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Author Topic: Quick 5 cent history of the Memphis Studios? Also, what about Dave Harrison?  (Read 2934 times)

David Kulka

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Two part question.  

I never knew much about the Memphis studio scene.  This forum has answered some questions, and raised some others.  The topics here have encouraged me to search the web and read up on things a bit and I've ordered a copy of "Soulsville U.S.A." by Rob Bowman, which looks to be a great book.

Terry, I wonder if you would grace us with a brief history of the Memphis studios -- just 2 or 3 paragraphs?  Was there a lot of interaction between Stax and Hi?  You have mentioned Ardent, when were those 3 facilities built?  Are any of them still operating, what became of them?

Now, Dave Harrison wasn't really part of the Memphis scene, but this seems as good a place as any to talk about him.  I know that he was a sax player, and then worked at King Records in Cincinnati -- he is credited as engineer on a few James Brown albums.  Later of course he teamed up with Jeep Harned at MCI, then went his own way, founding Harrison in Nashville and competing with MCI.  Harrison became (or was bought by...not sure) GLW, who is still around and producing massive consoles.  (Saw a new Harrison at Universal the other day with 300 inputs, must have been about 40 feet long...yikes.)

Dave Harrison dropped by United/Western once or twice in the 70's when the rooms were being upgraded with his desks and I recall seeing him at an AES.  He's gone now, but I wonder if anyone here knew him well, or could offer more on his background and career.
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Bob Olhsson

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The first time I met Dave Harrison, he was installing and adjusting a monitor equalization system he had built for Wally Heider Recording in San Francisco.

compasspnt

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David Kulka wrote on Mon, 21 February 2005 20:52

...I wonder if you would grace us with a brief history of the Memphis studios -- just 2 or 3 paragraphs?  Was there a lot of interaction between Stax and Hi?  You have mentioned Ardent, when were those 3 facilities built?  Are any of them still operating, what became of them?


Memphis was a long time ago for me; it seems like two other careers in music since then!  (And therev was one before...)  But I did live and work there for a long time, so I can give some sort of an overview.

Of course, the grandaddy Memphis studio was Sun, originally at 706 Union Avenie.  Sun was really the label name; the studio was called Memphis Recording Service.  This was a very small place with just a reception area in front, a reasonably small studio behind that, and the small control room at the back.  This was started and run by the famous Sam Phillips, who discovered and produced so much great talent (need I even quantify it?)  After the sale of the Elvis contract to RCA, he bought a much larger building, and moved the studio.  Here he had a much bigger studio and control room, several offices, and a mastering lathe.  One big thrill to me once was taking a track I had cut at Ardent (about 1967) to this Phillips studio to have a mastered acetate cut; the mastering engineer turned out to be Sam Phillips himself!  To digress a tiny bit for a story...

The Yardbirds had come to Memphis to record at Sun.  They wanted Sam to produce them, but hadn't made any real arrangements for that; they'd just booked studio time, and had hoped he'd be there.  They were busy recording their studio version of "I'm A Man," but Sam hadn't shown up, and they were disappointed.  All of a sudden he came into the control room, but unfortunately, was highly inebriated.  The 'Birds saw him through the glass, and picked up the excitement level a bit.  When the take was finished, they waited for words of approval, of wisdom, of some sort of sage advice...what would the great man say to these English blues upstarts?  This was the man who had discovered Howlin' Wolf, for goodness' sake!  Sam stumbled to the talkback button, cracked it open, belched, and bellowed, "Boys, whup it like a mule's peter!"  They produced the session by themselves.

Stax Studios and label started originally as a country music place.  Jim Stewart ("ST...") and his sister Estelle Axton ("...AX") were the original founders.  But they first called it Satellite, and in fact, the first release or two were on the Satellite label ("Last Night" by The MarKeys, a famous instrumental, was one of these).  But there was another company already called Satellite, so they had to change the name.  The studio was at 926 East McLemore, in the middle of a huge Memphis ghetto, in an old movie theatre.  They had a record shop next door, run by Estelle, while Jim recorded the sessions.  Jim Stewart was a country music 'fiddle' player.  But much of the area talent was black, so they migrated to that style of music.  However, to it's final days, Stax was a model of racial unity, as  there were always about an equal amount of white and black participants (as evidenced so clearly in Booker T & The MG's.)  Stax's ,musical output over the years was prodiguous, and was some of the greatest pop music ever, in my somewhat biased opinion.  The company was bankrupted at the end by several political and business problems, not all of their own doing, and eventually folded.  The building was sold, and finally torn down.  I had tried to get civic leaders together to save it and make a museum, but no one was interested.  Recently, a new museum building was built on the original location, and is open today.  I have yet to visit it.

