Pictured is Jonathan Pekar, Director of Ardent Studios’ Film Department, holding his Emmy award for Best Commercial Spot.
Ardent Studios is proud to announce that their mild-mannered Director of the Film Department Jonathan Pekar has won the 27th MidSouth Emmy award for Best Commercial Spot for creating the animated Memphis Music Foundation commercial.
Pekar commented, “I’m stoked to be a part of the entertainment scene in Memphis. The intense level of creativity that goes on here is inspiring.” This project also showcases the talents of painter Lamar Sorrento and Singer/Songwriter Keia Johnson.
Pekar is presently developing a new television series called Kids of Memphis. It is set to air in November 2013.
Reminder to all our UK friends: BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME will have its World Premiere on October 20th & 21st at the BFI London Film Festival! Tickets are on sale now. Filmmakers Drew DeNicola, Danielle McCarthy, Olivia Mori and the legendary John Fry will all be in attendance. Hope to see some of you there! And there’s more festival news to come soon so stay tuned!
We are sad to report the loss of another pivotal Big Star figure: Ice Water drummer and Ardent Records promoter Steve Rhea.
From Studio Manager Jody Stephens:
Our very good friend, Steve Rhea, passed away today. He was an integral part of Ardent’s history. Steve was introduced to John Fry and Ardent Studios in the late 60s and by the early 70s he had become a part of the creative evolution of what was to become Big Star. He played with Chris Bell in The Jinx and then Ice Water, a late night studio project which involved Andy Hummel. Steve had been playing drums on the projects with Chris and Andy and his return to college in Texas left an opening for a drummer Jody Stephens. Upon graduation, Steve returned to Memphis and Ardent, this time enlisted by John Fry to promote Ardent Records’ releases. His projects included Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. We will miss him.
Steve Rhea, a key figure in the history of legendary Memphis rock group Big Star has died.
Rhea, a drummer in Big Star precursor bands the Jynx, Rock City and Icewater, as well as an Ardent Records staffer, died on Wednesday morning at his home. The 62-year-old Rhea, who became a successful banker and financial planner, had been diagnosed with cancer last year.
“Steve’s playing just struck me pretty powerfully,” said Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, who took over for Rhea behind the kit in 1971.
“From my perspective, he was such an integral part of Big Star’s evolution,” said Stephens. “And yet, he was somebody fun and very laid back, always great to work with.”
Rhea’s death is another blow for fans of Big Star, which has lost band members Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel, group producer Jim Dickinson, and various other associates, including photographer/logo designer Carole Manning and songwriter Tommy Hoehn, over the past three years. The period has also seen a renewed international interest in the group’s history, thanks to a Grammy winning box set Keep An Eye on the Sky, and documentary film, “Nothing Can Hurt Me.”
A pivotal player in the early Ardent studio scene of the late 1960′s and early 1970s, Rhea was a gifted musician and occasional songwriter. He joined future Big Star founder Chris Bell in the high school garage band the Jynx, before following — along with bassist Hummel — in subsequent outfits like Rock City and Icewater.
Rhea’s greatest contribution was as the writer and singer on the Icewater song “All I See Is You.” The song came out on the 2008 collection Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story and 2009 Big Star anthology Keep An Eye on the Sky.
Rhea left the Ardent fold in order to attend college at Southern Methodist University in Texas in 1970. His departure opened up a spot for drummer Stephens who joined the soon to be rechristened Big Star. Rhea would return to Ardent to work as a promotions man in 1972, helping on the campaigns for Big Star’s first two, ill-fated, LPs.
After his involvement in the music business, Rhea went onto a successful career in finance in the Mid-South where he served as a vice president at Leader Federal Bank, Union Planters Bank of Memphis, and the Union Planters Corporation.
He eventually left to work with his father, S. Herbert Rhea, as a consultant at Rhea Financial Corporation. Most recently, Rhea had been the principal at Summit Asset Management.
Rhea is survived by his wife Leigh, and daughters Emily Rhea and Elizabeth Rhea Cook.
In the photo above: Steve Rhea and Chris Bell at the National Street location of Ardent Studios.
