John Fry, the producer and engineer who founded Memphis’ famed Ardent Studios and the Ardent Records label, has died at the age of 69.
It was Fry who once said that, “Your moods are affected by your surroundings. I think there is something that operates in Memphis…and at Ardent. I can’t explain what it is. You come record here, something good happens to you.”
That indeed happened for scores of artists over the 40-plus years since Fry — who died on Thursday in Memphis — opened his doors. Ardent hosted sessions by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, ZZ Top, R.E.M., Stevie Ray Vaughan, Al Green, the Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, the White Stripes, the Replacements, Three 6 Mafia, scores of Stax Records artists, Cat Power, M.I.A. and, of course, Big Star, who Fry mentored and made three albums with, and whose members used Ardent “kind of like a school” according to the group’s drummer Jody Stephens, who’s now general manager of Ardent Music LLC.
Fry, who was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame on Nov. 6, had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and had gone through chemotherapy, but Stephens told Billboard that he died after suffering “a cardiac event” — and his passing was definitely a surprise.
“He was actually doing alright,” Stephens says. “He was still active. He was around the studio the week before. He was taking it easy, but we all figured that was the right steps for him to take and that he would be fine. So it was a great surprise.”
Fry was bitten by the music bug early. When he was 14 he operated a short circuit radio station out of his bedroom with pals John King, who went on to a career in radio, and Fred Smith, who later founded Federal Express, playing the burgeoning British Invasion music they had shipped to Memphis from hip record stores they corresponded with in England. Fry subsequently added microphones to the setup and began recording bands. “We started getting our hands on recording equipment, then asking ‘What can we do with this?’ ” he recalled. ” ‘Well, we can record music?’ ‘What are we going to do with the music?’ Well, we could try to sell it.” Fry actually trademarked the Ardent Music LLC name in 1959, while still a teenager, though he didn’t start operating an active business using the moniker until six years later.
Prior to that, when he was 17, Fry and a friend began programming radio station KCAT, aka “The Tiger,” in Pine Bluff, Ark., focusing on R&B and British rock. Returning to Memphis he put the Ardent enterprises in motion, starting in a garage on National Street before moving to the city’s Madison Avenue. Ardent was known for keeping up with the state of the art in recording and employing sonic pioneers such as James Luther Dickinson. Ardent operated as the B studio for Stax, handling overflow sessions for Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave, the Bar-Kays, the Staple Singers and more. Ardent also became an early home for Contemporary Christian recordings.
All told, more than 70 gold and platinum singles and albums have been recorded at Ardent.
Fry also began cultivating a “farm team” of sorts from kindred spirits who were anxious to hang out at the studio. “The cool thing about John was he was anxious to share what he knew with people,” Stephens says. “When I first met John in 1970, he was conducting audio engineering classes at Ardent because, one, he’s just a generous guy and liked being a teacher and imparting what he knows and, two, he had to be his own educational system for finding studio engineers to work at Ardent, because there were no schools for that back then. So he taught Chris Bell and Andy (Hummel) and I. He gave us keys to the studio when we were 17 and 18 and we didn’t have to watch the clock and we just kind of set our minds free and played around in the studio.”
Stephens adds that with its top-flight gear and A-list clientele, “Ardent was kind of like the Disney World of studios then. Ardent and John were such a beacon to a lot of people who had a passion for music. If you wanted to capture that, the idea was to go to Ardent. That’s where a lot of magic happened.”
Fry was president and a national trustee for the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy and also served as the national president for the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services (SPARS), chairman of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, vice-chairman of the Memphis Music Foundation and chairman of the Memphis Film Commission and chairman of the University of Memphis Music Industry Advisory Board. He also received a Distinguished Achievement in the Creative and Performing Arts Award in 2006 from the University of Memphis.
“John Fry changed a lot of people’s lives,” Stephens says. “In a way he created a Peter Pan world where nobody had to grow up. We all enjoyed what we were doing so much that it never really felt like work.”
Fry is survived by his wife, Betty. Memorial arrangements are pending.