THE BIG 6-0
When RCA Studio B opened in 1957, it became a cornerstone for Music Row
It’s the last day of August and as night falls, Music City is being drenched with a torrential downpour. The rainstorm, however, doesn’t dampen the spirits of the people inside Historic RCA Studio B. Four legendary musicians — David Briggs, James Burton, Charlie McCoy, and Norbert Putnam — are among those gathered inside the studio, there to be featured participants in an event recognizing the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Although it’s not the primary focus of the evening, the event is one of several being held at Studio B as the studio celebrates an anniversary of its own: It’s been 60 years since it first opened for business.
These days, of course, Studio B is no longer a commercial concern, instead operating as a historic landmark under the auspices of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s open for daily tours, occasional special recording projects, and events such as the one the studio is hosting on this night to honor Presley. After a tour of the facility, everyone gathers in the tracking room for the panel. Museum Editor Michael Gray leads a discussion with Briggs, Burton, McCoy, and Putnam. As the four men reminisce about working with Presley, they also share their memories of working in Studio B, because no artist was identified more with the room than the king of rock & roll, who recorded over 200 songs there. Before he introduces the panel, Gray notes to the audience of 50 or so, “The profits Elvis generated for RCA in 1956 and ’57 [were] a major factor in RCA deciding to even open this studio.”
Before they had any kind of physical footprint in Nashville, RCA was conducting sessions in the city under the direction of recording executive Steve Sholes, who, assisted by Chet Atkins, had been producing records here since 1950. “The first place they used was Brown Radio Productions, which was a radio production business located downtown on Fourth Avenue North,” museum senior historian John Rumble says. “Some would call it Brown Brothers. For some reason, they decided to close their doors and go back to Missouri where they came from.”
The Browns sold their equipment to an engineer named Cliff Thomas in late 1952 or early 1953, and Thomas eventually set up shop at 1525 McGavock St., in the same building as TRAFCO, the Television, Radio, and Film Commission of the Methodist Church. Initially, RCA was just one of a number of clients who were renting the studio from Thomas, but by November 1954, the label had taken over the space exclusively, and by January of 1955, they had set up their first Nashville offices in the building. One afternoon the following January, while TRAFCO employees worked on Sunday school lessons, Presley entered the building and recorded his initial sides for RCA: “I Got A Woman” and his first million-seller, “Heartbreak Hotel.” That evening, he cut “Money Honey.”
“It really wasn’t a compatible situation,” Rumble says of TRAFCO and RCA being in the same building. “Rock & roll, you got to remember, was really controversial — that was the devil’s music.”
Aside from any incompatibility between the Methodists and RCA, the TRAFCO people needed to expand. Plus, Atkins had issues with the studio’s sound. “Chet told me it had kind of a curved ceiling and the bass tones would bounce off of it and get in everybody’s microphones, and it was just not what Chet wanted,” Rumble says. “He had a very finely tuned ear, and he hated things that were too loud.”
So the building’s owner, local builder and investor Dan Maddox, offered to build a new building for RCA to lease exclusively at the corner of 17th Avenue South and Hawkins Street, and the label bosses in New York took him up on his offer. By the spring of 1957, ground had been broken on the new building, and by late October, RCA engineers were setting up the tape machines, mixing board, and other gear in the label’s new facility.
According to Rumble’s book published by the museum’s CMF Press, Historic RCA Studio B: Home of 1,000 Hits, the first session in the new RCA studio on Oct. 29 ironically was for a Columbia artist, Jo Ann Davis. But RCA’s Hank Snow was there the following day, recording several songs. The Nov. 4 issue of Music Reporter mentioned that the new studio had already booked “a heavy schedule of recording dates.”
The opening of what was then known simply as RCA Studio only a block from Owen and Harold Bradley’s studios on 16th Avenue South gave the city’s burgeoning recording industry an important pair of cornerstones that would anchor the area that would become Music Row for the next two decades. The proximity of the two studios was especially convenient for the city’s session musicians. “At the time,” McCoy says, “if you didn’t work at one place, you worked at the other.”
Presley’s first session at the label’s new facility in Nashville was held on June 10, 1958, during a two-week furlough from the Army before leaving the U.S. for two years’ service in Germany. He cut a pair of hits that day — the chart-topping “A Big Hunk O’ Love” and “(Now And Then There’s) A Fool Such As I,” which reached No. 2 — and was backed for the first time by a trio of musicians who would go on to work with him extensively in the studio once he returned from military service: guitarist Hank Garland, bassist Bob Moore, and drummer Buddy Harman.
Early the following year, the usually calm, cool Atkins lost his temper with an irritating engineer named Bob Ferris and threw a punch at him. “Something set Chet off and he took a swing at Ferris and hit a piece of equipment instead,” Rumble says, picking up the story. “So there he is, his hand is hurting, and Ferris complains to the union, and the union says, ‘Well, look, we’re going to shut this studio down.’ ”
So the union forced the facility to close while Ferris trained a replacement. Although the incident was embarrassing and problematic at the time, Atkin’s swing-and-miss turned out to be fortuitous because, as Rumble points out, “that’s what let Bill Porter come in.”
Born and raised in East Nashville, Porter was working as a television cameraman when he made the move to RCA early in 1959. The recording studio was a whole new world for him, but Atkins was his guide. “He said Chet was very helpful in explaining how the equipment worked,” Rumble recalls the engineer telling him. “In other words, if you wanted particular sounds, this is what you had to do, with the gain, with the recording level, with the limiters, etc.”