A private graveside service will be held on Friday morning May 18th. Visitation will be at Second Presbyterian Church at 12:30 pm on the same day followed by a memorial service in the Sanctuary at 2 p.m. Memorials may be sent to the Second Presbyterian Church Foundation, 4055 Poplar Memphis 38111, to WKNO, 7151 Cherry Farms Road Cordova 38016 or to the Church Health Center, 1210 Peabody Avenue, Memphis 38104. Memorial Park Funeral Home, “Behind the stone wall”, 901-767-8930. Condolences may be offered at www.MemorialParkOnline.com
With everyone from the Ardent camp back home and the dust settling, let’s take a look back at all things Big Star at SXSW.
From the press:
“…with the presentation of a Big Star documentary and a symphonic concert celebrating the band’s music. Playing opposite much-anticipated festival sets by Bruce Springsteen, and various other big names, the Big Star event managed to pack the city’s Paramount Theatre, and generate a rare buzz amid the din and clatter of this massive industry gathering.
“…Such labyrinthine twists provide the ballast for “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.” The 93-minute documentary, by New York filmmakers Drew DeNicola, Olivia Mori, and Danielle McCarthy, was screened as a “work in-progress” version at the Paramount. Still, the film was a powerfully evocative piece, eliciting a standing ovation at its conclusion.”
“Ambitious in scope, Nothing Can Hurt Me digs into deeper contexts than the average music doc, encompassing Chilton’s pre-Big Star musical pedigree as the face and voice of the Box Tops; the mentoring influence of engineer-producers John Fry and Jim Dickinson; the clubhouse atmosphere at Fry’s Ardent Studios; the band’s connection to photographer William Eggleston and other artists; Ardent’s historic 1973 promotional stunt, the first-and-last Annual National Association of Rock Writers Convention; the decline of Big Star’s would-be distributor, Stax Records; the post-Big Star solo careers; and a busy culture of reissues, reunions, and homages.”
“The movie is brilliant—a boon to Big Star fans, as well as an indispensible primer for anyone who ever has wondered what artists such as the dB’s, R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, the Bangles, the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, This Mortal Coil, the Posies and literally thousands of others found so inspiring.
“The second half of Big Star Tribute Night was just as fulfilling as the band’s last surviving member, drummer Jody Stephens, and long-time fans Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter led a large ensemble complete with Mellotron, horns, string section and a parade of guest vocalists through a rendition of Big Star Third/Sister Lovers in all of its soul-wrenching sloppiness and haphazard perfection.
“The procession of cameos included some big names—R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, Wilco’s Pat Sansone, M. Ward and of course Posies and latter-day Big Star members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer—but just as valuable were the contributions of many younger and lesser-known musicians who’ve passed through Stamey’s recording studio in Chapel Hill, N.C. All of them clearly loved the album and poured all they had into songs beloved by fans who never thought they’d get to hear them live: the rousing ‘O, Dana’ and the despondent ‘Holocaust,’ the frightening ‘Kangaroo’ and the furious ‘Kizza Me,’ all building up to a ‘We Are the World’ sing-along on the perfect tune to stand as the band’s epitaph, ‘Thank You Friends.’”
Memphis artist Craig Davis was in Studio C recently, cutting 11 songs over the course of 3 days for what will be the debut album for the Craig Davis Band. Jeremiah Tucker (John Kilzer, Keith Sykes, Levon Helm), who had been co-writing songs with Craig for some time, came in from Nashville to produce the recording. Their choice for an engineer in Adam Hill was a no brainer, as Jeremiah and Adam have known and respected each other for years. When the decision was made to cut this record to analog tape, their attention came to Ardent Studios. From manager Laurena Stanos:
“Craig and Jeremiah agreed that tracking full band live to analog tape was how they wanted to record the album… It needed to be comfortable and provide a room that allowed Craig and the band to make eye contact with each other.”
It was these criteria, along with the know-how and attention to detail of engineer Adam Hill that led them to Ardent.
“Jeremiah had known Adam Hill since the late 90′s and is a fan of his work as an engineer. Craig and I [sic] agreed with Jeremiah that Studio C at Ardent would be the place.”
Point your browser to Craig’s website for more info.
In the Photo, L to R: Producer Jeremiah Tucker, Jody Stephens, Laurena Stanos, Craig Davis, guitarist Chris Johnson, engineer Adam Hill.
Memphis southern rock and country act The Dirt Brothers have been in and out of the studio this year and last, working on 14 songs that will make up their LP debut, Riding Dirty. Most recently the guys have been in Studio A under the guidance of Nashville producer and engineer extraordinaire Mike Clute (Faith Hill, Diamond Rio).
Ardent’s Mike Wilson has made Clute’s and the band’s settling in as smooth as possible, making whatever they need available to them at a snap of the fingers.
