On the Cover: 45 Years of Ardent Studios, Memphis
Nov 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Tom Kenny
Wow—45 years and counting. That’s not easy to do in any industry, let alone one that is dependent on the forces of technological change and the whims of a record-buying public. But Ardent Studios, under the leadership of John Fry and a dedicated, loyal team of creatives, has weathered the ups and downs, branched into new markets over the years, added and dropped studio services, and continually kept an eye on the future. To commemorate its 45th anniversary this month, Ardent has undergone a complete acoustical makeover of its flagship Studio C and dropped in an SSL Duality console.
The history of Ardent Studios has been written before—Fry in his garage in 1966, the move to National and then Madison Avenues; the association with Stax, Al Green, Sam and Dave, Big Star, ZZ Top, R.E.M., Steve Earle, Huey Lewis and a slew of local talent—so we won’t go into that here, except to note that the past does inform the future, and the commitment to technical and creative excellence has never wavered. If you talk to the people in and around Ardent, that’s attributed to Fry; if you talk to Fry, that’s attributed to the people he surrounds himself with.
“Ardent is unique because of one individual, and that’s John Fry,” says Jody Stephens, Big Star drummer and studio manager at Ardent since 1987. “He’s the captain, and he fosters that spirit of innovation and creativity. Look at some of the talent that has called Ardent home—Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, John Hampton, Joe Hardy. All have helped keep the doors open because John has always emphasized that individuals come first. But then he provides the tools, too, and brings in someone like Chris Jackson, a chief engineer that we are just lucky to have. He’s amazing. But it starts with John Fry.”
Then you talk to Fry, and he humbly states how pleased he is to just have been a part of “all things Memphis, to have so many good friends and clients be a part of our lives for these 45 years. From around the world and from right down the street.”
There are any number of reasons why some large commercial studios survive and others do not. For Ardent, besides the obvious assemblage of Talent and Tools, the team has always been about the music and offering services that can launch or boost a career.
“We’ve always been involved in artist development,” Fry says. “We’ve always had a production company, a record label or both. We’ve always had publishing interests. So we’ve always been more than a fee-for-service studio, and I think those aspects of our business cause talent to gravitate to the facility. Jody Stephens has spent a lot of time developing relationships in the A&R and label world, music supervisors, too—people who can help with exposure for local artists and music coming out of the area.”
Those local artists have included Big Star, most notably, but in later years John Kilzer, Tora Tora, 36 Mafia (an Oscar!), Skillet, Star & Micey and many others. It extends to the visual arts, where after a few years’ hiatus, a film department has reopened, headed by returning Memphian Jonathan Pekar, son of Ron Pekar, who designed the neon star for the first Big Star album cover.
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