This last month has been a really tough one for the music community of my hometown of Memphis, Tenn. First, Grammy-winning engineer, producer and Ardent Studios co-owner John Hampton passed away on December 12, and less than a week later, word quickly circulated that Ardent Recording founder John Fry had also died.
Memphis is known around the world for the game-changing sounds of the Sun, Stax/Volt and Hi recordings that launched Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MGs and Al Green, among many others. Those in the know readily state that most of the last 50 years of Memphis music wouldn’t have happened without the bedrock of John Fry’s legendary recording facility, Ardent Studios, and the staff of world-class engineers and producers who honed their art over the years.
Just as the music from Memphis and the Delta South profoundly inspired countless musicians across the Atlantic and elsewhere, many of those artists (as well as part of the mid-60s “British Invasion”) connected deeply with a whole new generation of Memphis musicians and recording entrepreneurs. It was Fry who created a recording environment at Ardent that connected the dots on both sides of the ocean for many of us.
John Hampton at the console in Studio A with members
of the Gin Blossoms.
Ardent Recording—studios and label—in many ways was the realization of Fry’s dream to have a studio outfitted with all of the great elements that helped make the sound of the Beatles and other transformative English bands so special. He not only captured the sound that he loved in those records, but adapted them to Memphis’s unique and influential raw immediacy.
John Fry started recording in 1959 out of his family garage and by the time he formally opened Ardent Recording in 1966, he had dabbled in radio and also released a handful of 45s on his own Ardent Record label. In 1972, the Ardent label re-launched when Stax Records president Al Bell approached Fry about having a rock label within the Stax family of imprints. Though it was short-lived, the label signed a few groups like Cargoe, The Hot Dogs, and Big Star, the band closest to Fry’s heart and whose first two albums he produced. The audiophile quality sound of those albums was at once bright, punchy and utterly distinctive. Big Star might not have lived up to its name commercially, but those albums would arguably prove to be Ardent’s best audio business card attracting many artists and musicians, like REM, The Replacements, Gin Blossoms, Tommy Keene, and others who would make the pilgrimage there to record.
I first met John Fry in 1969 when Ardent was located on National Street. My first impression was of a reserved, rather conservatively dressed, guy with a boyish face; he didn’t seem like the type you would find hanging out in a rock club or engaged in small talk. He seemed more comfortable thoughtfully investigating recording gear and advancing the creative and technical skills of a small group of committed Anglophiles he attracted to his studio. Fry taught most of them the basic skills of engineering, so that more than a few could handle all of the business coming through Ardent’s doors when Stax Records began sending all their recording overflow their way. It was the end of the 60’s, and Fry started booking numerous sides by The Staple Singers, Sam and Dave, Albert King, Booker T & the MGs and Isaac Hayes. Suddenly artists like Leon Russell, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor and other notable acts started making the pilgrimage to Ardent, the beginnings of a seemingly endless line showing up in Memphis to see what Fry had stirred up. This success led Fry to build a world-class studio in 1971 at its current location at 2000 Madison Avenue in Midtown Memphis. Since opening, the studio has produced more than 70 Gold and Platinum albums and singles.
John Fry, left, and his dear friend and Ardent studio manager Jody Stephens, at the 40th anniversary bash for Ardent, 1996.
Ardent, especially during the 1970s and early ’80s, sometimes resembled a world-class recording playpen, as all sorts of creative (and not-so-creative) madness ensued, but something inside me sensed that those Fry entrusted with the keys of the studio deeply understood the responsibility of his gift. He reminded me of a high school art teacher I had who felt the only way I would grow and take responsibility for my art was to give me all the rope I needed. I watched most of those Fry entrusted inside his studio doors become fully rounded engineers and producers with the souls of artists.
There’s a lot of truth to the statement that art lives on long after the artist is gone. In the case of John Fry, the art of mentoring—spotting someone’s gifts and passions and offering the canvas, tools and accumulated wisdom to flourish—is, to me, his most enduring legacy. The studio wouldn’t exist or have made the mark it has on music history without Fry’s belief in lifting up and creating opportunities for those hungry to prove themselves. So many musicians, artists, engineers and producers learned to stand on their feet creatively and learn the art and craft of making great recordings thanks to John Fry. Myself included.
Many of Fry’s protegés would go on to successful careers at Ardent and elsewhere: Terry Manning helped to establish ZZ Top’s signature sound on many of their albums, including huge hits like “Gimmie All Your Lovin’” or “La Grange.” Jim Dickinson, who worked with Ry Cooder, The Rolling Stones and Dylan, produced classic albums by Big Star, Toots Hibbert and The Replacements, whose song “Alex Chilton” paid tribute to Big Star. Or Joe Hardy, who also worked extensively with ZZ Top and helped push the synthesis of rock and country with his work on Steve Earle’s fiery albums The Hard Way and Copperhead Road.
It was a protégé named John Hampton, however, who ran the distance, starting out like almost every engineer at Ardent, as the guy who manned the back door and made tape copies for clients; Hampton, though, eventually worked his way up to being a co-owner.
Hampton’s first Ardent recordings included the psycho-billy garage rock of The Cramps—songs like “The Way I Walk” and “Human Fly”—and Alex Chilton’s chaotic Like Flies on Sherbet. Hampton would go on to multi-platinum status in producing the Gin Blossoms hits “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You” and “Allison Road,” among others. Hampton’s engineering and mixing skills drew major country artists from Nashville who wanted some punch to their sound, like Travis Tritt, as well as blues and rock greats like B.B. King, who knew of the combination of Hampton’s work with The Raconteurs and The White Stripes, for which he earned his second Grammy. (His first was for his work on Jimmie Vaughan’s album Do You Get The Blues?) Hampton passed away at 61, of complications from cancer, less than a week before Fry died.
It’s hard to imagine either one of them gone, especially Fry; his spirit inhabits every thoughtfully conceived inch of Ardent. But Ardent is in good hands with those Fry mentored, and it will continue thriving as one of the world’s finest studios, attracting artists like Stevie Wonder, who was in recently to tap into the mojo Memphis and Ardent offer. Fry would love it. And John Hampton, no doubt, would find a way to get behind the board.
Music supervisor Rick Clark is the former editor of Mix’s Nashville Skyline.