The History of Ardent Studios is and will always be entangled with the story of John Hampton’s career in the music industry. From his early days as a tech (not everyone knows this, but Hamp’s degree is in electronics!) on straight through to gold, platinum, and GRAMMY winning productions, Hampton has always called Ardent home. He’s worked with artists as diverse as Travis Tritt, The Replacements and Gin Blossoms to ALL (ex. Black Flag), The Cramps, The White Stripes, and many more. He has brought home to Ardent as many friends, clients, and accolades as a studio could want. To read what Hamp’s got to say about his experiences here or otherwise in the music industry, check out his blog at jhamptone.com.
In his own words:
On the 7th of July, 1977 (7 / 7 / 77), John Hampton showed up for his first day of work at the studio he had had in his sights since he was 17 years old. It was a decision made an hour after he got the release of Led Zeppelin’s third album. Opening the cover and seeing “Engineered by Terry Manning, Ardent studios, Memphis Tennessee” on the inside, his mind was made up. This was where he would eventually work, he told himself as he dried his last few cars that day at the car wash. It wasn’t long after that that “ZZ Top’s first Album”, some of his musical buddies from Houston, (that little ol’ city he lived in until recently) made it’s debut. Their second record, “Rio Grande Mud” had a song on it written by a former band mate, Kenny Cordray, and oddly, that record had also been recorded at Ardent. A vague plan was taking shape. After he had ended his career washing cars, he enrolled in a local college and began working on his Electronics Engineering degree, playing drums on weekends for cash, waiting for a door to open.
About a year after he started school, his girlfriend, who just happened to be a bartender 2 doors down from Ardent, introduced him to then manager John Dando. As he took a deep breath he asked Dando if he could ever work at Ardent, as he was nearing an electronics degree and had played music since he was 14. Dando asked if he could interview with the owner John Fry and incoming manager Joe Hardy, which he did. Amazingly they hired him on the spot. Hampton began work the next day. One 7 down, 3 to go.
The next two years were spent reading operation manuals on everything he could get his hands on as he answered the door and phones after 5PM, which was his first job. That, coupled with his schooling made for a head full of transistors, tetrodes and tape machines, while throwing out the occasional drunk. And, of course, keeping the groupies away from the rock stars. Pretty exciting “job” so far.
Around 1980, the head technician had decided to move to L.A., which was also the time the owner John Fry had decided to build, from the ground up, the most state of the art studio money could buy, and with the head tech gone, Hampton got this queasy feeling that the labor of love would end up on his shoulders. After a few months of fairly intense work, studio C, the first 48 track analog recording studio, was finished. Hampton was surprised that the day the room opened, the day that if anything was going to malfunction, Fry was leaving to go to St. Maarten and take Hampton and a couple others along. A bold move on Mr. Fry’s part, but all of the equipment performed flawlessly for the 10 or so days. Fry has always had an uncanny sense about things and while Hampton suggested they put the trip off a week or so, Fry’s only response was “Come on. It’ll be fine.” That’s 7 number 2.
As the years moved toward 1985, after being a tech for 5 years, it was time to move into the engineers seat. He had played drums on several near hits, which gave him the experience of living on “the other side of the glass,” so his people prowess had developed a bit. Adding in the few engineering jobs he had picked up when a staffer called in sick or he and Joe Hardy had decided to test the limits of the equipment (rumor has it that Joe had one night plugged his bass into every piece of gear in Studio B, which is a job in itself and the resultant sound was somewhere between an elephant looking for a mate and a car crusher in slow motion).
As Hampton honed the art of engineering, he always watched the producer and slowly picked up on the job of being responsible to the record company for the end result, which meant everything from tuning (or not) the instruments to picking songs, negotiating with outside players, song arrangements, scheduling, getting W-4s signed … ad nauseam. It was a lot of work but the way Hampton loved the art, it was all painless. That AND having a great staff behind you. But waching all of this wonderful music be created and then watching it go nowhere left Hampton with a feeling of futility that MUST be turned around.
In 1991 Brian Huttenhower from A&M Records pulled him off of his then current project Tora Tora, as it wasn’t turning into the hair metal he had hoped. As a way of keeping him from hanging high and dry, Brian sent Hampton to Phoenix to hear a new band he had just signed … Gin Blossoms, a band that finally ended up getting heard around the world and showed Hampton not all records are recorded in vain. In fact, it showed that one never knows what will or will not “break the mold.” A good reminder that the songs and not the sound are what really sells records.
Since 1990, Hampton has accrued an impressive 23 Gold and Platinum records, several Grammy nominations and 3 wins, has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, and is still at Ardent plugging away at his overwhelming love of music and passing on to the next generation the things he has picked up on over the years and spouting that everyone is given a “Special Gift” by his/her creator; if you can find that gift and make it somehow what you do for a living, you will never “work” a day in your life.
That is easily 2 more sevens.