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A Light Goes Out In Memphis: Remembering John Fry

John Fry, founder of Ardent Studios, died in December after nurturing some of the best music to ever come out of Memphis.
Facebook / Ardent Studios
John Fry, founder of Ardent Studios, died in December after nurturing some of the best music to ever come out of Memphis.

It's been a tough time for the music community of Memphis. For the past 50 years, much of the best music recorded or produced there wouldn't have happened without the vision of John Fry, the founder of Ardent Studios. He passed away on Dec. 18 at the age of 69. Music supervisor and producer Rick Clark offers this appreciation.

John Fry started recording in 1959 out of his family's garage. By the time he formally opened Ardent Studios in 1966, he had dabbled in radio and also released a handful of 45s. One of those early platters featured the horn-driven frat-party rock of The Ole' Miss Downbeats.

During the mid-'60s, Memphis was in its heyday of hit recordings, many of them released on the local Stax record label. Ardent soon became a companion studio for Stax, home to artists such as Sam & Dave, Albert King, Booker T. & the MG's and Isaac Hayes. The Staple Singers classic "Respect Yourself" was mixed down at Ardent.

That first blush of success would soon lead to years of work with artists like Leon Russell, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, R.E.M. and The White Stripes. The studio even had its own label for a while: Ardent Records signed a stable of artists including Big Star, the band closest to Fry's heart.

Fry produced the first two Big Star albums. While they weren't big commercial successes, the bright and punchy sound of those albums served as a kind of audio business card. Artists and musicians began to make pilgrimages to his studio to record.

And for Big Star, John Fry was first and foremost a mentor. Jody Stephens, the group's drummer, said Fry was "a person who could help you make your dreams come true." The boys in Big Star were just teenagers, but Fry showed them how to work the tools of the trade and literally gave them the keys to the studio.

There's a lot of truth to the idea that art lives on long after the artist is gone. In the case of John Fry, the art of mentoring — spotting someone's gifts and passions and offering them the tools and wisdom to flourish — was probably his most enduring work. So many musicians, artists, engineers and producers learned the ropes of making great recordings, thanks to John Fry — me included.

And now, it's hard to imagine Fry gone, especially since his spirit inhabits every inch of Ardent. But the studio is in good hands with those Fry mentored. It will continue to thrive as one of the world's finest studios, tapping into the mojo of Memphis. Fry wouldn't want it any other way.

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Rick Clark

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