Randy (left) and Perry at the original board.
Rewind: Counterpart Creative Studios
By Randy McNutt
Prompted by readers of my book Too Hot to Handle: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Recording Studios of the 20th Century (HHP Books), I am starting this blog to celebrate vintage studios. The book is the only one on the market that concentrates on America’s smaller, out-of-way studios that forged local and national sounds. Everyone has heard of the Hit Factory in New York, but what about the obscure Kin-Tel Recording Studios of Atlanta? Its slogan: “You and Kin-Tel Can Make Beautiful Music Together.” And in 1968 Joe South made it with “Games People Play.” South earned a Grammy for his work, and one more regional studio became a part of music history. Over the years, I was fortunate to record in a number of the smaller studios as an independent producer, and I heard tales from studio musicians, songwriters, and engineers. They prompted me to write Too Hot, which also features entries on many of the larger and historic studios. But the smaller ones are my real love, and it was a joy to ask studio owners to explain how they started their businesses. Smaller local studios were magnets for musicians, songwriters, producers, and performers in towns throughout the United States. They created many hits, including San Antonio’s “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers (see the book for a great anecdote) and Cleveland’s “Time Won’t Let Me” by the Outsiders.
For twenty years, a Cincinnati recording studio cut hits and provided work for dozens of studio musicians and songwriters. No, it wasn't the legendary King Recording Studio or the E.T. Herzog Recording. It is Counterpart Creative Studios, based in suburban Cheviot, Ohio, a small town that lies just west of Cincinnati in Hamilton County. Counterpart was not one of Cincinnati 's early studios. It didn’t open until 1971, but that was just in time to host some fine rock and soul bands and independent producers.
Prior to the opening of Counterpart Creative, local music people cut records primarily at Jewel Recording in neighboring Mt. Healthy and at the famous King Recording Studios in Cincinnati. King closed in 1971, the year that gave birth to indie producer Shad O’Shea’s dream.
O’Shea founded Counterpart Creative for two simple reasons: he needed a business to support him, and he was tired of driving to Louisville, Ky., to record rock bands for his Cincinnati-based Counterpart Records. The former WCPO Radio disc jockey already had hit regionally—from Lexington, Ky., to Indianapolis to Columbus, Ohio—with his Counterpart label from 1963 to 1970. He also operated a BMI song-publishing firm with the name Counterpart Music. He worked with garage bands such as the Mark V, the New Lime, and the US Too Group. A lot of people in Cincinnati assumed that Counterpart Records was a national label because it placed so many hits in area cities’ top-10 lists during the golden age of the garage band.
By the late 1960s, O’Shea was one of Ohio’s busiest independent producers. He recorded his own novelty songs as well as artists from the major musical genres. Many of his productions ended up being released on Counterpart first, and later on hot independents or the major labels.
“In those days,” O’Shea explained, “you could find a rock band and cut a record for $500 and put out a single that would get a lot of play from radio stations in your region. There were a lot of regional hits in the days before radio stopped playing small labels. This is how Counterpart Studios was born. It all happened after I did so many records in the 1960s.”
In the early 1970s, Counterpart Creative welcomed performers who would later go on to success on larger label and publishers. O’Shea produced the commercial country single "Harlan” (initially released on Counterpart Records) by Bobby Borchers, who later relocated to Nashville and wrote hits by Johnny Paycheck and others. The session featured Cincinnati’s top studio players. O’Shea also cut a big-sound ballad, “A Song For Peace,” by Mike Reid, a singer-pianist and NFL player who had just quit the Cincinnati Bengals for a career in music. His original ballad, with strings and horns, was appropriate in the Vietnam War days. O’Shea sold the master to Laurie Records of New York. Although it wasn’t a big hit, it did launch Reid’s songwriting career in Nashville, where he still thrives.
Counterpart also started a production and writing career for singer Wayne Perry, a young songwriter from Hamilton, Ohio, who recorded four singles at the studio for release on Counterpart Records. Perry later became a hit songwriter in Nashville, writing for the Back Street Boys, Lorrie Morgan, Joe, and Joe Diffie. Perry's first single, "Mr. Bus Driver," was a driving soul-rocker that was leased to Avco-Embassy Records in New York. It was written by the talented Wayne Carson Thompson. When the company failed to release it, O'Shea agreed to put it out on Counterpart. Although the disc label identifies the record as being engineered by Gene Lawson of Counterpart Creative Studios, this is not totally accurate. It was recorded and mixed at Jewel Recording when Lawson was the staff engineer there. He joined O'Shea's new studio as engineer a short time later, and did oversee the remainder of Perry's sessions at Counterpart. Meanwhile, O’Shea recorded a number of his own novelty singles for his label, and after the studio opened he became one of the most prolific novelty acts in the nation. He wrote and recorded satirical and crazy songs such as "Back To Nature" by Hy Bush and the Wild Cranberries. In 1975 he purchased the rights to the name Fraternity Records, a label started by Harry Carlson in Cincinnati in 1954. With hits (all recorded at King) such as “Memphis” by Lonnie Mack and “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” by the Casinos, the Fraternity label became a leading Midwest independent through 1967. After purchasing the company, which O'Shea relocated from the Sheraton Gibson Hotel in downtown Cincinnati to Counterpart Creative in Cheviot, O’Shea started releasing most of his own records on Fraternity. The Counterpart label slowly faded into history. Although his novelties weren’t big hits, they were wacky enough to receive airplay on hundreds of stations nationally. Recorded at Counterpart Creative were “Colorado Call,” a spoof of the citizens band radio craze by Shad O’Shea and the 18-Wheelers (Fraternity and Private Stock), and “McLove Story,” a salute to McDonald’s ubiquity by Shad O’Shea and the Hamburger Helpers (Fraternity and SSS International).
