Ardent Studios manager Jody Stephens (left) and founder/owner John Fry
Sam & Dave. Led Zeppelin. Isaac Hayes. Leon Russell. The Staples Singers. James Taylor. ZZ Top. Bob Dylan — the list goes on and on. For the past 40 years, Ardent Studios in Memphis has been home to countless hit projects and continues this legacy today with such artists as the White Stripes, 3 Doors Down and North Mississippi Allstars, and films such as Hustle and Flow.
The Ardent story began when a teenage John Fry built a studio in his family's garage, where he recorded his first Ardent Records 45s. “In 1966, I was done with school and my family sold our house,” he remembered. “I felt it was time to make a career commitment to recording music.” He found a new store building on Memphis' National Street, which he shared with a bookshop. The original equipment came from the garage operation: Altec tube console, Ampex 2-track, Pultec EQ and Neumann mics, some of which are still in use. Tom Dowd was consulting with Auditronics on an early multitrack console for nearby Stax Records, and Fry ordered the same input modules for his second board. Next came a Scully 4-track, the first EMT plate reverbs in the area, and the beginnings of a world-class collection of gear.
John Fry at Ardent in 1968
As a young studio owner, Fry was fortunate to get the overflow work from Stax Records: Booker T & The MGs, The Bar-Kays, Johnny Taylor, Rufus Thomas, Albert King. Ardent also became home to young producers and engineers such as Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, Joe Hardy, John Hampton, Paul Ebersold and so many others.
In 1971, Ardent Studios moved to its present location on Madison Avenue, followed by the acquisition of 24-track recorders, bigger consoles and more gear. Today, Ardent has three studios equipped with large-format Neve and SSL desks and Pro Tools rigs, and is managed by Jody Stephens, who also does double-duty as the drummer for Big Star. The more recent incarnation of Ardent Records, a contemporary Christian music label, was launched with Big Tent Revival in 1995 and has released 36 albums to date, with a string of Grammy-nominated albums in the Rock Gospel category.
“We're flexible and we've always strived to adapt to the changes in the recording industry,” Fry said of the studio's continued success. “We've also been fortunate to have so much talent on our staff and long-term relationships with successful artists and producers. Also, having a production company, a record label and a publishing business has allowed us to be one of our own best clients.”