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5 Star Stories Studio Sessions: Ardent Studios and its big stars

Updated: Dec. 15, 2020 at 9:36 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - What began as a dream for three high school sophomores is now a music mainstay on Memphis’ Madison Avenue.

Since 1966, Memphis’ Ardent Studios has put out more than 70 gold and platinum hits.

“Stevie Ray, Bob Dylan worked back in C with Jeff Powell, Stevie Wonder worked back there, sweetheart of a guy,” Ardent Studios Vice President and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens.

Ardent Studios began in founder John Fry’s East Memphis garage in 1959. His grandmother’s sewing room was the control room.

“The legend of Ardent Studios began pretty early on,” explained studio president, singer and songwriter Keith Sykes.

Three Presbyterian Day School classmates ran a short circuit radio station in Fry’s room and wrote singles.

“John started Ardent when he was 14 and so it was very grassroots, with Fred Smith and John King,” said Stephens.

Smith went on to launch the global shipping company FedEx, King went into radio and Fry went all in running the label.

“People like Jack White mixed a couple of records here with Hampton, John Prine worked in Studio B with Steve Cropper. Steve Cropper did a bunch of projects here,” Stephens recalled. “ZZ Top did eight records, Hustle and Flow, very proud of that. It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp was mixed here. Craig Brewer included us in that.”

James Taylor, Led Zepplin and other big names recorded at Ardent and when Stax Records was blowing up the music scene, Fry had a plan.

“He armed his studio with the same equipment that Stax had and as a result got almost all their overflow work. Because Stax had one studio for all those artists back in the 60s,” explained Sykes.

After Stax closed in 1975, Ardent Studios made a shift under Stephens’ direction, cultivating new wave and indie rock artists in the ’80s and ’90s. They also went on to launch a Contemporary Christian Rock label.

“All this music that touched people around the world, that’s what makes it exciting,” said Stephens.

Before Fry passed away in 2014, Sykes recorded “I’m Not Strange” at Ardent and Big Star had recorded three albums at Ardent. Rolling Stone put all three albums on their Top 500 albums of all time, including the theme song for That 70s Show, “In the Street.”

Sykes says Fry’s attention to electronics makes Ardent relevant to this day.

“We have what I consider to be a world-class studio because we’ve got some of the best of the older legacy gear and the very best of the new,” said Sykes.

The dream world created more than five decades ago, is still sought out by artists the world over.

“When people think about Ardent, it’s a place that John Fry said is a place where great things can happen and do,” said Stephens.

Stephens is currently nine songs in on a third album with his band Those Pretty Wrongs. Sykes is currently producing and writing songs for the Cruisin’ Heavy band and Country Singer Conner James.

Ardent is planning a live stream from the studio called “Coming Together” to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Church Health Center before the year is out. Follow their Facebook page for the date.

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