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Counterpart Creative recorded single hits and albums by R&B groups Midnight Star on Solar Records, and Sun on Capitol. Midnight Star, formed in 1976 in Louisville, featured Reggie Calloway, who later became a producer and operated the old QCA Studio in Cincinnati. Star’s R&B hit “No Parking (On The Dance Floor)” came from an album that was recorded at Counterpart Creative Studios and Fifth Floor Recording in Cincinnati. In addition, R&B singers Roger and Tony Troutman, R&B singers from nearby Hamilton, Ohio, also recorded at Counterpart, as did the band Canon, with some former members of the Casinos.
As the 1980s wore on, however, competition became tougher and business slowed for O’Shea. He sold the studio’s contents in 1991, and moved his companies—Fraternity Records, song publishing firms, and Positive Feedback Communications book publishing—into an office in a Cheviot building. He continued to operate there as an independent producer, label owner, and author, writing how-to books about the music industry. In 2007, he semi-retired and sold the Fraternity name to out-of-state interests.
He also sold the remaining pieces of the studio that he had loved so much: a sign that had once hung in the lobby, and record awards that had covered the walls of his office.
“The record business as I knew it is dead,” O’Shea told me in an interview in June 2007. “Judging by today’s standards, it’s difficult to believe that the business was once such an exciting field to work in. The phone used to ring off the hook every day with disc jockeys, distributors, and studio people calling. It was a great thing to be a part of, but it has changed. The big studios aren’t needed so much anymore with all the good home recording equipment. Now it’s all computers and the Internet and so forth. But at least I lived during the heyday of the music business. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”
Next time, we'll explore another independent story from. . .who knows where? Maybe it will be from your hometown.
Name: Counterpart Creative Studios,
Name: Counterpart Creative Studios,
Address: 3744 Applegate Avenue, Cheviot, Ohio
Owner-manager: Shad O’Shea.
Location: In residential area, in remodeled 1930s house.
Studio Rooms: One.
Initial Equipment: 16-track Scully tape recorder (later upgraded to a 24-track recorder); Electrodyne console.
Engineers: Gene Lawson, Wes Owen, Dale Smith, and others.
Quirks: Inside the lobby was a long wall covered with about 125 singles that O’Shea had produced or with which he had been associated. All were on national labels, including Mercury, Era, Capitol, RCA, and Monument. As soon as a client entered the building, he saw the wall. O’Shea kept it that way until he remodeled the studio in the 1980s.
Some Notable Clients: Aerosmith, Livingston Taylor, Rob Hegel, The Zap Band, Bootsy Collins, Leonard Bernstein, Midnight Star, Sun, Mike Reid, the Ohio Players, Roger Troutman, Lamb, Bobby Borchers, and Wayne Perry.
House Band: None. But over two decades prominent Cincinnati musicians in pop, country, jazz, and rock recorded at Counterpart, including pianist Dumpy Rice, drummer Gene Lawson, and arranger Gordon Brisker.
Associated Enterprises: Under one roof were Counterpart Records, Applegate Recording Society, Bunk House Records, Counterpart Music (BMI), Hurdy Gurdy Music (ASCAP), Fraternity Records, PFC, and other music-related businesses operated by O’Shea.
Most Discused Single that Didn’t Hit: “Space Funk” by the funk group Manzel, released on Fraternity in 1977. “It could be the most-sampled record in the world,” O’Shea said.
First Take: Counterpart was only the second studio I had ever recorded in. Jewel Recording was the first. So my initial comparisons were inevitable. Jewel was terrific for a deep sound, the kind you'd want on an old R&B record or for Southern gospel. It helped "Mr. Bus Driver" become a real driving track. I was surprised to hear a brighter sound at Counterpart, which made the studio good for pop and rock, especially when acoustic guitars were used. Counterpart had a clear sound--very crisp. I enjoyed recording several singles there, and hearing many productions by Shad and other producers right there in the control room.
Where, Oh Where, Has the Scully Gone?: O'Shea's first recorder, a 16-track Scully, was installed in late 1970 or early 1971. He used it for a few years, until he purchased a 24-tracker. I'm not certain where the first Scully went next, but I do know that it landed in the basement studio of rockabilly and country singer Bill Watkins in suburban Cincinnati about 1977. Bill bought it from somebody who lived in the area. At his Tip-Toe Recording Studios, Bill worked the old Scully hard for five to eight years, and then slowed down his pace of recording. By the time I was reunited with the Scully, the year was 1989. I soon learned that the machine was the same one on which I had cut four Wayne Perry rock singles and a country one by Ron Sweet at Counterpart Studios in the 1970s. Bill and I got busy recording rockabilly singles and albums at his studio after I wrote about him in my book We Wanna Boogie: An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement ($25; Amazon.com). We cut Bill's singles "Red Cadillac" and "Cowboy" at Tip-Toe, and then albums for the Rockhouse and Gee-Dee labels in Europe. Sadly, the Scully started breaking down not long after that time, and Bill couldn't find anybody to repair it anymore. He finally sold it to a guy in rural New York about 2004. Bill loaded the heavy machine on his pickup truck and drove it up there. Bill now uses a small digital recorder, and longs for the days of the Scully and its wonderful depth of sound.
Randy McNutt is an independent record producer, award-winning reporter, and the author of Too Hot to Handle. It may be purchased through Amazon.com for $25. His Home of the Hits blog will feature stories of historic American recording studios, engineers, producers, songwriters, labels, and more. For a list of all his books, view his Web site at http://www.randymcnutt.com/.