Vintage Recording Studios
Come Alive in
Still Too Hot to Handle
Sign at the historic Gennett Recording Studio
site, Richmond, Ind.
site, Richmond, Ind.
Owner Rusty York at console of early Jewel
Recording, Mt. Healthy, Ohio, near
Cincinnati, circa 1961.
Cincinnati, circa 1961.
Still Too Hot to Handle
More Historic Recording Studios of the 20th Century
This book is dedicated to my friend
and recording partner,
and recording partner,
A Note from the Author
We took the kids [Thomas Wayne and the DeLons] over to the old Royal Theater studio and recorded with two instruments—me on guitar and Bill Black on bass. We cut it in mono. The owners had recently installed a one-track Ampex tape recorder, which the engineer had to kick to start that day. The studio didn’t even have an echo chamber.
Scotty Moore on the recording of
“Tragedy” in Memphis, 1957.
We had only a monaural Concertone. It was trickery that pulled it off--pure recording trickery!
Frank Guida on the recording of
“Quarter Till Three” in Norfolk, 1963.
I owe a large debt to the people who have helped me with this book. They include Fred Masotti of Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada, for tracking down old documents, lists of studios, and the titles of songs. Fred is a tireless researcher and a good friend.
Another friend, videographer Barry Conrad of Glendale, California, helped me when I conducted research in Los Angeles. He became my driver when the traffic looked impossible to overcome. Barry’s patience helped make this a better book. (Once, while driving down a busy boulevard, I yelled, “Hey, stop! It’s the old ABC Records studio!” Barry wheeled across a couple of lanes, found a place to park, and allowed me to take my time and shoot photographs of the closed recording icon.)
Another friend who helped with his expertise was Gene Lawson (creator of the Lawson Microphone) of Nashville, the late producer Shad O’Shea of Cincinnati, and studio owner-musician Rusty York of Mt. Healthy, Ohio.
More friends and other people helped. They are too numerous to mention, but their kindness and generosity do not go unnoticed. I appreciate all that they have done to help with this research.
The Ghosts of Recording
When I first wrote and published my book Too Hot to Handle: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Recording Studios of the 20th Century in 2001, I had no idea that it would turn into a minor cult project that’s still in print. (See Amazon.com.) I’m still hearing from assorted gearheads, record collectors, engineers, studio owners, historians, and all manner of people who are interested in recording as well as in America’s classic hits.
The first question people ask is how long I worked on the book, assuming a year or two at the most. I explain that I had been saving related printed matter, information, and photographs for years, until one day I finally decided to put everything together into a book. (Well, almost everything.) The project required ten years of work, although I didn’t write full time for an entire decade. My work came in big spurts, and in the process Too Hot became a true labor of lust. How else can I describe it? I salivated over the idea of rediscovering old studios, meeting their former engineers, and uncovering little pieces of the recording past. Anecdotes became priceless nuggets to me. I began to see recording with a historian’s eye. The ghosts of recording past beckoned me to chronicle them and keep their memories alive. Soon my manuscript evolved into an appreciation for historic recording studios, their hits, vintage gear, house bands, affiliated publishing companies, and anything relevant about America’s houses of hits. In short, I celebrated the old sounds and the studios that made them.
The subject intrigued me for years and continues to take up my time. There is something fascinating about older recording studios. This is especially true in this era of high-tech recording and computers. So many advancements have been made that at times the old two-track recorders of the 1950s seem relics from a dark age. But don’t underestimate their effectiveness. They worked—well. Probably the younger readers won’t share my enthusiasm, for they didn’t live in a time when studios were special. I looked on them as magical places that created the music of my times. Back in the 1960s, in the days of flower power, miniskirts, and hippies, I used to wonder: What happens behind closed studio doors? How do the hits originate? What stories do the engineers tell? Surely, I once thought, these studios must be coated with stardust or some other magical ingredients that enable mere buildings to capture the fleeting sounds of such indigenous and pleasing music. How else, I asked, could so many popular sounds emerge on vinyl? Then I started traveling to these funky studios. I had high expectations. To my surprise, the studios were usually nondescript and unassuming. In fact, unassuming is an understatement. Studios ranged from ramshackle locations in New Orleans, Sheffield, Alabama, Memphis, and other out-of-the-way music places, to sterile locations tucked tightly into concrete corners in New York. But I didn’t care if the owners had to stuff Tampons into the ceiling to stop the rain from leaking inside (this actually happened at the first Muscle Shoals Sound Studios). I didn’t mind if the rooms were hotter than a Mississippi griddle. They were all special studios that created the hits—clear, clean, smooth sounds that have lasted for decades. The proof is in the product.
