Ardent’s John Fry, Memphis Icon, Passes

By Kelleigh Welch, Frank Wells and David Goggin. The Memphis music community and the recording industry at large was rocked when, just six days after the passing of Ardent co-owner John Hampton, Ardent Studios and label founder John Fry suffered a cardiac arrest and died at age 69. Fry was inducted just last month into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, alongside the band Big Star, which he mentored and produced. While he was a pioneering engineer and producer and a successful businessman, the word “mentor” was the most oft descriptor of Fry. He readily shared his knowledge and experience, and generously aided countless engineers and artists in reaching their full potential.
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Memphis, TN (December 19, 2014)—The Memphis music community and the recording industry at large was rocked when, just six days after the passing of Ardent co-owner John Hampton, Ardent Studios and label founder John Fry suffered a cardiac arrest and died at age 69. Fry was inducted just last month into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, alongside the band Big Star, which he mentored and produced. While he was a pioneering engineer and producer and a successful businessman, the word “mentor” was the most oft descriptor of Fry. He readily shared his knowledge and experience, and generously aided countless engineers and artists in reaching their full potential.

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In its coverage of Fry’s passing and legacy, Memphis daily, The Commercial Appeal, quoted Jody Stephens, Big Star’s drummer and an Ardent employee for the past 28 years: “For such a long time, Ardent and John Fry have been beacons to a lot of creative people. He would open the doors to people wanting to start that adventure. It was a place and John was a person who could help you make your dreams come true. He opened the doors to us 17-18 year olds in Big Star, and taught us to engineer. That enabled us to explore on our own. He was a mentor. He was the catalyst for so much.”

That sentiment was shared by Kirk Imamura, President/Director SPARS (the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services. "John was a great pioneering entrepreneur of the recording industry, but above all, he was the ultimate model mentor who helped countless number of people get their start," commented Imamura, speaking on behalf of SPARS. An advocate for the highest standards of professionalism and service, Fry served as a SPARS member beginning in 1982 serving as SPARS president in 1995-96 and Board Chairman in 1996-97. Across his career, he also served as Chairman of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission; Chairman of the Memphis Film and Music Commission; President and National Trustee of the NARAS Memphis Chapter; and Chairman of the University of Memphis Music Industry Advisory Board. Fry was a current member of the Audio Engineering Society, which he joined in 1965.

“I first met John Fry while acting as press agent for SPARS in the ’80s and ’90s, and got to know him better when he was SPARS president,” shares industry chronologist David Goggin. “He was a down to earth, quiet man who was always a gentleman, always treating others with common decency and honesty. When Ardent Studios celebrated its 35 Anniversary in 2001, John asked me to help get the word out to the press, and afterwards to continue in that role until 2014. I visited the studio in 2006 and had the great pleasure of meeting many of the folks who shared the 40th Anniversary celebration, and I witnessed the love and respect he garnered. As a recording engineer and studio founder, John Fry’s contribution to the music emanating from Memphis to the world is unparalleled and timeless.”

Fry was known as a man who built personal relationships alongside his business relationships, with a people-first attitude as a basis for professional achievement. Reposting the links to news reports on Facebook, Zoe Thrall, Studio Director at Studio at the Palms, Las Vegas, wrote: “So sad to hear that my friend John Fry has died. What a pioneer and inspiration! We met many moons ago when he was president of SPARS and I was an upstart studio manager. Have had many great talks with him, the last over this past summer just talking about everything and nothing.”

Fry founded the Memphis, TN-based Ardent Studios in 1966. Early classics by Sam & Dave, Led Zeppelin, Isaac Hayes, Leon Russell and The Staples Singers were all recorded at Ardent. Over his 48-year career, Fry poured his passion for music into producing more than 75 gold and platinum records through the studio with artists including ZZ Top and R.E.M.

The Ardent story began when the teenage John Fry built a studio in his family's garage, where he recorded his first Ardent Records 45s. "In 1966, I was done with school and my family sold our house," said Fry during an interview in 2011 when he celebrated Ardent Studio’s 45th anniversary. "I felt it was time to make a career commitment to recording music." He found a new store building on Memphis' National Street, which he shared with a bookshop. The original equipment came from the garage operation: Altec tube console, Ampex 2-track, Pultec EQ and Neumann mics—some of which are still in use today.

Ardent became home to young producers and engineers such as Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, Joe Hardy, John Hampton, Paul Ebersold, and later, many other successful figures who are part of the Ardent family circle, which includes Skidd Mills, Jeff Powell, Jason Latshaw and Pete Matthews.

In 1971, Ardent Studios moved to its present location on Madison Avenue, followed by the acquisition of 24-track recorders, bigger consoles and more gear. During this 45th Anniversary year, the famed Studio C control room was completely torn down and rebuilt, while the venerable vintage Neve console was repackaged as a sidecar for the newly installed SSL Duality desk.

In 2011, Fry cited several reasons for his continued success in a business, which had few survivors from the early days. "We're flexible and we've always strived to adapt to the changes in the recording industry. We've also been fortunate to have so much talent on our staff, and long term relationships with successful artists and producers. Also, having a production company, a record label, and a publishing business has allowed us to be one of our own best clients,” he said.

He is survived foremost by his wife, Betty and by a legion of friends and admirers.

Ardent Studios
www.ardentstudios.com