John Fry, the man who built and ran Memphis’ historic Ardent Studios, has died. He was 69 and reportedly went into cardiac arrest at his home this morning.
Fry is best known for his work with Big Star, but dozens of gold and platinum records were laid down at Ardent Studios over the past 48 years. Jon Hornyak, president of the Memphis Grammy chapter, told the city’s Commercial Appeal that Fry was, “without a doubt, one of the most significant figures in Memphis music.”
Born and raised in Memphis, Fry started Ardent as a small-time record label in his grandmother’s sewing room. He put out a number of singles in the late ’50s and early ’60s before branching out into independent garage rock. In 1966, he launched Ardent’s first commercial studio.
In the ’70s Ardent put out Stax-affiliated rock and pop from acts like Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers. About 20 percent of the Stax catalog was recorded at Ardent.
More recently, Ardent has been putting out contemporary Christian records from bands like Skillet. As a studio, Ardent was home to sessions by Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes, ZZ Top, and many more.
Fry acted as both a producer and mentor for Big Star, and Jody Stephens, the group’s drummer, has worked at Ardent for the past 28 years. Stephens told the Commercial Appeal that Fry “would open the doors to people wanting to start that adventure,” and that “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 the catalyst for so much.”
Though Fry stopped engineering in the late ’70s, he returned to the console to remix tracks for Big Star’s 2009 rarities box set, Keep An Eye On The Sky. He also executive-produced the excellent 2013 documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me: The Big Star Story. The A.V. Club visited with Fry as part of our Pop Pilgrims video series in 2011; you can watch that episode below.