In those times, recording technology hadn’t developed to the point that studios—good studios—could be found in basements on about any block in the country, and, for that matter, in any conceivable place. If you wanted a professional sound (or close to it) from roughly 1930 to 1980, you usually had to pay good money to rent a studio and hire an engineer to do the sound work. When I booked my first session at Jewel Recording Studios in suburban Cincinnati in 1969, I was amazed at what I believed to be the high cost—from $55 to $75 an hour! Now, $75 an hour was a lot of money to me back then. But somehow I pulled it together and cut my record (“Mr. Bus Driver” by Wayne Perry) on a $500 budget. I stepped into the magical room and fulfilled a dream. I was an independent producer. (See Amazon.com or CD Baby for my album Souled Out: Queen City Soulers of the 1970s.)
Over several years, I wrote Too Hot to Handle simultaneously with Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock ’n’ Roll. It was a logical extension, for the second book took me across the country to search for the nation’s early music centers, including Memphis, Cincinnati, Norfolk, New Orleans, and other cities. Naturally, I focused on the regional studios as well as the larger ones in the major music centers—studios such as Gold Star in Los Angeles, Universal in Chicago, and Bell Sound in New York. Regardless of its sales potential, a book about recording history was something I felt compelled to write.
Over the years, I continued to travel to older studios and former sites, seeking out vintage gear to photograph, collecting photographs and advertisements, and interviewing retired employees and owners. I couldn’t get enough of the hit-making rooms. The problem was, I couldn’t cram everything into one book. In time, I had to finally force myself to stop writing. Unfortunately, to reduce paper costs I had to eliminate about thirty photographs and quite a few smaller studios from the listings section that made up most of Too Hot. (But being a pack rat, I saved everything.)
Now comes my latest compulsion: Still Too Hot to Handle: More Historic American Recording Studios and the Hits of the 20th Century. I see it as an extension of the first book. I placed the discarded information and photographs in Still Too Hot, and then I started adding more—and more. Again, I didn’t know when to stop. I shot many of the pictures during my thirty years (on and off) in the music industry, when I traveled to New York, Nashville, Cincinnati, Memphis, and other cities to make records and interview musicians for stories. (I only wish I had taken my camera along on sessions at Allegro Sound Studios, just before the place closed, and at Woodland Sound in Nashville the next year.)
For those who are unfamiliar with studio development, here is a brief history that’s necessary to put this story into context. The recording studio began with the earliest of recordings. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, recording rooms were nothing more than offices where singers sang and musicians blew into metal acoustic recording horns. Technology changed in 1925, when electric recording—with microphones, no less—revolutionized sound and the industry. Soon, recording engineers were experimenting with sound-deadening curtains and walls. When Ampex introduced its early tape recording machines in the 1940s, the industry further changed. More independent studios—including the King Records studio in Cincinnati and Cosimo Matassa’s J & M Recording in New Orleans—started cutting hits in country and rhythm and blues. The larger cities, of course, had their established studios in which commercials and recordings were made. As advancements were made in tape machines, more studios spread across the country and more tracks—two, three, four, eight, sixteen, twenty-four—were added.
Probably the American recording studio peaked in prestige and importance in the mid-1970s, before home recording and affordable equipment overtook the business. Today, it is difficult to tell the difference between a home studio and a professional one (or, for that matter, from one recording to another. So many sounds are homogeneous. So many are electronic.) Many of the older studios have gone out of business and their studio players have gone home to wash their cars and wait for session calls that come all too infrequently. Their clients no longer need them. The industry has changed drastically. It is a major loss for music.
In this book (unlike like the first one), I concentrate primarily on preserving the visual—photographs, advertisements, rate cards, and handbills—to help commemorate our nation’s vintage studios. Like the first book, I offer studios from the golden days of tape recording—the 1950s through the 1970s. This time, however, I devote even more space to the studios on Main Street, U.S.A., instead of the more recognizable names in Los Angeles, Chicago, Nashville, and New York. Studios in the mega cities are fine, but they have been written about before. I prefer to search for lesser-known studios in the major music centers and for the smaller studios that made a contribution—no matter how small—in communities that weren’t necessarily known for recording. (I love the name of this one: Laboratory of Jax, a studio that operated in the mid-1960s at 1104 South Edgewood Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida.)
I wanted to find the ghosts of recording history. They’re all over the country, even in my musically inclined hometown—the city of Hamilton, population about 60,000 people, in southwest Ohio. In the early 1970s, I watched eagerly as broke rock and soul bands sniffed out hole-in-the-wall studios operated by guys who had little more than a few hundred dollars and a dream—to cut a hit record. I recorded in one such place, a small building on a side street, a place called Studio B, once owned by the country musician and former rockabilly Rusty “Sugaree” York. In 1974, when my producer friends and I couldn’t afford to record a soul single (“Right or Wrong” by Westbound Freeway) in Cincinnati, we settled for Hamilton’s smaller eight-track studio with nothing more than a public-address console. In a drama of total overcompensation, we ended up traveling by van to New York City to mix the tape at Allegro Sound Studios. (Ironically, we were paired with a staff engineer who hailed from Cleveland.) Our cheap record, which we cut for $150, came out on Fraternity Records in Cincinnati later the next year, and died immediately. It remained as dormant as a cicada egg for thirty years, until it inexplicably hatched on an online auction house for forty dollars. Suddenly a collector called me and said, “Hey, man, do you have any copies of that record?” Of course I do! A pack rat never throws anything away.
