The Heights

Musical Heights: A neighborhood's forgotten role in the history of one of pop's most famous studios

The Na-Jack Market at 1457 National Street, which takes its name from its location sandwiched between National and Jackson Avenue near where they converge, may look like just another convenience store — a place to grab a drink and a snack, some cigarettes, maybe a lottery ticket — but once, somewhere between the stacks of unrefrigerated sodas and the storeroom are now, music history was made here. 

Built more than 50 years ago, the 2,000 square foot cinder block building has been a lot of things in its existence, including a day care center. But for five years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it housed Ardent Recordings. An upstart venture started by the late audio engineer pioneer John Fry. Ardent Recordings was a forerunner to Ardent Studios, the legendary recording facility located since 1971 at 2000 Madison Avenue where some of the biggest names in music have worked.
An avowed technophile since his teens, John Fry's passion quickly made Ardent the most technologically advanced studio in the city.
Though its run was far shorter, Ardent Recordings didn’t lack for big name clients. It produced music by Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, Isaac Hayes, and Memphis power-pop maestros Big Star. The National studio is also was where Fry and his staff of young firebrands laid the groundwork for the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning success of Ardent Studios and provided a training ground for some of the city’s greatest artists to make some truly amazing records.

“I don’t know if it was the building itself, but what came out of the speakers there was enchanting to me,” said Jody Stephens, who first stepped into the National building in 1970 as a 17-year-old aspiring drummer and is now vice president of production at Ardent Studios.

Fry was a precocious technophile of only 21 when he leased the newly-built commercial building on National in 1966. Though young, he had already been in the music business for more than six years. In high school, Fry and classmates John King and Fred Smith (of future FedEx fame) turned a shared interest in radio into a recording studio started in the Frys' East Memphis garage. In 1960, Fry and his partners started their own label, Ardent Records. 

“When we decided that we were gonna start to press our first 45s, we had to have a name for the label,” Fry wrote in the liner notes to a 2008 CD spanning the label’s history. “We liked the sound of ardent: ‘hot, fiery, fierce, burning, passionate’ was the dictionary definition. Ok, that’s not bad.”

After high school, the label and the studio folded, but Fry rebooted both in 1966 at the urging of a friend who wanted to record a new band, Lawson & Four More. The group was produced by wild man songwriter and musician Jim Dickinson and featured a deceptively quiet keyboard player named Terry Manning, both of whom quickly took an interest in the inner workings of the studio.

One of the first bands to record at Ardent Recordings was the Goatdancers, a colorful group made up of the remnants of an earlier Ardent act. Lawson & Four More. Goatdancers keyboard player Terry Manning (right) would go on to be a key engineer at Ardent and one of the top engineers in all of pop music. Fry’s interest in recording was revived by the Lawson & Four More experience, but he was facing the imminent sale of his parents’ house, so he began looking for studio space.

No one knows exactly why Fry, with no known connection to The Heights, chose National for Ardent Recordings. It may have been that the price was right or an attempt to tap the neighborhood’s wellspring of talent.

Memphis music historian Ron Hall, author of Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage & Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975, says The Heights was at the epicenter of the city’s youth music scene in the mid-to-late ’60s. It boasted hot young bands like The Charms, Lesabres, Yo-Yo’s, and The Gentrys, a group of Treadwell High School students who had a national hit while still in high school. On the weekends, these bands packed out Heights venues like the T. Walker Lewis YMCA and the teen club The Gateway on Jackson near Ardent Recordings. A lot of this music can still be heard on Hall's radio show on WYPL-FM 89.3 Mondays from 8 to 9 p.m.

A successor to an earlier Ardent band, The Goatdancers were one of the more progressive bands in Memphis at the time, recording producer/band member Terry Manning's feedback-drenched "Patches of Dust" at Ardent in 1967.

Following the example of local music impresarios like Sam Phillips at Sun Studio and Chips Moman at American Sound, Fry knew to make money he had to find and develop those young, up-and-coming acts to then sell to a bigger label for a profit.  

When Ardent Recordings opened, he brought along Manning and Dickinson as assistant engineers. Almost immediately, Ardent became a home for acts looking to make new, daring music. The Goatdancers and Honey Jug were early recording projects, as well as Jackson, Mississippi’s The Wallabies, who were known to wear pajamas on stage.

“Bands had freedom to create [at Ardent] that they didn’t have at the bigger studios,” says Hall. “Can you imagine any other studio working with Lawson & Four More, or, geez, Ron Jordan and Honey Jug? I think bands felt a connection there that no other studio had.”

