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This book approaches postwar Texas music history through the epic story of a single entity—a Houston-based sound engineering and recording facility that started in 1941 and is still operating today. Over the years its founder and subsequent engineers have produced a multitude of influential hit records and classic tracks for numerous labels in a diverse range of popular genres. Combining firsthand accounts from insiders and musicians with research-based historiography and discography, we make the case that the structure that houses the enterprise now known as SugarHill Studios, a place first famous for several decades mainly under the name Gold Star Studios, is the most significant studio site in the rich legacy of popular music recording in the state of Texas.
That argument is based on several criteria, including this studio's unique longevity of continuous operation, its production of so many hits and popular standards in so many different styles of music, and its key role in the careers of scores of major musicians, songwriters, and producers.
Regarding that last point, among the hundreds of Gold Star/SugarHill-affiliated artists, a brief sampling of the roster includes blues giants (ranging from Lightnin' Hopkins to Albert Collins to Bobby Bland), country legends (from George Jones to Willie Nelson to Roger Miller), early rockers (from the Big Bopper to Roy Head to Sir Douglas Quintet), seminal figures in Cajun and zydeco (from Harry Choates to Clifton Chenier), architects of R&B (from O. V. Wright to Junior Parker), pioneers of psychedelia (from 13th Floor Elevators to Bubble Puppy), the phenomenal Freddy Fender, Tejano performers (from Little Joe y La Familia to Emilio Navaira), Texas jazz ambassadors (from Arnett Cobb to Conrad Johnson), revered song-crafters (from Guy Clark to Lucinda Williams), satirists (such as Kinky Freidman), gospel greats (such as the Mighty Clouds of Joy), neo-swing bands (such as Asleep at the Wheel), contemporary pop icons (such as Beyoncé Knowles and Destiny's Child), rappers (such as Lil' Wayne) . . . and many more.
Of course, there are many other important studios that have also made their mark on the history of music recording in Texas. Elsewhere in Houston, for example, ACA Studios did much important work documenting regional music for commercial release. Founded in 1948 by Bill Holford, its legacy extends all the way to 1985—impressive, for sure.
Likewise, as Gary Hickinbotham relates in The Journal of Texas Music History, Dallas has been home to several noteworthy facilities over the years. Included among those are the one Jack Sellers and Jim Beck built in the 1950s, as well as Sumet Studio (built in 1962 by Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery), Autumn Sound Studio (built in 1974 and later renamed Audio Dallas), Dallas Sound Labs (founded in 1980), and others. In Lubbock there was Bobby Peeble's Venture Recording Studio; in El Paso there was the one Bobby Fuller built in 1962; in San Antonio, there were studios created by engineers such as Bob Tanner, Jeff Smith, Abe Epstein, and Eddie Morris, and so on. Meanwhile, to quote Hickinbotham, "there were no real commercial studio facilities for recording in Austin until the 1970s." During that era and thereafter, famous enterprises such as Austin Recording Studio, Pedernales Recording Studio, Arlyn Studios, Riverside Sound Studio, Electric Graceyland Studios, and the Hit Shack came into being.
Granted, studios such as these have made many salient contributions, in varying degrees, to the grand-scale history of music recording in the state. Their individual roles and accomplishments could likely provide worthy material for articles or books by other writers. However, none of the aforementioned studios got started as early as the one Bill Quinn created in 1941. Not only was it one of the first, but also in terms of longevity and diversity it is surely the most impressive. For, as this book shows, during almost seventy years of continuous operation, this studio company has had a wide-ranging impact on so many different facets of popular music that no other independent recording facility in the state—and only a few in the nation—can rival its achievement.
We also concede that some of the most influential recordings ever to come out of Texas were not made in any studio. In the earliest days of recording technology, well before the advent of any established studio sites in the region, the Lone Star State profoundly affected recording history, particularly in terms of the evolution of certain folk-ethnic musical styles and their impact on popular tastes.
For instance, as far back as 1908 the groundbreaking folklorist John A. Lomax was transporting his newfangled portable equipment across Texas to make the earliest field recordings of many previously undocumented cowboy songs that are now considered American classics. Then, in the 1920s and '30s during the first major wave of commercial recordings of popular music, New York-based companies (such as RCA Victor and Columbia) regularly sent engineering teams to Texas to conduct sessions in hotel rooms and other makeshift locations, producing some of the most momentous music recordings of the era in the process.