As you can see, the subject of America’s smaller recording sites comes to me naturally. Because I once made records in Ohio, where a number of 1960s and 1970s rock hits were born, I’m interested in learning more about the studios and music of middle America—as well as the studios of other forgotten places. For example, everyone who’s interested in old studios has heard of Cleveland Recording, where Grand Funk Railroad cut their early albums with Terry Knight in downtown Cleveland. (See Too Hot to Handle.) In those days, the city was a busy regional rock capital that had just turned national. Cleveland Recording was at the center of the action. But how many people have heard of Cleveland’s Kelmar Studios, at 1054 E. 71st Street? In rock’s heyday of 1966 (when The Outsiders were cutting “Time Won’t Let Me” and other hit singles over at Cleveland Recording), the unheralded Kelmar was operating as a “competitor” of Cleveland Recording—well, sort. Or how about a few other studios in the city then—Way-Out Studios (now there’s another great name for a Sixties studio), 1850 E. 55th Street; Szappanos, 3046 E. 123rd Street; Boddie, 12202 Union Avenue; and even WBKR Radio, at 1169 Sylvania Road.
Such obscure but interesting places convinced me to list some studios by name only if necessary, sometimes with a little background. My thinking is: better to publish the name and address of an old studio than to arbitrarily exclude it. I prefer to list them than to lose their names and addresses to time. Who knows? Perhaps the information will be useful to future researchers. Maybe you will be able to learn more about a studio in your hometown. Besides, I still get a kick out of listing a studio with an odd or catchy or emphatically regional name, such as Cavern Sound, founded in 1965 in Independence, Missouri, and Red Flame Recording Studios, founded in 1960 in that state. Other names I like but know little about include La Louisianne, founded in 1954 at 711 Stevenson Street in Lafayette, Louisiana, and still doing business in the early 1970s; Mo Do, a studio founded in 1967 (no doubt the brother of MoJo; what better name for a Sixties studio?) at 50 Orange Street in Buffalo, and owned by William Nunn; and Ultra-Sonic Recording Studios, founded in 1963 at 100 N. Franklin Street in Hempstead, New York. There is something special about the name Ultra-Sonic—something right out of 1963 and the space program of that era.
As I collected each name, I became more fascinated by the studios. What were they like? What equipment did they use? Often, I didn’t know a thing about them. So why bother with using only a name and address, you ask? Well, mainly for the sake of history and respect. We’re talking about a different world in those days. Remember that these early studios had little if any high-tech equipment. Most of the ones before 1965 operated with fewer than four tracks. Yet the recordings from those days are clear and true. It is a tribute to the professionalism of the engineers and the “low-tech” equipment of the era. (The way I see it, America sent a man to the moon in 1969, so we had to be doing something right without using high-tech equipment.)
In a few cases, I have listed studios that I mentioned in my first book. This is not for repetition’s sake. I did so judiciously, only after obtaining some pertinent additional details, such as addresses or equipment. The information will be valuable to readers who live in small cities and towns across the country.
Regardless of the importance (or unimportance) or each studio, they were often popular gathering places for musicians, songwriters, and record people who made the most of only a few tracks. I remember interviewing the songwriter-producer Dan Penn, who owned Beautiful Sounds in Memphis in the early 1970s. Dan said one of his all-time favorite recorders was a three-track Ampex on which he worked at American Sound Studios. This Memphis studio turned out dozens of national hits, including “Kentucky Rain” by Elvis Presley. When American operated with three tracks, Penn produced The Box Tops’ “The Letter” and other national hits. He believes the machine is one of the greatest tape recorders ever made, and a pleasure to use. With such fond memories from a man who has more recently recorded on the complex multi-track machines at Beautiful Sounds and other studios, the Ampex three-tracker must have been quite a recorder.
And finally, that brings us to the subject of this book—recordings of the past and the recorders on which they were made. We salute them all—one, two, three, four, eight, sixteen, twenty-four tracks. We salute the real echo chambers and the rigged-up slap-back machines of Sam Phillips and Sun Records. We salute our vintage recording heritage. Long may it live!
Randy McNutt, July 2005
PALACES of SOUND
More American Custom Recording Studios, 1920-1999ABLE TURNTABLE AND TAPE, 6912 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles. What a name. Able Turntable, which sounds more like a phonograph repair shop than a recording studio, opened in 1968 with owners Ted Gardner an Mike Dutton running it. Gardner served as chief engineer--very ably, I assume. If you have more information about Able, you might want to share it.
