but the financial return was—again—basically nil. Big pop hit or great art, same result: no money.

Instead of profit, his fans assigned him prophecy. But the Replacements only got it half right in their tribute song. Children by the million might have screamed for Alex Chilton, but he’d never have come running. Waves of admiration and love were an assault, and he was scornful of those who needed to make more of his songs than he did. His lifelong interest in astrology makes sense: What is colder, more beautiful, more distant than the stars? Astrology is the province of the seeker, not the sought.

Alex Chilton’s career in song is a testament to his seeking, to his eye for precise detail, his adventuresome ear, his empathetic heart. In a few lines he could chillingly evoke the angst and maelstrom of young adulthood, touching strangers in a personal way (their responses leading to his notorious friction with some fans). His mind remained curious all his life, exploring politics, the humanities, and sciences with the same avidity he mined R&B, country, classical music and everything in between. He refused to be predictable, and preferred his audience be kept on its guard. In the same late-night radio appearance when he sang Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”—years, of course, before Whitney Houston made a career out of it, he also broke into a filthy racist ballad. His songs were not unlike William Eggleston’s photographs—crisp, saturated, and composed, with an underlying menace, with a throat-aching wistfulness.

Alex was as complicated as Memphis itself. XL Chitterlings, my favorite of his stage names, stole Wilhelm Reich books from the Memphis Public Library because he said no one checked them out, and he gave them to people whom he thought would appreciate them. When a friend heard him explain his world view, he chided him, “You're right Alex, the world is wrong.” Telling me about this later, Alex added “And, hell. I believe that. The world is wrong, I am right.”

To the end, he did it his way. Apparently he’d been feeling bad for several days, but not so bad he couldn’t refuse advice to visit the doctor. Dead at 59, the loss magnified by its abruptness, the musician is stilled but his great recordings live on. The eulogies will too, much to his likely irritation.

Robert Gordon is the author of the quintessential book on Memphis music history - 'It Came from Memphis.'

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | 'My Big Star Story' by John Fry

One day in 1968, I walked into my office to find a young man still in his teens, seated in my chair, with his boots propped up on my desktop, smoking a cigarette. Once I relocated him, I learned that he was Chris Bell. I would soon meet Andy Hummel, as the two, along with Steve Rhea, were starting to join the after-hours recording crew at Ardent. I already knew Alex Chilton from his visits to Ardent for Box Tops overdub and mixing sessions. A bit later I would meet Jody Stephens as he joined Chris and Andy on drums when Steve left for college.

Of course, there would be no Big Star band until a few years later, but this day is as good as any to mark the start of a journey that Alex, Andy, Chris, Jody, and I would wind up taking together. That journey has been well described in several different formats. The life stories of the individuals involved would progress in ways that none of us could have envisioned.

For me, the experiences included getting to participate in the recording and release of music I loved then and still love now, the bitter feeling of total commercial failure in the Memphis ashes of 1975, an early morning phone call in 1978 with bad news, and the ultimate acceptance of the music by generations of fans and musicians, many unborn at the time it was recorded.

Recounting some recent events may express my feelings better than talking about the distant past. Fast forward to 2008. Jody Stephens shouts from his office across the hall from mine “Hey, we’ve got a show in London on August 28”. My response is, “I’m going.”

It’s three hours until show time, and I am having dinner with friends in an Indian restaurant around the corner from The Shepherds Bush Empire. Seated at the next table are what turn out to be a dad, mom, and teenage daughter. After a while dad leans over and says “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing, and it sounded like you were talking about Big Star, We’ve driven down here from North Yorkshire to see this show. We’re all huge Big Star fans. Do you know anything about that?”

I responded, “Yes, a little” and enjoyed making some new friends.

The show is now in progress, and I’m studying the audience. Their ages range from older than my own to teenagers who are obviously in a band (note playing of imaginary instruments). They know the songs and the lyrics. “Cosmos” kicks off, and the room becomes very quiet; the crowd knows about that too. I walked back to my hotel, feeling a sense of closure about a number of things which had eluded me for decades.