But with the Dirt Brothers, it’s more a stomp of the foot than a snap of the fingers. The band stands firm on its commitment to Memphis as a hometown, and their belief in what they do has been heard echoing through the halls of Ardent throughout the time they’ve been working here. Those who would say that country is a Nashville thing, take heed – The Dirt Brothers are comin’.
Look for their 14 track LP to release in March of this year, and keep an eye out for The Dirt Brothers on the road in support of Riding Dirty.
In the picture, L to R: Producer/engineer Mike Clute, Chad Gatewood, Justin Gatewood, Mike Wilson, Andy McCullough, Traci McCullough, John Salazar, and John “John Boy” Hall.
Memphis based engineer Wes Leyshon recently brought a new project through Ardent in an effort to capture his client’s sound in the best way possible. The artist, Colin Elmore, met Wes at the wedding reception of a mutual friend, and a new working relationship was forged. This is the second project that Wes has produced for Colin. The first was a Springfield, MO based indie rock project with Elmore’s previous band, Berch (2010′s Before and After the Fall). This time around, and under a solo moniker, Colin wanted to put his songwriting in the center of the project. Looking for that “warm and slightly dirty” sound, they knew they wanted to cut to analog tape, and they knew that Ardent was the best choice for just such an undertaking.
Over the course of 4 days, and with the help of in-house engineer Mike Wilson, Elmore and his band (consisting of Emmet Franz and his family) cut seven songs and two instrumentals, mixing on the final day. This release will fittingly be billed under the name of Colin Elmore and the Franz Family band, and will be entitled This Side of the Sun. The instrumentation on these recordings reflects a recent return to acoustic roots for many artists – acoustic guitars, dobro, upright bass, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, etc. Some of the songs were flushed out further with Hammond organ, cello, french horn, flugle horn, trumpet, piano and accordian.
According to engineer Wes Leyshon, “[Mike] was everything I could’ve hoped for in an assistant. Loved the new board in C and the assortment of compressors Mike held for me to mis with on Thursday. The mic choice I had was a dream. The live room is amazing and we made good use of it. All of the Ardent staff seemed excited and encouraging about the whole project. I really hope to be back there in the near future.”
Be sure to check out a great video of Colin and Emmett performing an acoustic version of one of the album cuts in Ardent’s Studio C here:
In the picture, L to R: Caleb Franz(mandolin, banjo, BGVs), Savannah Franz, Audra Mohnkern (upright bass, BGVs), Colin Elmore (songwriter, acoustic guitar, piano, lead vocal), David Fiser (photographer), Mike Wilson (engineer), Olivia Jahnke (fiddle, piano, BGVs), Wes Leyshon (producer, engineer), and Adam Jahnke.
Ardent is proud to announce that we are featured on the cover of this month’s Mix Magazine! The article, which highlights our 45th Anniversary and the renovations to Studio C, can be viewed here.
From the article (written by Tom Kenny):
Wow—45 years and counting. That’s not easy to do in any industry, let alone one that is dependent on the forces of technological change and the whims of a record-buying public. But Ardent Studios, under the leadership of John Fry and a dedicated, loyal team of creatives, has weathered the ups and downs, branched into new markets over the years, added and dropped studio services, and continually kept an eye on the future. To commemorate its 45th anniversary this month, Ardent has undergone a complete acoustical makeover of its flagship Studio C and dropped in an SSL Duality console.
The history of Ardent Studios has been written before—Fry in his garage in 1966, the move to National and then Madison Avenues; the association with Stax, Al Green, Sam and Dave, Big Star, ZZ Top, R.E.M., Steve Earle, Huey Lewis and a slew of local talent—so we won’t go into that here, except to note that the past does inform the future, and the commitment to technical and creative excellence has never wavered. If you talk to the people in and around Ardent, that’s attributed to Fry; if you talk to Fry, that’s attributed to the people he surrounds himself with.
“Ardent is unique because of one individual, and that’s John Fry,” says Jody Stephens, Big Star drummer and studio manager at Ardent since 1987. “He’s the captain, and he fosters that spirit of innovation and creativity. Look at some of the talent that has called Ardent home—Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, John Hampton, Joe Hardy. All have helped keep the doors open because John has always emphasized that individuals come first. But then he provides the tools, too, and brings in someone like Chris Jackson, a chief engineer that we are just lucky to have. He’s amazing. But it starts with John Fry.”
