Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
When most people think of the history of recorded music in Memphis, I’d venture a guess that their minds immediately jump to Sun Studios. And rightfully so. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, et al. But for fans and acolytes of a more updated rock canon, there’s another recording institution a couple of miles east that demands just as much reverence and respect. I’m talking about Ardent Studios.
Ardent’s history is deep, going on 50 years and more. As soon as you walk through its unassuming doors, you’re immediately taken in by the breadth of music that was willed into existence within its three studio rooms. A red brick wall prominently and proudly displays just some of the records that the studio had a hand in turning platinum. Led Zeppelin III. ZZ Top’s Eliminator and Afterburner. Gin Blossom’s New Miserable Experience. And on, and on, and on.
For most, however, when you hear the name Ardent, thoughts turn to that seminal Memphis rock group, Big Star, who recorded their entire genre-shaping catalog at the studio. As you enter Ardent’s cozy lobby, Big Star’s special place at the heart of Ardent is driven home thanks to a large, neon glowing sign of the band’s instantly identifiable logo. Even more incredibly, just a few moments after I entered the facility, I was met by studio manager Ryan Wiley, who ushered me into the office of Jody Stephens, Ardent’s Vice President of Production. For those that haven’t made the connection, Jody was Big Star’s drummer, and the sole remaining member of the band still with us.
I was totally unprepared to come face to face with the living, breathing embodiment of so much of the music that I loved, that I’m sure I came off as a bit shell-shocked for those first couple of minutes. Jody couldn’t have been nicer, or more accommodating. We stood and chatted for a few moments at the entryway to his office that was lined with colorful artwork and photographs of famous faces, before both led me on a guided tour through their impressive facilities.
The roots of Ardent can be traced to a garage that belonged to the parents of studio founder John Fry. It was there in the early-1960s that Fry built his first makeshift studio and began recording local artists like The Shades. By 1966, Fry’s ambition led him to search for a more professional location, and found one on National Street. Starting out with just a four-track console – which is lovingly displayed in Ardent’s modern entry-way –- Fry eventually upgraded to a 16-track, and opened his doors to the world.
Led Zeppelin mixed their more pastoral – save for “Immigrant Song” — third album at Ardent. James Taylor worked on his third record Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon, which features the ubiquitous single “You’ve Got A Friend.” Ardent also became a second home for a vast array of Stax artists like Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, and Sam and Dave.