As it turned out, despite being a novice, Porter was a natural. “He had great ears, and he was a great technical man,” Rumble explains. “Chet said Bill was the best engineer he ever had.”
Porter set about improving the sound of the room. With the help of assistant engineer Tommy Strong, he identified the best spots to place vocalists and acoustic instruments, actually putting X’s on the studio floor with tape. Porter also bought some acoustical panels and strung them from the ceiling to break up the sound waves. “The sound difference was phenomenal,” Porter told Rumble. “They didn’t look very good, but they worked.”
“They were breaking rules, making their own ways of doing things,” current studio manager Justin Croft says. “RCA actually had like a manual on how to record, and they essentially discarded it and did their own thing.
“They were resourceful, and they were creative, and they were just trying to make the best records that could be made with what they had, you know,” he continues. “And I think they did a phenomenal job, obviously.”
Obviously. Over the next two decades, a who’s who of country artists cut hit after hit for the label at Studio B, including Snow, Skeeter Davis, Bobby Bare, Dottie West, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Waylon Jennings, and Charlie Pride.
The panel discussion includes some touching memories, as well as humorous ones. “It’s great being back here tonight,” Putnam says at one point, “because that bathroom back there — the first session I’m doing with Presley, I remember I went back there ’cause we were starting in about 10 minutes, and I looked in the mirror and said a little prayer: ‘Dear God, don’t let me be the first bass player to ruin a Presley session.’ ”
Briggs expresses a similar sentiment recalling his first session with Presley, also at Studio B. “I was scared to death,” the keyboardist says.
Burton first worked with Presley in Las Vegas, but like Briggs and Putnam, McCoy first recorded with The King at Studio B. It was on a soundtrack session in February 1965 for the film Harum Scarum. “He had an aura about him,” McCoy tells the audience. “He comes through the door, I was first in line ’cause I was playing acoustic guitar. ... He walked right up to me, he shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for helping me.’ From that moment on, he had all of us right there (points to his upturned hand), and we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ ”
Presley was not the only early rocker who recorded at RCA Studio — both The Everly Brothers, who recorded for Cadence Records, and Roy Orbsion, who recorded for the Monument label, cut many of their biggest hits there, songs like “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by The Everlys, which went all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart, and “Only The Lonely” by Orbison, which reached No. 2.
McCoy’s first two master sessions as a studio musician were at Studio B in 1961. “The first one, Chet called, and it was Ann-Margret, and on that session, Bob Moore booked me for a Roy Orbison (session) later that week,” he says a few weeks after the event.
The Ann-Margret session yielded the legendary actress’ one-and-only Top 40 hit as a singer, 1961’s “I Just Don’t Understand,” while the Orbison date also resulted in a hit, “Candy Man.” Recalling the Ann-Margret session, McCoy says, “Fortunately for me, I already knew what to play because he wanted exactly what was on a demo I’d played on. Needless to say, I was pretty distracted — Chet, the A-team, the Anita Kerr Singers, and then 18-year-old Ann-Margret, and I’m like a 20-year-old guy.”
By the mid-’70s, the recording landscape had changed dramatically in Nashville, with an abundance of master quality studios, not only in the Music Row area, but spread across the city from East Nashville to Mount Juliet and Berry Hill. Against this backdrop, RCA, which had been locked in an ongoing dispute with the engineer’s union, decided to shutter most of its studios nationwide, including the four rooms it was then operating in Nashville.
Briggs and Putnam co-owned one of the most prominent and successful independent studios in the ’70s, Quadrafonic Sound. “I know there were several reasons other than us, but it was sad to me that we were probably part of the demise of it,” Briggs says later, lamenting the closing of Studio B.
After RCA made the decision to close their studios here, at the behest of building owner Maddox, the Bradleys, and others, the museum began offering tours of the studio. In 1992, the Maddox Family Foundation made a gift of the studio to the museum. Ten years later, the Mike Curb Family Foundation philanthropically purchased the facility and leased it back to the museum in perpetuity for $1 per year.
“With Music Row undergoing drastic change today, RCA Studio B stands as a powerful symbol of a bygone era in Nashville, when the city’s music business was conducted within the confines of an easily accessible community,” museum CEO Kyle Young says. “Some of the world’s greatest singers, songwriters, and musicians routinely crossed paths on the sidewalks of 16th and 17th avenues. ... When we were invited to take custody of Studio B in the late 1970s, we didn’t hesitate.
“In the museum, visitors can see artifacts associated with the most important individuals and events in country music history,” he continues. “The artifacts help us tell the story of country music’s evolution. At Studio B, visitors stand where Elvis, Dolly, Charley Pride, and many other greats stood to make music that would define their era and affect listeners for years to come. There is magic in that experience.”
Alan Stoker, who is currently the museum’s curator of recorded sound collections, became the first manager of the studio after the museum took charge. He echoes Young’s point in a video shot there to commemorate its 60th anniversary. “Studio B was one of the first major-label studios to anchor themselves on Music Row,” Stoker notes. “That studio and Owen’s studio about a block away. And I think those two studios really are responsible for Nashville and the Music Row area becoming what it is today, sort of a mecca and a hub for the music industry. Now that’s changed quite a bit since the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, but it’s still that way, and you still get that feeling when you walk in the studio, that there’s something special that went on here.”