Then you talk to Fry, and he humbly states how pleased he is to just have been a part of “all things Memphis, to have so many good friends and clients be a part of our lives for these 45 years. From around the world and from right down the street.”
There are any number of reasons why some large commercial studios survive and others do not. For Ardent, besides the obvious assemblage of Talent and Tools, the team has always been about the music and offering services that can launch or boost a career.
“We’ve always been involved in artist development,” Fry says. “We’ve always had a production company, a record label or both. We’ve always had publishing interests. So we’ve always been more than a fee-for-service studio, and I think those aspects of our business cause talent to gravitate to the facility. Jody Stephens has spent a lot of time developing relationships in the A&R and label world, music supervisors, too—people who can help with exposure for local artists and music coming out of the area.”
Those local artists have included Big Star, most notably, but in later years John Kilzer, Tora Tora, 36 Mafia (an Oscar!), Skillet, Star & Micey and many others. It extends to the visual arts, where after a few years’ hiatus, a film department has reopened, headed by returning Memphian Jonathan Pekar, son of Ron Pekar, who designed the neon star for the first Big Star album cover.
KEEPING IT FRESH
Still, Fry, Stephens and Jackson realized that to stay a player in today’s changing production market they had to stay current with technology. A couple of years ago, they started thinking about the aging Neve V Series in Studio C. Fine for tracking, couldn’t mix on it, and it was proving a maintenance headache. “Everybody liked the sound of it, but it was getting problematic,” Stephens confesses. “It was getting long in the tooth,” adds Fry. They decided to put in an SSL Duality and tear back the walls to ready the room for 5.1.
“We wanted to retain superior analog performance,” Fry says, “and we liked the design features that give it high reliability. They removed most of the electrolytic capacitors, and with digital control, they’ve removed over 1,000 switches, both of which can be a maintenance headache. The other thing is it speeds up your workflow by enabling you to control your DAW from the worksurface. It’s really efficient.”
“The interface with Pro Tools is definitely a plus,” adds Stephens. “But the selections of mic pre’s and EQs is excellent. And you can track and mix on it! Imagine that!”
Chris Jackson, chief technical engineer, supervised much of the deconstruction and reconstruction of the control room, working hand-in-hand with engineer Curry Weber. “For the past six years, I’ve been looking at Studio C and trying to figure out what to do about the low end,” Jackson says. “The measurements confirmed our issues at some very specific frequencies. So when this opportunity came up, we went back into the walls, starting with the back wall. We put in some bass traps on resonating panels, tuned to those frequencies, and then put in this dense mineral wool, up to 18 inches thick in some points. Then we added back a tiny bit of RPG diffusion right behind the mix position; it had been there before, and it works. Then we also added some traps on the side walls so that we now have a sweet stereo image that also works great for 5.1 work.”
Memphis is truly a special place. I’m often reminded by my friend Rick Clark, producer, musicologist and semi-regular contributor to Mix. It’s a sentiment echoed by Fry and Stephens. While they are quick to point out that their success is not unique to a geography, they do exhibit a fondness for their hometown and its rich musical legacy. The birthplace of rock ’n’ roll…does it get any bigger than that? Beale Street, the Peabody, the pawnshops. Stephens recalls the Battle of the Bands at the Orpheum, George Klein and his band at The Place, Goldsmiths and the rise of Stax. He walked into record at Ardent for the first time in 1969 and says he felt like an imposter.
But being part of a community is being a part of the community. And Ardent has always been conscious of being a good neighbor, whether it’s the current run of PSAs for health care, hosting a Grammy GPS event on a Road Map for the Music Business or putting on “16 Over 48,” a two-day recording marathon with 16 local bands in three-hour studio slots (produced by Mike Wilson). “This is a tight community,” Stephens says. “It’s a real, living music community, and we’re real happy to be a part of that.”
They are sure doing something right down there on Madison Avenue in Memphis, and they show no signs of slowing down. “In many ways we’ve come full circle,” Fry says. “In the mid-’60s, when we started, independent labels and independent artists were so important. Then it became a business. But we’ve seen a decline in the dominance of the majors and a new ascendancy in the role of the independent.
“Not everybody needs a studio environment for everything they do, but some want to do ensemble playing and need the services of a studio. Others are missing the sense of community and the kind of assistance they get from a staff and the interaction they get with other musicians by being in a studio environment. We’ve been having fun here for 45 years, so we’re going to keep on with it!”