On the Cover: Memphis Meets Music City at House of Blues

May 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Tom Kenny


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From left: studio manager Mike Paragone; Paul Franklin, steel guitar; Al Sutton, engineer; Kid Rock; producer Rob Cavallo; assistant engineer Heather Sturm

From left: studio manager Mike Paragone; Paul Franklin, steel guitar; Al Sutton, engineer; Kid Rock; producer Rob Cavallo; assistant engineer Heather Sturm

Let's start with the news. East Iris Studios is now House of Blues Studios, Nashville, joining in name its sister facilities in Los Angeles and Memphis. There's been no major facelift, no change in the Tom Hidley design or the artwork on the walls. The vibe — which has attracted the likes of 3 Doors Down, Faith Hill, Yusuf Islam and countless others over the past 11 years — is intact. There's just about to be a lot more of it.

In this age of branding, community building and viral marketing, you couldn't have a more recognizable name in the greater music industry than House of Blues. Studio owner Gary Belz knows this; he is one of the founders of the worldwide entertainment/venue company and has run studios under the licensed name since the early 1990s. Though he's owned facilities in Nashville for nearly 15 years, and operated them under the larger HOB Studios umbrella, Belz has never felt the pull to add the moniker. Now, the Memphis native says, the time feels right, and he's going to bring a little bit of the Delta with him.

“We in Memphis have always had a little bit of jealousy toward Nashville,” he says with a chuckle. “It's only 200 miles away but a completely different world. Billy Gibbons likes to say that every now and then a cloud comes over Memphis and sprinkles this magical rain and we change music, and then it moves on. It happened with Sun, with Stax. And we tried it with House of Blues Records at one time. But Nashville is the center. We lost Elvis to Nashville, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash. I've done business here for a long time, and I've always enjoyed Music Row and my relationships here with people like Tony Brown and Norbert Putnam. I guess you could say I'm following a long trail of Memphians.”

Belz is one of the truly unique characters in an industry that is filled with characters. He is a partner with his long time friend Isaac Tigrett, who is co-founder of the Hard Rock and one of the founders of the House of Blues. He and Isaac continue to build hospitals and water systems through the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust for the poor in India. He is a businessman with interests in food, hotels and entertainment, and he has devoted much of his life to a deeper understanding of our true role in this world through his longtime relationship with a spiritual adviser. He knows to the line item the studio equipment package he might broker, and he is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. He thinks worldwide, but he seems so local, equally at home at a water summit or behind the bench as his beloved Memphis Tigers lost in the Sweet 16. He moved to Encino, near Los Angeles, in 1990, but he hasn't lost his Southern gentleman charm.

“I'm really just a trustee of these businesses I'm in,” Belz says. “When we renovated the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, I considered myself the trustee of George Peabody. And it's the same in the studios. I don't sit down and engineer. I'm more comfortable on the hospitality side, and I've always just wanted to provide the best rooms, with the right vibe, for people to make music in.”

Belz purchased East Iris from Chuck and Randy Allen in 1998, but it's not the first time he's toyed with the idea of establishing an HOB Studios in Nashville. He and partner Allen Sides bought a church on the Row in 1994 but settled on the name Ocean Way Nashville instead. It would later be sold to Belmont University.

The Allens built East Iris in 1997, and Belz sold them the SSL 9000J that now sits in the Hidley-designed Studio A, pictured on this month's cover. Belz in fact sold them much of the gear the studio is known for and bought the whole place soon after. While A is a true A room, the first moves to expand East Iris really began around 2002 with the remodel of Studio B.

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