AIR-TONE SOUND & RECORDING CO., 2330 Market Street, Philadelphia. One of Philly's older studios, Air-Tone was founded in 1944. By 1970 it was owned by Eugene Hessel and managed by Peter Kiefer. The studio engineer was Al Witherup. By then, Air-Tone competed with Impact Sound (1965), Nine Nineteen Studio (1967), and Nise Productions (1968). The era's more celebrated Philly studios, of course, included Sigma Sound (founded in 1968 by engineer Joseph D. Tarsia) and Virtue Recording (founded in 1959 by guitarist Frank Virtue.)
ARTISIAN SOUND RECORDERS, Hollywood. Parts of DeBarge's All This Love were cut in this Los Angeles area studio in 1983 by Motown.
ARTISTS' RECORDING CO., 320 Mill Street, Cincinnati. As a typical smaller-market studio, Artist attracted Cincinnati's lower-budget country crowd as well as a large gospel contingent. It operated in an old brick church in the city of Lockland, a former canal town just of Cincinnati, off Interstate 75. The studio opened in 1951, and over the years operated quietly in a region that developed studios such as King Records Custom Recording Service and Jewel Recording in suburban Mt. Healthy. By the early 1970s, however, Arists had started gaining momemtum in local country music. President Homer L. Milam also operated a busy record-pressing shop in the back of the studio. In the late '70s, Artists' hired engineer-fiddle player Rollin Bennett Jr. from Jewel. He recorded on the studio's new 16-track Ampex recorder. Bennett, an accomplished musician, attracted a number of national clients, including Judy Lynn. He produced a Billboard-charted single for her at the studio. Bennett quit to move to Louisville, and was killed in a highway accident in 1990. Artists' closed in the early 1990s.
AUDIOFAX STUDIO, 821 19th Avenue South, Nashville. A demo and master studio that oeprated in the early- to mid- 1960s.
B&B RECORDING STUDIOS, 1515 West Century Boulevard, Los Angeles. A complete monaural recording facility--for both tape and disc--that served southwest L.A. in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
BEAVERWOOD SOUND RECORDING STUDIO, 133 Walton Ferry Road, Hendersonville, Tenn. Yet another independent studio used for demos and masters in the early 1970s. Eight tracks, Ampex.
BELT SOUND STUDIO, 979 E. Broadway, Muskegon, Mich. Another regional studio, Belt opened in 1968 and by 190 was owned by John Mihelich (studio manager), Don Hermanson (chief engineer), and John Mitchell. Belt was a division of the Port City Recording Company.
THE BOARD ROOM RECORDING STUDIO, 1616 16th Avenue South, Nashville. In 1994, the Board Room offered clients an Otari MX-80 24-track analog recorder, a Sony PCM, and a Tascam 234 four-track recorder. The studio, owned by Laron Pendergrass, brought in clients such as Sony Tree, Epic Records, MCA Records, Sugar Hill Records, and Almo Irving Music. The studio specializzed in album overdubbing and high-quality demo recording.
BOLES STUDIO, Seattle, Washington. In 1960, Joe Boles owned a professional recording studio in a basement. The Ventures went there to record the original version of "Walk--Don't Run" on am Ampex two-track recorder. Boles engineerd the session.
BOULEVARD RECORDING STUDIOS, Chicago. Used by Cobra Records artists and other firms, Boulevard was one of the Windy City's busier studios for independent rock labels in the 1960s and early 1970s.
BOUTWELL RECORDING STUDIOS, 1929 Chaba Road, Birmingham, Ala. Opened in 1961, Boutwell and studio manager-engineer Ed Boutwell offered the latest in recording equipment to the Deep South. Later, he was competing with the New London Recording Center, which opened in 1969, and United Recoding and Productions, which opened in 1968.
BRITTANIA RECORDING, Los Angeles. Hail Brittania! In 1981, Merle Haggard came here to cut his Big Sky Country album for Columbia. The studio was used for a number of rock sessions throughout the decade.
BURNS STATION SOUND, Route 1, College Burns, Tenn. In 1987, this out-of-the-way studio featured as its chief engineer the accomplished Gene Eichelberger. Howard Toole was the second engineer and G.D. Stinson was the manager. Equipment included a MCI console, Otari 24-trck recorder, an Amplex two-track, and digital reverb.
Note: More studios coming in the second installment of Still Too Hot to Handle.
Back Cover for Still Too Hot
Golden World, Detroit. Mid-1960s.
Randy McNutt at the console, Studio B,
Hamilton, Ohio, 1974. He was mixing a recording
for Fraternity Records of Cincinnati.
Columbia Studios, Nashville, early 1960s.