The Sounds Of Memphis: Ardent Pop

Rock historian Ed Ward considers pop music produced at Ardent Studios in Memphis in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Much of the music wasn't heard any farther than the city limits.

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

With all the great soul music coming out of Memphis in the late '60s and early '70s, it's easy to overlook the fact the city was also a hotbed of pop music. Very little of it escaped the city limits, and some of the best wasn't even released at the time. Most of it came from Ardent Studios, and today, rock historian Ed Ward tells its story.

(Soundbite of music)

LAWSON & FOUR MORE: (Singing) Everything is greeting, Lately I can be tense, Who's got tan and grey hair, It's too much to stay here.

Growin' on my head Make you feelin' half dead, Everything is greeting, Now I know it's beating(ph)...

ED WARD: In 1966, John Fry and John King, a couple of young men who were fascinated with the Beatles and The Who, not only their music but the way it sounded, bought some audio recording equipment and opened a studio at 1457 National Street in Memphis. They named it for the way they felt about this music: ardent.

They'd only been open a couple of weeks when a band called Lawson & Four More came in wanting to record. After hearing the results, they decided to start Ardent Records so they could put it out.

(Soundbite of music)

LAWSON & FOUR MORE: (Singing) Oh, rich man, Can't give you diamonds, Oh, rich man, Can't give you gold.

You can live your life, Like a princess, In comfort, As you grow old.

But if you want it, You can't find it,

WARD: Lawson & Four More had two important members: a maniac named James Luther Dickinson, who played loads of instruments, wrote songs, and had definite ideas about how to produce a record; and Terry Manning, who went to work for Ardent in 1968 when Dickinson proved too wild for steady employment. Manning would stay late to layer tracks for his own solo stuff, which didn't sound anything like anyone had ever recorded in Memphis before.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TERRY MANNING: (Singing) Pick a turn, Play the turn, Wouldn't you trade it for a dime?

A wooden soldier, Walks a mile, But writes his circle, All the while.

WARD: Ardent was making good money recording jingles and advertisements and also picking up work from Stax, the soul label across town, whose sucess was overburdening their own studio facilities. And Fry and Manning eventually realized that they were working too hard. Bands were coming out of the weirdest places to record stuff at Ardent, among them a bunch of teenagers who called themselves Christmas Future.

Two of them, Chris Bell and Steve Ray, learned to run the studio from John Fry, who realized they were responsible and reliable and allowed them to work at Ardent at night. When Terry Manning heard what they were doing, he started working with them - with amazing results.

(Soundbite of song "Feeling High")

ICE WATER: (Singing) Well, there are things, Floating past in the sky, People look, You mistook, Love goes by.

It's a dream, Different from reality, A cigarette tray's been thrown, Silver sits eating bread, It's got you with its head removed Sits on lightly covered ground...

WARD: This track, "Feeling High," was credited to Ice Water, one of several names the studio project took, and it was on a reel of tape Manning took to New York to play for someone at Electra Records, who rejected it because it sounded too much like the Beatles. As they say now, that's not a bug. It's a feature. But at least Electra had something of a point there.

Another tape went to Atlantic Records in 1969, and its rejection is absolutely incomprehensible.

(Soundbite of music)

ICE WATER: (Singing) Well, I'm free again, To do what I want again. Free again to sing my songs again. Free again, To end my longing, To be out on my own again.

Well I had me a girl, But she couldn't understand. Being my way, Remind me to be a man.

Left her today, Took my life in my hands, Well I'm free again.

Well I'm free again...

WARD: Alex Chilton had been the teenage star vocalist of the Box Tops. He'd had a huge hit with "The Letter," and then got messed up in legal matters. With those out of the way, Chilton approached Ardent about recording and found his old high school friend, Chris Bell, working there. Chilton's new songs were incredible, and eventually, Bell got a drummer, Jody Stevens, and a guitarist, Andy Hummel, from another band in the Ardent orbit, Rock City, and a new band was born.

(Soundbite of music)

BIG STAR: (Singing) Don't even talk about a doctor, Don't even talk about a shrink. Don't need to hide behind no doctor, I don't need to think

Cause when my feelings beside me, I don't worry. With my feelings beside me, All I know, With my feelings beside me, I don't worry. With my feelings beside me, All I know...

WARD: They called themselves after a local grocery chain, Big Star, and with Stax now handling Ardent's distribution, everyone had reason to feel that great things lay ahead. And they did. Out of nowhere, an Oklahoma band called Cargo appeared and recorded a song that very nearly became a national hit.

(Soundbite of music)

CARGO: (Singing) Feelin the clouds will pass by here, Feelin the smile in my eyes Why do you frown at me Is it because I feel all right Feel all right.

Rushing my face from place to place, Feelin the world go by Why do you frown at me Is it because I Feel all right, feel all right...

WARD: Right at that moment, however, Stax began to have financial problems, and Al Bell, the executive who championed Ardent, left. Big Star hadn't sold nearly as well as everyone had hoped, and Chris Bell absconded for England, where he was sure he'd be recognized as a genius.

Another genius, Jim Dickinson, who'd been recording with Aretha Franklin, among others, showed up to put together a second Big Star album, "Radio City," which did no better than the first. Ardent Records was over.

Ardent Studios, however, wasn't, and continues to this day. Over the years, they've put out occasional power pop singles, and Alex Chilton, Big Star, and Chris Bell, who died in an automobile accident in 1978, have all become icons for a new generation of pop performers.

DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in Southern France. You can download podcasts of our show at our Web site, freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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