John Fry, founder of the world-class, world-famous Ardent Studios in Memphis, and the genial, self-effacing mentor of cult act Big Star died unexpectedly yesterday at the age of 69. Alec Palao pays his respects.
JOHN FRY was a one-off. To be sure, in the annals of Memphis popular music there are similarly important personages - Sam Phillips, Jim Stewart, Chips Moman to name but three – and Fry stood as tall as any of them. He was a true gent, without one iota of the high maintenance ways peculiar to the recording industry. Anyone who ever met John could only be struck by his warmth, generosity and genuine nature. Cordial but never stand-offish, at times he resembled that one teacher you might have actually liked at school, who was willing to share what they know with you, and is completely encouraging along with it. Someone who simply makes you want to learn from them.
What John Fry had to share was a tremendous expertise in the art of capturing sound. Graduates from the Ardent School of engineering include Terry Manning, Richard Rosebrough, John Hampton (RIP) and of course Chris Bell, along with many others who benefited from absorbing his innate attention to detail, as well as the unprecedented opportunity to use the Ardent facilities after-hours to experiment. Fry could recognize the qualities within an individual whether they fit the accepted mould of the music business or not. Hence Memphis maverick Jim Dickinson’s tenure as house engineer at the studio’s interim National location, or Fry’s careful yet hands-offs stewardship of Big Star, from their inception as Icewater / Rock City to the act’s dour denouement on their third album. Indeed, Big Star’s career is symptomatic of the Memphis/Ardent paradox. Here was one of the most impeccably maintained recording facilities in the United States, yet its own roster was frequently at odds with the accepted methods of producing records, both technically and artistically. Ultimately this dichotomy is testament to the far-sightedness and passion of John Fry, who was young enough to identify with the excitement that overtook rock in the mid-60s, yet smart and caring enough to harness it in such a classy and dedicated manner, allied to a magnanimity rarely spotted in that era.
An avid radio and technophile at an early age, John built his first studio in the late 1950s in “Grannys sewing room” at the back of his house on Grandview in Memphis. He and his partners recorded and released a handful of records intermittently on Ardent over the next few years, including great items by the Ole Miss Downbeats and Lawson & Four More, while studying electronics at college and then running a radio station in Arkansas. Fry opened the first proper Ardent studio on National Street in the late spring of 1966, and soon was busy with the surfeit of work that other local studios could not handle, including jingle and advertising dates, and crucially, Stax overflow sessions. Ardent soon got a reputation for its technical quality, and while the company continued to produce masters to pitch to other companies, it was not until 1971 and a move to the custom-built facility at 2000 Madison Avenue, where the studio resides today, that the Ardent label was reborn with distribution by Stax. Big Star, Cargo and the Hot Dogs constituted their small catalogue, none of whom were successful at the time, but the powerful legacy of Big Star – as much in part to the sonic quality of the recordings as perhaps anything else – has made Ardent a name known around the world. And from around the globe, musicians, fans and aficionados have beaten a path to Ardent over the years, whether to avail themselves of its impeccable facilities, or simply just walk those hallowed halls.
For almost fifteen years, I have been making regular visits there, initially to go through the Ardent label’s own small yet fascinating catalogue for “Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story”. Compiling that set was not only ear-opening but also quite clear evidence of not only John’s technical but his leadership abilities. Working on further Big Star, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell projects afforded me some remarkable insights into the real lessons Fry instilled in his engineers, as well as perhaps his own greatest skill – that of a mixer. Jim Dickinson in particular had alerted me to this aspect of Fry’s brilliance and what he had told me was one hundred per cent borne out by the recorded evidence. Throw the faders up on the multi-tracks for Third and you get a dissonant mess of alternating rhythms and strings battling with feedback; John Fry balanced it all with a clarity and nuance that is still, to this day, breathtaking. I spent many, many pleasurable hours discussing audio technique with John, and he was as open with his knowledge and opinion as he might well have been with any of his Ardent “students.” Though he rarely engineered after the 1970s – preferring to tend to business, as well as evolving into a cheerleader for Memphis music in general - with these reissues, John did some of his last remixing, such was his dedication to making sure the legacy remained true. One of the biggest compliments I have ever received in my professional career is when John mentioned he would actually prefer we used a couple of mixes I had done for a Chris Bell set.
Whenever Dean Rudland, Tony Rounce and I hit Memphis on behalf of Ace, Ardent is always our first stop, thanks to the studio’s handy midtown location, the always warm welcome and not least, its incredibly high and reliable standards. I got in the habit of schlepping master tapes from both Nashville and Muscle Shoals – two locations not exactly without their own recording facilities - to do the transfers at Ardent, simply because I knew I could get it right with a minimum of fuss. Though he never could be drawn to actually engineer a session, a particularly fun and incredibly instructive moment at Ardent occurred when John was persuaded to set up the drum mics in Studio C, on the one occasion I have been able actually record as a musician at the studio, with my pal Matt Piucci of the Rain Parade. Resident engineer Adam Hill and I were agog watching how he placed the microphone for the floor tom about three feet behind, to the right of the drum stool. The recorded results spoke for themselves (of course it didn’t hurt that the drum kit - the same one heard on ‘September Gurls’ and “Third” – was being played by its owner, Big Star’s Jody Stephens, Ardent Studios manager and a fantastic fellow in his own right). Oh yes, and Matt used Chris Bell’s Gibson 335. It was a true Rock’n’Roll Fantasy Camp.
On a more serious note. I’m not really a T-shirt type of guy, but for some reason yesterday morning I had decided to put on a blue shirt emblazoned with the iconic 1970s “mod globe” 70s Ardent logo, that had been a Christmas gift from Ardent in years past, and in doing so reminded myself that I ought to give John a ring to wish him the compliments of the season. He’d left a message with a similar Thanksgiving greeting a few weeks earlier and when I returned the call, he wound up our chat in typical fashion with a folksy, southern-accented “well, good deal”. That was John – always within easy reach and unerringly gracious and supportive. Receiving the news of his passing just a couple of hours later was thus eerie, and really quite upsetting. John Fry taught me so much, but most of all he showed me how you can maintain in this business with grace and humility. Thank you, friend.