John Fry is one of the patron saints of Memphis music, a producer and engineer who established Ardent Recording Studios, where artists have been allowed to experiment and develop for nearly five decades. From the late 1950s (when he was in high school) until his death in 2015, he was devoted to music technology, establishing not only the studio but also the Ardent Records label.

Radio was John’s original interest, because in the 1950s, that’s where music and technology met. But as a tenth grader, he knew that programming or owning a radio station was unlikely. Using the technical know-how he gained poring over catalogs and magazines, he fashioned a recording studio in his parent’s garage (where his grandmother had had a sewing room) and there formed the first incarnation of Ardent Records in partnership with two classmates - John King, who would work with Ardent for many years to come, and Fred Smith, whose interest in aviation trumped his interest in music (he went on to found FedEx). Shortly after high school, John did build and program a radio station, KCAT in Pine Bluff, Ark., but by then, his entrepreneurial soul was Ardent.

“10th Graders Have Own Company,”
Press-Scimitar newspaper article, January 1960 Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

The Original Ardent Recordings on National Street Courtesy of Ardent Studios Archives
ZZ Top
Sharp Dressed Man
ZZ Top
Chris Bell
You and Your Sister
Chris Bell

When the Beatles made guitars and rock’n’roll quartets popular, Ardent’s business boomed. John rented a storefront on National Street in 1965, opening a state-of-the-art recording studio the following year and reviving the record label. “In 1966, if you had four-track equipment, you had as many tracks as anybody, and more than most,” John said. “We wound up mixing a lot of stuff that other people would record because we could apply some technological efforts to the task that seemed to enhance it a little bit.” John was ever modest; Jim Dickinson spoke for many when he said he had John Fry to thank for the enduring sound of his work, specifically John’s mix of Jim’s 1972 classic “Dixie Fried”.

Ardent’s expertise quickly drew overflow work from Stax, the city’s largest recording enterprise. Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers were among the many artists who came there. (John first encountered Stax through their record store, where he’d get the harder-to-find R&B songs that were his favorites.) Ardent’s name on Stax’s albums helped John’s enterprise establish a national reputation.

Ardent had also developed relationships with Memphis producers, including Jim Dickinson and Don Nix. These two brought artists like Ry Cooder and Leon Russell to Ardent, and John Fry soon realized he needed more space. In November of 1971, he built Ardent’s home on Madison Ave., where it has resided since.

In addition to his commitment to current technology, John also created success through personal relationships. He fostered an atmosphere where producers and artists could grow. Through the late 1960s, he taught a Saturday morning class in engineering, sharing his knowledge to enhance the results that rang from the studio. In addition to Dickinson and Nix, he created homes for producers John Hampton, Joe Hardy, Terry Manning, Richard Rosebrough, Jim Gaines, Paul Ebersold, Jeff Powell, Skidd Mills, Jason Latshaw, Matt Martone, Pete Matthews and many others.

Fry in Studio A, Ardent Studios on Madison Ave. Courtesy of Ardent Studios Archives

His commitment to artists extended back to the early 1960s, but is perhaps most famously associated with Big Star, the Memphis pop group who recorded three albums there during the first half of the 1970s. The band members were given keys to the facilities on National and Madison, able to experiment after hours, honing their sound to create a catalog that continues to inspire artists today. All three Big Star albums, recorded and mixed under John’s auspices, were in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

John’s relationship with the members of Big Star continued after the band’s demise. Drummer Jody Stephens has been the longtime studio manager at Ardent. Chris Bell continued to record there prior to his untimely death in 1978. Alex Chilton, who’d begun working there while still in the Box Tops, continued to record many of his solo albums at Ardent. After Alex produced the Cramps at Ardent, many other alternative rock bands sought the place, including R.E.M., the Replacements, the Georgia Satellites, the Afghan Whigs and numerous others. That legacy has kept a broad range of artists coming to the studio today, including Cat Power, Three Six Mafia, the North Mississippi Allstars, the White Stripes and the Raconteurs. Classic artists continue to come too – Bob Dylan, ZZ Top and Jimmie Vaughan among them.

The Big Star Sound

Courtesy of Ardent Studios Archives

John’s Christian faith was stirred by his friendship with Chris Bell, and it was Bell’s memory, in part, that spurred John’s increased commitment to Christ. When Memphians Eddie DeGarmo and John Key began developing Christian rock, John gave them a home. Soon after, he established a Christian rock division of Ardent Records.

John’s interest in the studio diminished when the ability to record numerous tracks expanded the tedium of recording (16 tracks was his favorite, he reflected). But his interest in technology never waned, and he maintained the mid-south’s premier facility for decades, expanding into video production. He also gave his time to numerous community efforts that promote Memphis Music and its principles.

In its time, Ardent has had a hand in more than 70 gold and platinum albums, and not a single one of them would ever have happened without John Fry. His unassuming manner cloaked an adventurous spirit, a brilliant mind, and a generous heart — the sort of man that changed history.

Recording at Ardent

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