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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The history of popular music in the 20th century wouldn’t be complete without recording the contributions of the great studios in which the world’s most famous and influential artists committed their work to tape.
There’s Sun Studios and the (now-rebuilt) Stax in Memphis, Motown in Detroit, Muscle Shoals in Alabama, Abbey Road in London, Electric Ladyland in New York, Chess in Chicago, Sigma in Philadelphia ... to name but a few.
Any such list has to include RCA Studio B, 1611 Roy Acuff Pl., on Music Row in Nashville.
Dubbed “The Home of a Thousand Hits,” this modestly sized studio in an unprepossessing low-slung building is where Elvis Presley recorded regularly, putting down more than 200 songs.
But it was also the site of hit records by the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Duane Eddy; pop saxman Boots Randolph and his trumpet counterpart Al Hirt; pop singers Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney; modern-day artists like Gillian Welch, The Strokes and My Morning Jacket; and pretty much every Country & Western singer you can conjure from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s.
Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Skeeter Davis, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Hank Snow, Ernest, Tubb, Porter Wagoner and Dottie West all recorded there. And that’s but a sampling.
Then there were the gospel records, the bluegrass records and R&B records made there, too, by the likes of the Blackwood Brothers, Lester Flatt and Fats Domino.
You can see lists of artists and songs connected to Studio B here.
These days, the studio – owned since 2002 by Curb Records founder Mike Curb and funded by his family foundation – is leased in perpetuity to the Country Music Hall of Fame for $1 a year and it offers guided tours during the day. The studio is still actively recording evenings and nights.
The facility is also used for classes in analog audio recording techniques.
Built in 1957 to the specifications of virtuoso guitarist and RCA Records artist and A&R man Chet Atkins, RCA Records leased Studio B from owner Dan Maddox, a Nashville businessman, and moved over from its first permanent studio in the city, opened in 1954 on nearby McGavock Street. (That earlier studio was demolished in 2006.)
Atkins has said that he and chief engineer Bill Miltenburg drew up the plans for the studio on the back of a napkin.
The 42.5x27x13-foot studio took four months and $37,515 to build. A few years later, an addition was tacked on, adding space for offices and lacquer and tape mastering suites.
It’s the second-oldest studio on Music Row, after Owen Bradley’s legendary Quonset Hut, which still exists inside a nearby building that was constructed around it. The much larger RCA Studio A was built next door, according to Atkins’ and Bradley’s specs, in 1964. That’s when Studio B earned its designation.
(For the record, an expansion to A was classified as Studio C and a smaller room in the Studio B building is D.)
Engineer Bill Porter arrived in early 1959 and – disappointed in the audio characteristics of the room – bought acoustic ceiling tiles and cut them into triangles, hanging them around the space. These so-called “Porter Pyramids” were just one of his innovations.
Porter also put an X on the floor just inside the door of the studio to mark the room’s “sweet spot” and it is here that Elvis and the others stood while recording.
A room above the studio was outfitted as one of the earliest reverb room/echo chamber setups, and Studio B is where The Jordanaires’ Neal Matthews created the so-called “Nashville Number System” method of transcribing music that's still used today.
Presley was especially enamored of the place, in part for its great Steinway piano (above), but also for its intimate feel and unique sound. When Studio A opened, he went over there for a session, but he wasn’t comfortable and quickly returned to Studio B.
According to her memoir, in 1967, Dolly Parton was late for her first session at Studio B and accidentally slammed her car into the wall of the building, where, even today, you can see that the bricks used to repair the damage don’t match the originals.
All would be forgiven, of course, as Parton went on to thrice record her song, “I Will Always Love You,” inside the building, scoring hits with each version.
The studio continued to operate full-time until 1977, when the Hall of Fame began its tours.
When you enter the building, you’ll find a room with a display showing some of the many artists who recorded here. Grandpa Jones' "Yodeling Hits" is my favorite and if you mention it, the tour guide will cue it up and play a bit for you.
As you walk down the hall, you’ll see an early recording console off to the left in Atkins’ old office (above), before you reach the control room for Studio D and then the small Studio D room that’s used mostly for demo sessions, overdubs and the like.
In here, note the interesting curved wood feature that runs along the walls.
Step through a door to the right and you’re in one of the most sacred spaces in country and rock and roll history.
Though its now gone, you’ll be standing right where a coat rack had been used to create a makeshift vocal booth for Roy Orbison.
Note the X on the checkered floor marking the room’s sweet spot.
When the tour guide lowers the lights and plays “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” recorded in that very room, you can almost see Presley standing there next to you, the musicians arrayed around the room.
In the corner, just beyond a honky tonk piano that’s more than a century old, is a stunning, simple four-piece drum kit behind a couple baffles. Along the back wall are amplifiers that were used here, as well as a marimba and vibraphone.
Nearby there's a Hammond organ and its Leslie speaker.
On the opposite side of the room, right near the control room window, is that Steinway that has been in the studio since it opened. Next to it is the still-broken cabinet door that Elvis took out with a good swift kick in a moment of frustration.
The tours aren’t long (about an hour, including the bus to and from the Hall of Fame downtown) but they’re packed full of information and anecdotes and even if you don’t care and just want to sit in Studio B and close your eyes and feel the vibes, it’s worth it.
But, please, don’t show up at the front door of Studio B, because they won’t let you in. You have to book your timed tour at the Country Music Hall of Fame downtown. They will transport you to and from the studio on a bus.
Our guide Ron Harman vowed to make any Elvis doubters on the bus into rabid fans by the end of the tour.
I’m hard pressed to think of a more powerful moment I’ve experienced at a similar site than when he dimmed the lights and “Are You Lonesome Tonight” filled the space and made music history come alive.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.