For many of these young artists, Ardent Recordings was their entrée into the music industry. In 1968, Keith Sykes was a neighborhood kid who was just embarking on a music career. He presented a song called “Silky” to his friend and fellow Treadwell graduate Larry Raspberry of The Gentrys, who recorded it at Ardent Recordings with Dale Hawkins of “Susie Q” fame producing. Sykes soon started hanging around the studio, meeting fellow rising artists like Sid Selvidge and Manning.

“I remember first meeting Terry at the Sweden Kream,” said Sykes, referring to the ice cream/burger stand that was popular with the Ardent gang and still stands catty-corner from 1457 National. “He had on a hat and long hair, so I figured he was probably one of the cool guys. I talked to him a little bit, and we just became like instant friends.”

Pegged by Memphis music historian Ron Hall as a band that should have hit it big but didn't, The Yo-Yo's, aka the Swinging Yo-Yo's were made up of former members of the Gentrys, another Heights band that did enjoy national success. It's unclear where this song was recorded.

Ardent Recordings also picked up a lot of overflow work from the big-name studios in town. Stax had similar equipment to Ardent Recordings, so it made sense for the soul label to send its extra work across town. By 1967, Stax artists like Sam & Dave and the Staple Sisters were regularly recording or mixing at Ardent. In 1969 Isaac Hayes tracked all of his landmark album Hot Buttered Soul there. Stephens said every major Stax artist except Otis Redding recorded at Ardent.

“John Fry was a very well thought out, very methodical, brilliant guy with just incredible ears, so I think it wasn’t too much trouble to win over [Stax co-owner] Al Bell and those folks,” he said.

Moman’s American Sound followed suit. The same year Sykes started hanging out at Ardent Recordings, Alex Chilton, the teenage lead singer for American Sound’s The Box Tops, first stepped into the studio to record overdubs on what would become the band’s second big hit, “Cry Like a Baby.” On National, Chilton found musicians, engineers, and producers not much older than him to whom he could relate and soon became a regular, making his first solo recordings there the following year.

By the early ’70s, Ardent Recordings was a world-renowned studio. Portions of Led Zeppelin’s second two records were mixed there, and James Taylor recorded the Memphis Horns at Ardent for his 1971 album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.

In 1971, (left to right) James Taylor, Pete Asher, and Terry Manning recorded the Memphis Horns at Ardent for Taylor's Grammy-winning album "Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon".

Also in 1971, Chilton teamed with a new Ardent engineer named Chris Bell and studio regulars Stephens and Andy Hummel to form a new band that would be the first signed to Ardent under a new development deal with Stax.

That fall, the new group began recording at Ardent. One night, Bell and Chilton stepped outside to smoke and discuss band names. They surveyed the neighborhood, including the Sweden Kream and the grocery store next door, part of a local chain called Big Star. They had their name.

It was The Heights studio’s last contribution to Ardent, which moved over Thanksgiving to the brand-new, custom-built facility on Madison Avenue. The saga of Big Star — three brilliant, critically-adored records and years of commercial frustration that led to the slow disintegration of the band by the late ’70s — would play out in Midtown, not The Heights.

Arguably one of the greatest albums to come out of Ardent on National, Big Star's debut #1 Record was cut shortly before the studio moved to Midtown.

Ardent Studios would go on to become one of the most celebrated in the country, where Bob Dylan, B.B. King, REM, Stevie Wonder, ZZ Top, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and many, many more would record.

Chris Bell died in 1978, but his small body of work has made him a cult favorite. Manning left Memphis in the ’80s, working at Abbey Road and Compass Point Studios before returning to his native Texas. Dickinson died in 2009, and Chilton in 2010, both after long and respected careers as independent-minded solo artists. Fry died in 2014, still at the helm of Ardent.

Sykes went on to become a celebrated songwriter for Jimmy Buffett, John Prine, Rosanne Cash, and others and in the late ’70s recorded a string of celebrated albums at Ardent Studios. Earlier this year, he returned to the studio when he was named chief manager at Ardent.

Today Sykes joins Stephens, who recently marked his 31st year working at Ardent Studios, as the bearers of a recording legacy that began more than 50 years ago in an unlikely building and neighborhood. The only music at National these days comes from a radio behind the checkout counter, but the role the Heights played in music history lives on in album credits, biographies and histories, aging photographs, and the timeless recordings made there.

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