I am grateful to Cheryl and Andrew at Rhino, and to Alec Palao for the vision and persistence that made the Big Star box set 'Keep An Eye On The Sky' and the 'I am the Cosmos' 2 CD Deluxe Edition possible (The new Cosmos Handmade edition presently is available only from and their affiliated international sites). I can’t say enough about the hard work by Adam Hill at Ardent in finding and gathering materials. Thanks to Ken and John for ably filling their roles since 1993. Finally, thanks to Alex, Andy, Chris, and Jody. Mostly you made me smile, sometimes you made me cry, but this journey has been the best thing about my 44 years of doing this job. I love you all and always will.

—John Fry

Addendum | Since writing this, an unexpected and unwanted event occurred on March 17, 2010. At about 7 pm, I received a call from Jody Stephens, who had gone to Austin that day to participate in SXSW. He quickly said that he had received a call from Laura, Alex Chilton’s wife. Alex had suffered symptoms of heart failure at home and had been taken to a hospital where he died in the emergency room. There initially was nothing more to say beyond “What, say that again, are you sure?”

Then we said to one another, I guess we better cancel everything. I was about to hang up when it occurred to me to say “It’s your decision, but you guys should talk about it among yourselves. Maybe you want to go ahead with everything as a tribute to Alex.”

They called back in a couple of hours and said they were going to perform with guest artists. I think it was the right decision.

There was a tremendous outpouring of love and support from the artist community at SXSW. The media were courteous and respectful in as far as I have seen. We all are grateful.

There was a previously booked Big Star show at the Levitt Shell in Memphis on May 15. The remaining band mates and family are in agreement that this will also go on as a hometown tribute to Alex.

A memorial for Alex will be held at Minglewood Hall on March 30th from 5-8PM. It is open to the public.

One week ago, I picked up the Big Star boxed set, looked at the cover photo with their smiling faces, and reflected on the fact that there are now two of these four people about whom I have received shocking sudden death phone calls, one in 1978 and another in 2010.

Alex and Chris are sorely missed, much loved, and deeply respected.

—John Fry,
Ardent Studios, Memphis, TN, March 24, 2010

Enter to win Big Star's '#1 Record' on vinyl by telling us your Big Star or Alex Chilton story in the comments to this post. Please remember to leave a contact email address. The winner will be notified next Monday, 4/5/2010.

TVD's Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios

The Vinyl District's Ardent Records, Ardent Music, and Ardent Studios Week has been in the planning stages since last January, and in fact was the project that ignited the idea of a month of label spotlights as we count down to Record Store Day 2010.

We've been plotting and mapping out this week that would highlight not just the studio's storied history, but the history of the people and records that Ardent has fostered.

What we certainly didn't foresee was that the history we were chronicling would be irrevocably altered with the passing of Alex Chilton—and it was during one of those planning back and forth email volleys less than two weeks ago that we were informed of his passing soon after it occurred.

So, we've scrambled a bit and reconfigured that map of the week to allow for not just an Ardent spotlight but a series of reflections on Alex Chilton, the man and the musician and the deep well of affection that he leaves behind—which will run in tandem with what we had set out to do initially.

And there will be a lot to read and take in. If you ever thought TVD might be a little light in the content arena (as I might have in the past) this week will undo that notion. We'll have a few surprises along the way, and of course, we'll be giving away some vinyl - not one big contest per weeks past - we're piggybacking the giveaways with pertinent posts.

And the most pertinent now as we kick things off with Ardent Week is a brief historical overview:

Something Good Happens Here
by Robert Gordon

“I had an interest both in music and in electronics,” says John Fry, founder of all things Ardentstudios, labels, video production, and various other ventures over the years. “We started getting our hands on the equipment, then asking, ‘What can we do with this?’ Well, we can record music. ‘What are we going to do with the music?’ Well, we could try to sell it.”

