RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It has been a tough time for the music community of Memphis.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF EL GOODO")
BIG STAR: (Singing) Years ago my heart was set to live. Oh.
MARTIN: Big Star, Robert Cray, ZZ Top, the White Stripes - much of the last 50 years of music recorded or produced in Memphis wouldn't have happened without the vision of John Fry, the founder of Ardent Studios. He passed away on December 18 at the age of 69. Music supervisor and producer Rick Clark has this appreciation.
RICK CLARK, BYLINE: John Fry started recording in 1959 out of his family's garage. And by the time he formally opened Ardent Studios in 1966 he had dabbled in radio and also released a handful of 45s on his own Ardent record label. One of those early platters featured the horn-driven frat party rock of the Ole Miss Downbeats.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GERALDINE")
OLE MISS DOWNBEATS: (Singing) Geraldine, you know that I have gone.
Yes, goodbye, baby. Please don't follow the car.
CLARK: During the mid-60s, Memphis was in its heyday of hit recordings. Many of them were released on the local Stax record label. Stax eventually enlisted Ardent to handle their production overflow and soon sent artists like Sam & Dave, Albert King, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, and Isaac Hayes to work there. In fact, the Staple Sisters classic "Respect Yourself" was mixed at Ardent.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT YOURSELF")
STAPLE SISTERS: (Singing) If you don't respect yourself, ain't nobody going to give a good cahoot, na na na na. Respect yourself. Na na na na.
CLARK: That first flush of success would be the beginning of an uninterrupted line of artists coming through Ardent's doors, including Leon Russell, Led Zeppelin, R.E.M., Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gin Blossoms, and the White Stripes. Through a partnership with Stax in 1972, a relaunched Ardent record label signed a small stable of artists including Big Star, the band that would be closest to John Fry's heart.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER GURLS")
BIG STAR: (Singing) September girls do so much. I was your Butch and you were touched.
CLARK: Fry produced those first two Big Star albums. While only a handful of them sold, the bright punchy sound of those records and the great music in the grooves served as a kind of audio business card.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEPTEMBER GURLS")
BIG STAR: (Singing) December boys got it bad. December boys got it bad.
CLARK: It attracted even more artists and musicians to come there. And for Big Star, John Fry was first and foremost a mentor. Jody Stephens, the group's drummer, said that John was a person who could help you make your dreams come true. Fry showed them how to work the tools of the trade and he literally gave them the keys to the studio to refine their vision.
There's a lot of truth to the statement that art lives on long after the artist is gone. And in the case of John Fry, the art of mentoring, spotting someone's gifts and passions and offering the tools and wisdom for that person to flourish, was possibly his most enduring work.
So many musicians, artists, engineers, and producers learned the ropes of making great recordings thanks to John Fry, me included. And now it's hard to imagine Fry's gone, especially since his spirit inhabits every conceivable inch of Ardent.
But the Studio is in good hands with those Fry mentored. It will continue to thrive as one of the world's finest studios, tapping into that mojo of Memphis. Fry wouldn't want it any other way.
MARTIN: Music producer Rick Clark remembering Ardent Studios founder John Fry who died last month. This is NPR News.
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