Hi Records' studio, officially named Royal Recording Studio, was also in an old neighbourhood movie theatre, but several miles from Stax.  Although owned and operated by a different group of people, there was a certain amount of cross pollination, especially of musicians.  Most notably, Al Jackson, Jr., the unbelievably great MG's/Stax session drummer, was also the drummer for many of the great Hi recordings, especially for Al Green himself.  Also, the horn section often played at both studios, as did the string section.  But Hi had their own basic rhythm section (Teenie Hodges on guitar, his brother Leroy on bass, and brother Charles on organ.  Their house drummer was Howard Grimes, but when Al Jackson played, Howard would double him on conga; this was the so-called "snare plus tom" sound everyone wondered about.)  They also had their own backing singers, whom everyone outside of the circle thought were three or four black gospel women singers (like the Sweet temptations); but they were really Sandra Rhodes and her sister Donna, and Sandra's male friend Charles Chalmers (also a great sax player, such as the solos on Wilson Pickett's works).  These three were all white, and were really country musicians.  The best known personage at Hi (other than the artists) was Willie Mitchell, a trumpet player who became producer of Al Green, Ann Peebles, and many other Hi performers.  One thing I found interesting was that after Hi had their fiurst hit, they bolted the mic stands into place, so that no one would change the "hit sound!"  I believe that this studio is still operating today (but they've probably moved the mics by now!)

Ardent was founded and owned by John Fry, who was the son of a successful local businessman (cement company).  John started his first studio as what would today be called a "home studio."  It was in a room off of his garage at his parent's home. He had mono and stereo Ampex 1/4" machines, and Neumann mics.   The control room was in the house itself, connected by about a 50 foot cable.  In about '64, John moved to his first commercial location at 1457 National Street.  This was a good sized single studio in half of a one storey building; the other half was a Bible book store.  This is where Big Star and many of the other Memphis groups started.  This was also the place where Stax brought much of it's product to be mixed, and also they tracked there quite a bit.  For example, I recorded and/or mixed, or in some cases co-mixed, such records as The Staple Singers hits, Dock of The Bay, Eddie Floyd, Isaac Hayes, the Al Green hits (for Hi of course), and many more things at National Street.  Then in 1972, John opened a new, purpose-built studio at 2000 Madison Avenue.  This has three studio rooms, and a large group of offices.  It is still very much operational today.

There were other studios over the years; American was run by Chips Moman, and recorded BJ Thomas, Neil Diamond, Elvis (Ghetto, Suspicious, etc.) Dusty Springfield, and many others.  Kiva was built by Gary Belz, and ended up being House of Blues.  Gary today has OceanWay Nashville with Alan S.  Steve Cropper built a studio called TransMaximus, which was later sold to Isaac hayes, and then to me.  I operated this for several years as Studio Six, before coming here to Nassau/Compass Point.  There were others as well, but that's a good start at the 5 cent tour!  (Shouldn't have left out Sounds of Memphis, home of Sam the Sham, and......)



Quote:

Now, Dave Harrison wasn't really part of the Memphis scene, but this seems as good a place as any to talk about him.  I know that he was a sax player, and then worked at King Records in Cincinnati -- he is credited as engineer on a few James Brown albums.  Later of course he teamed up with Jeep Harned at MCI, then went his own way, founding Harrison in Nashville and competing with MCI.  Harrison became (or was bought by...not sure) GLW, who is still around and producing massive consoles.  (Saw a new Harrison at Universal the other day with 300 inputs, must have been about 40 feet long...yikes.)


I met Dave once or twice; he seemed like a nice guy.  But I must admit I never was a big fan of the Harrison desks, or the MCI ones either!

Quote:

Dave Harrison dropped by United/Western once or twice in the 70's when the rooms were being upgraded with his desks and I recall seeing him at an AES.  He's gone now, but I wonder if anyone here knew him well, or could offer more on his background and career.


If a Harrison console was an "upgrade," what the heck was in there before???  (Sorry, Dave...)


Thanks for the question!

Terry
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thedoc

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Actually 30 feet long...sorry I missed ya.

Doc

I have some great Dave Harrison stories...
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David Kulka

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Terry, thanks a lot for your nice history on the Memphis studios, which was far more than the 5 cent version I'd asked for.  My Soulsville U.S.A. book arrived today.  It seems densely packed with information, so I guess I'll be learning much more about the Memphis scene as I get through it.

You wrote "If a Harrison console was an "upgrade," what the heck was in there before???"  Well, I believe it was one of these:
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I don't recall the lineage of it, though I've got the info filed away somewhere.  United got six of them in the late 60's.  By the time I got there, the pegboard matrix buss assign panel had been replaced with thumbwheel switches but by 1977, as you can imagine, the one in Studio 1 (with 12 busses) just didn't cut it for 24-track dates.

Those old Harrisons aren't the most beloved consoles and these days they are seen as barely worth keeping alive but in '77 they were pretty hot stuff.  The one in Studio A had 40 inputs, 6 sends, could be connected to two 24-tracks and toggled between them at the flip of one switch, plus had automation.  The input modules had 8 different modes, so you could do practically anything with them, though most engineers never quite learned the tricks.

In my opinion the sonic issues on the old 2824's and 32xx's had to do with Harrison's "more is more" design philosophy, which delivered all sorts of features at the cost of scads of amplifier and FET switching stages.  I never counted them but the input module must have had at least 30 amplifier circuits.  Then there were the dbx VCA's, which people seem to like just fine in the limiters, but not in a fader circuit.  The EQ's left a lot to be desired too, they had a kind of "comb filter" sound and were hard to set accurately.

Still, a lot of monster records were made on Harrisons and they were very innovative.  Most impressive of all, the brand is still around.  how many other console manufacturers from the 70's have survived?  They must have been doing something right!

Right Doc?  Hi, Doc.  Yes, I missed you the other day -- maybe tomorrow or next week?  I'd love to hear those Dave Harrison stories!
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