These are simple beginnings for a passion that has lasted forty years, has become an industry-leading enterprise, and has produced some of the best music in modern history. And even as Ardent has grown and changed, the founding characteristic has remained true. “Back then, our studios were unusual around this part of the country,” Fry continues, “because we had a higher technical standard than was common, allowing for a controlled recording situation.” Ardent’s high technical standards, well-maintained equipment, and an appreciation for both the vintage and the cutting edge have always been its essential elements.

John began tinkering with electronics in the late 1950s, his particular interest being radio. “As kids, we couldn’t get a radio station, so we started recording, which was the next best thing.” The afore-mentioned “we” refers to John Fry’s first two partners: John King and Fred Smith. King stayed in the music and radio business, publishing a radio magazine, working in promotion for Ardent Records in the 1970s and more recently, programming internet radio; Smith went away to college and turned his passion for aviation into a fly-by-night operation named Federal Express. In 1958, they were just sophomores in high school stumbling into a hired studio with a band they’d found. “This studio we rented was a thing from the era of live radio broadcasting,” Fry recalls. “All technology was pretty primitive then, but this place had things like Presto disc recording lathes that even then were approaching obsolescence.”

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That first studio experience was exactly what John Fry did not want, and he set about building his own studio in a converted garage off his parents’ house in what had been his grandmother’s sewing room. “I’d pore over the catalogs and brands and all that. We built a lot of our equipment, and what we didn’t build we inter-connected. Things just didn’t exist in an off-the-shelf form. Until well into the 1960s you put the thing together and made it yourself.”

The desire for a label had spawned the studio. The first incarnation of Ardent Records released four singles. Notoriety came with singles by local favorites, especially the Shades. (Collectors take note: Ardent 101 is by The Ole Miss Downbeats; “The Hucklebuck” b/w “Slewfoot.”)

Then John Fry spent some time in the radio business. “A little bit after I graduated high school in 1962, a friend got a grant to build a radio station in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. We thought, ‘Well it’s not exactly a major market but this guy’ll let us mess with it some.’”

A couple years later, in 1964, recording artist James Luther Dickinson talked Fry into reviving the label. Dickinson had production ideas and Fry’s ears were open; their working relationship continues today. Terry Manning played organ in Lawson and Four More, the revived Ardent label’s first release. By 1966, when Fry’s family was moving, the studio was also ready for a new location, and Ardent had its official opening on National Street, where it stayed for five years.

“Our facility coincided with the rapid upswing of the technology,” Fry reflects. “If you had four-track equipment, you had as many tracks as anybody and more than most. Between 1966 and about 1970, we went from four to sixteen tracks and to much larger consoles; outboard equipment began to appear, and so did Dolby noise reduction. The equipment required a fair amount of alignment and attention in order to work right. We were good at that. Ardent wound up mixing a lot of stuff that other people would record because we could apply some technological efforts that seemed to enhance it. Also, our console was the same make as Stax’s, so anyone from there could feel at home with what we had. We stayed busy.”

Clients came from far and near. Led Zeppelin, Leon Russell, and James Taylor sought out the place, and Ardent became a second home for Stax artists, including Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, Don Nix, the Bar-Kays and Booker T. and the MGs. The Stax relationship blossomed, and in the early 1970s, Ardent Records became a Stax distributed label. Unfortunately, Stax got caught up in its CBS Records quagmire, and some of Ardent’s greatest albums, including Big Star’s '#1 Record' and 'Radio City,' did not reach a wide audience until years later.

Big Star ultimately seeped into pop culture, their reissued albums influencing generations of talent. A range of artists cite those Ardent albums as formative inspirations, including R.E.M., The Bangles, Primal Scream, Matthew Sweet, The Posies, Elliot Smith, Sister Hazel, Ryan Adams, Golden Smog and Wilco. A treatment of Big Star’s “In The Street” by Cheap Trick became the theme song for Fox-TV’s long running 'That 70s Show.'

