School of Rock

A look back at four decades of Ardent Studio's influence on the national music scene.

Photos courtesy of Ardent Studios


He acted like an old man hen he was a teenager, but, in his own way, he was incredibly hip. He always wore a coat and tie like the English producers," the late Jim Dickinson told the Memphis Flyer in 2006, by way of describing John Fry, who founded Ardent Records in the late '50s, while still a teenager.

Memphis has long been a music community built on independent studios and labels and maverick forces, and after more than 40 years in business, Fry's Ardent stands tall. A radio and recording aficionado, Fry started the business, initially alongside Memphis University School classmates John King and future FedEx founder Fred Smith, out of a studio he built in a converted garage at his parents' home. From those humble and inventive beginnings, Fry fashioned a still-thriving Memphis music institution that has recorded and cultivated some of the city's most important artists (from Isaac Hayes to Big Star), drawn talent to the city both established (ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan) and subterranean (the Cramps, Cat Power), and continues to foster local talent — artists, session players, engineers, producers — on every point of the recording spectrum.


Fry dates Ardent's offical beginning to 1966, when he relocated the operation from his parents' home to a storefront space at 1457 National Street. At the National location, Ardent got its real start, recording radio jingles and acquiring extra sessions from the bustling Stax Records, for whom Fry and company recorded classic music from the Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes (including Hayes' landmark 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul). Meanwhile, Ardent began developing its own artists, including a young, British Invasion-influenced rock band who chose its name from a grocery store across the street from the National location: Big Star. In 1971, Ardent moved to what remains its current location, 2000 Madison Avenue, where Fry expanded to two studios, adding a third in 1980.


In the mid-'60s, Jim Dickinson, local recording artist with roots that stretched back to Sun, was instrumental in convincing Fry to fully develop the Ardent label and studio idea, and, along with Terry Manning, became one of the fledgling studio's principal producers, launching a working relationship with Ardent and Fry that continued until Dickinson's 2009 passing. Over the years, Dickinson did classic work at Ardent, producing alt-rock masterpieces such as Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers and the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, among countless other projects.


Despite bringing hundreds of artists through its studio doors, Ardent is most associated with Big Star, who not only recorded at the studio but released its three enduring, cult-favorite albums on the Ardent label. The band was formed after the demise of local '60s garage-rock hitmakers the Box Tops, with lead singer Alex Chilton joining a pre-existing group led by Chris Bell and including the rhythm section of drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel. Together, the quartet recorded 1972's #1 Record, Chilton and Bell swapping lead performances, and, after Bell's departure, the following Radio City as a trio. Only modestly popular in their own time, these power pop and alternative rock pioneers now stand alongside the likes of the Velvet Underground and the Ramones as one of America's most influential rock bands, directly inspiring an entire generation of left-of-center bands, such as Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M., and the Replacements, many of whom would later find their way to Ardent.


The children of Big Star began descending on Ardent in the late '80s. Minneapolis' Replacements recorded their critically acclaimed Pleased to Meet Me at the studio in 1986 and 1987, with Dickinson producing. The band's lead singer, Paul Westerberg, paid tribute to the Ardent sound with his song "Alex Chilton," and Chilton himself guested on guitar on the single "Can't Hardly Wait." (This battered demo tape dates from the Pleased to Meet Me sessions.) Georgia-based alt-rock stars R.E.M. followed in 1988, recording their major-label debut, Green, at the studio.


With Memphis music once again ascending, Ardent's state-of-the-art facilities became a natural home to produce the soundtracks for Craig Brewer's films Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan, utilizing Memphis-bred talent such as rapper Al Kapone and blues harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite. (Both pictured with Brewer at respective sessions.)


Ardent continues to be a draw for some of the recording industry's hottest talents. Jack White (pictured above with Ardent's John Hampton and Jody Stephens) has used the studio to mix albums for his bands the White Stripes and Raconteurs. And indie chanteuse Cat Power (below) assembled an all-star Memphis band at the studio for her highly regarded album The Greatest.   

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