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Nashville Skyline, May 2008

The trap door is cool, even if Elvis Presley never got to go through it. Oh, yeah, I had a set of stairs with an alarm, security and all that so he could

Original Quad owners David Briggs (left) and Norbert Putnam flank House of David proprietor Richard McLaurin. They are seated at the beige API board that once was a centerpiece of Record One in L.A.

Photo: Peter Cooper

The trap door is cool, even if Elvis Presley never got to go through it.

“Oh, yeah, I had a set of stairs with an alarm, security and all that so he could park underground and come up through a thing in the floor,” says David Briggs, the legendary keyboard player who has been integral in the rise of two of Nashville’s best-loved studios, Quadrafonic and House of David. Quad is where Neil Young cut “Heart of Gold,” where Dobie Gray cut “Drift Away” and where Dan Fogelberg, Linda Ronstadt and others recorded hit records. The trap door, though, is at House of David, a favored studio for the Americana set and a place where Presley could have come and gone without ever being harassed. Alas.

“It was going to be a place he could come and get away from the fans and just record,” says Briggs, who played keyboards for Presley. “I worked on this for him in ’76, and he died in ’77. He never got to use it, although I did work on some of his music here after he died.”

And so the trap door sits, a point of interest if not an entrance. A piano once beloved by Liberace is located just 10 feet away, and sounds from that piano are processed through an API that used to be the board of choice for producer Val Garay (Kim Carnes, Motels, etc.) at Los Angeles’ Record One. Richard McLaurin took over as proprietor two years ago, and he frequently mans the API as engineer or producer.

“I started here in 2002, and I’ve redone the board,” McLaurin says. “It took me a year to do the whole thing, but it’s modular, and it’s not like you have to completely stop everything when you’re working on it. I did it one module at the time, and Billy Joe Shaver and Allison Moorer made records here while that was going on.”

Neither House of David nor Quad caters specifically to a contemporary country music crowd. Though Taylor Swift, Toby Keith and others have recently recorded hit records at Quad, studio manager Mark Greenwood estimates that only about 40 percent of Quad’s business is countrified. This is in keeping with the way things have been since late 1969, when Briggs and fellow musician Norbert Putnam opened Quad at 1802 Grand Ave.

“When we first started, we had some country people,” Briggs remembers. “But we found our rate of collection was maybe 60 percent at best. We found we did better if we worked with pop acts who had a deal with a major label: people like Joan Baez, and Linda Ronstadt. The first big country act we had was Eddie Rabbit, who recorded ‘Two Dollars in the Jukebox’ at Quad.”

A regular crew of funkier-than-Nashville-usual players (Briggs was from Alabama and had plenty of experience making soul records) helped Quad to produce some extraordinary records, and Briggs figures Gray’s “Drift Away” to be emblematic of the quintessential Quad sound. But the biggest night in the building’s life may have come when Neil Young was in town taping the Johnny Cash Show for ABC and decided to get a recording session together. He invited Ronstadt and James Taylor, who were also on the show, to meet him at Quad, and “Heart of Gold” was the result. Taylor played banjo, Ronstadt sang harmonies; the session is an example of Quad at its best. The Quad Eight soundboard captured a sound that was rooted in country sensibilities, but embraced rock and pop in a way that made sense in the mass market.

Then Briggs and Putnam sold Quad on something like a lark in the late 1970s.

“Some guy came in, and said, ‘How much? Name a price,’” Briggs recalls. “I jokingly said, ‘I’ll take $1 million.’ The guy said, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow.’ He came back the next day, and said, ‘I’ll take it.’ Norbert and I still talk about that. I think it was a mistake to sell it. But we were fooling around, and the guy said, ‘Fine.’”

By then, Briggs had already purchased House of David, a lovely old place located at 1205 16th Ave. S. He’d conceived of the building as a recording refuge for Presley, but the King’s death resulted in a significant re-evaluation. A buyout agreement from the Quad deal dictated that he could not open it officially until 1982, but by then B.B. King and others had graced the studio. The first act to “officially” record there was Joe Cocker, and recording was done on the original Quad Eight board that had been at Quadrafonic. Young recorded portions of “Hawks and Doves” and “Old Ways” there, and Clint Black cut his breakthrough, Killin’ Time, prior to the acquisition of Garay’s beige 1972 API 2832 board in 1992. House of David has also been host to plenty of commercial jingles, including the highly successful “Miller’s Made the American Way” song.

McLaurin — a deft musician, engineer and producer who signed on as manager in the spring of 2002 — has helped to raise awareness of House of David in the Americana and alt-country communities. In 2006, McLaurin became House of David’s proprietor (“David did his best to talk me out of it,” he says) and word has spread. The piano and the microphone collection are exquisite, the surroundings are comfortable and historic, and the API board works well with Pro Tools or with 2-inch tape. Along with the usual control room full of outboard gear, there’s a glorious old-school plate reverb that requires a walk downstairs to adjust.

Quad has seen several regime changes since Briggs and Putnam left, but it remains an historic and viable studio. Studio A has an 80-input SSL 9000, the Neve Room has a Neve 8068 with Flying Faders automation, and there are two smaller studios running Pro Tools HD systems. The walls are lined with Gold records from photos of musical luminaries. Even the upstairs bathroom sports a stained-glass window donated by Jimmy Buffett. House of David’s bathroom has no such Parrothead appeal, but there’s plenty of stained glass made by the same guy who — get this — produced Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and became Bill Gates’ “right-hand man,” according to Briggs.

Both studios have been able to trade on history and soul, and to thrive even when many Music Row rooms have fallen victim to rough country music times. On a recent visit, Quad was humming with bands in various studios, and House of David’s 2008 has included sessions with Freedy Johnston and Sixpence None the Richer.

“It seems like people who have known about this place are starting to matrix with new people who are falling in love with it,” McLaurin says. “I’m seeing a lot of new faces.”

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