In November of 1971, while in the midst of recording the first Big Star album, Ardent moved to its current home on Madison Avenue. The new facility was outfitted with two studios, adding a third in 1980. Its reputation growing, Ardent Studios continued to attract national recording acts. And they came: ZZ Top, Freddie King, John Prine, Cheap Trick, Joe Cocker. The 1980s kicked off with Ardent alumnus Alex Chilton bringing in the Cramps, thereby introducing the studio to a new generation. And they came: Green On Red, the Replacements, R.E.M., the Georgia Satellites, the Gin Blossoms, the Tragically Hip, the Afghan Whigs.

In the mid-1980s, Ardent began to develop a relationship with the burgeoning Contemporary Christian Music market. DeGarmo and Key became Ardent regulars, recording 'Heat It Up', 'To Extremes', and many others. Ardent Records launched a Christian rock label in 1995; so far it has released 36 albums and garnered 7 Grammy nominations from an artist roster including Big Tent Revival, Skillet, Smalltown Poets, Jonah33, Todd Agnew and developing artists Joy Whitlock and NonFiction.

Blues artists have always come through Memphis, and in the late 1980s, Austin’s Fabulous Thunderbirds began recording at Ardent. After their guitarist Jimmie Vaughan brought his brother, Stevie Ray, there for 'Family Style', Jimmie returned to complete Stevie Ray’s posthumous release 'The Sky Is Crying'. Ardent then became a mecca for modern blues artists. And they came: Robert Cray, Luther Allison, Jeff Healy, Albert Collins, Bernard Allison, B. B. King.

When Nashville wouldn’t let Steve Earle get the sound he wanted, he hit the hillbilly highway and showed up at Ardent. Word spread that there was a place down the road where the sounds were professional and the possibilities were great. And they came: Travis Tritt, Tanya Tucker, Little Texas, Mark Chesnutt.

As the post-punk world settled down and major labels became comfortable with alternative rock, Ardent Productions served as liaison between Memphis talent and the corporations. Under the direction of Big Star drummer (and Ardent Studios manager) Jody Stephens, Ardent Productions developed several artists in the 1980s and 1990s, landing deals at Geffen for John Kilzer, A&M for Tora Tora, and Elektra for The Eric Gales Band. In the 1990s wave of indie rock, Ardent Records got into the game with Neighborhood Texture Jam, Spot, Jolene, and the return of Big Star front man Alex Chilton.

Since its earliest days, Ardent has fostered producers. Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, Jim Gaines, Joe Hardy, John Hampton, Paul Ebersold, Jeff Powell, Skidd Mills, Jason Latshaw, Matt Martone, and Pete Matthews are among the many producers who have had long relationships with Ardent. In a business known for big egos, flaring tempers, and hardened grudges, these enduring associations speak volumes about the Ardent environment.

Times have changed, but Ardent has remained true to its character, embracing the technological advents, collecting world-class vintage gear, and offering hospitality that is among the South’s finest. As Memphis’ connection to Hollywood grows stronger, the filmmakers behind 'Hustle and Flow', 'Black Snake Moan' and '40 Shades of Blue' have turned to Ardent for recording their soundtracks. Hip hop artists and twenty-first century stars continue to walk through the doors: Three 6 Mafia, Juvenile, Al Kapone, Cat Power, the North Mississippi Allstars, Three Doors Down, the White Stripes, Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, the Raconteurs, and a reunited Big Star. Ardent’s passion for the music has translated into more than 70 gold and platinum albums and singles. You can walk the halls and feel that same passion.

“Anybody that’s traveled knows there is an emotional influence that you experience from being in different places,” says John Fry. “Your moods are affected by your surroundings. I think there is something that operates in Memphis, and at Ardent—I can’t explain what it is or how it operates on an analytical basis, but having been an observer for forty years, I know there’s something that animates all this activity that causes it to go on here and not other places. You come record here, something good happens to you!”

Robert Gordon is the author of the quintessential book on Memphis music history - 'It Came from Memphis'