A case in point: In 1936 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, such arrangements yielded the first recordings by the iconic Mississippi-born blues guitarist and singer Robert Johnson. A year later, he made his only other recordings at a temporary facility rigged up in the Brunswick Records warehouse in Dallas. Thus, no sonic documentation of Johnson exists outside of sessions in Texas. These are profoundly crucial tracks whose influence still resonates today.
Yet, like the earlier field recordings by Lomax, the Johnson sessions did not take place in any professionally designed, quasi-permanent studio space devoted exclusively to sound recording. There was none in Texas at the time. In fact, before World War II, such facilities simply did not exist in most American cities other than New York and Chicago, where they were owned and utilized by the few early major record labels. These were companies that guarded zealously their in-house innovations and trade secrets. But by the 1940s that situation was starting to change.
Across the nation various self-taught or military-trained technophiles and inventors, as well as other people involved in commercial music performance, were beginning to tinker curiously with existing equipment and to ponder the possibilities of devising a way that they, solely on their own, could capture and play back sound. Other hit-seeking entrepreneurs, usually with dreams much larger than their budgets, were discovering new performing talent and analyzing the logistics of where and how to make records. The independent recording industry was about to be born.
Meanwhile, working entirely on his own in southeast Houston, Quinn did things that ultimately made him part of that process. A native of Massachusetts, he had previously been employed to handle sound equipment for a carnival company before circumstances prompted him to settle unexpectedly in Houston. Keen on electronics, Quinn had long been intrigued by the way sound vibrations could be captured in grooves on a disc and then duplicated and played back on a machine. Utilizing primitive or improvised equipment and substandard raw materials, and guided evidently by an inquisitive endurance of trials and errors, he eventually taught himself how to make records. Despite wartime shortages of basic materials that had generally paralyzed the industry, he independently started commercially recording and pressing discs.
By 1941 he had changed the name of his one-man business operation from Quinn Radio Service to Quinn Recording Company. Initially he focused his commercial work on spoken text or jingles, documenting it direct to disc on acetate masters. His first clients typically were making advertisements for radio broadcast or creating novelty gifts in the form of individualized personal greetings or songs.
By 1944, however, the maverick Quinn decided to augment his business plan to encompass straight-up music production. He created his own labels, first Gulf and then Gold Star, specializing originally in what he called "hillbilly" songs. Soon, though, he was recruiting and recording African American blues singers, of which there were plenty in mid-twentieth-century Houston. By the time that the postwar boom years were underway, Quinn had become a legitimate but eccentric one-man record company doing his small-scale business far removed from the industry centers.
Starting in 1950, following a bit of success on the regional market and some consequent legal entanglements with the Internal Revenue Service, Quinn made some changes. Closing his shop on Telephone Road, he moved the whole enterprise into his family residence, conveniently located just a few blocks away. That modest homestead was also situated on a larger tract of land, which would later offer valuable space for expansion. Meanwhile, Quinn, his wife, and their son continued to live upstairs while he set up and ran his recording studio and company on the first floor.
Today that business is still in operation, under a different name, on the same site. Moreover, the large, remodeled-many-times-over building located there still uses some of the aged structure of Quinn's old house. And just beyond the property boundaries, various working-class families still reside nearby.
One might ask: How could such a significant recording studio be located in such an odd edifice on such an obscure street? Blame it on the "anything goes" mentality that, past and present, has defined Houston, the nation's largest city to reject zoning laws regulating land use. Blame it also on the fact that this particular mixed-use southeast-side neighborhood has somehow been bypassed by the regentrification that has altered so much other inside-the-Loop real estate. Blame it too perhaps on the incongruousness inherent in the strange business of independently recording music. Whatever the case, the most historic continuously operated studio in Texas remains almost hidden from public consciousness, even in Houston. But there it is, nestled on a dead-end street among a gritty hodgepodge of residential bungalows, machine shops, small businesses, and warehouses serviced by the nearby railroad line.
This book is largely the story of that place, the house where the studio founder once lived and made records. A lot has happened to it, and a lot has happened in it over the years. That modest structure has been expanded, remodeled, and subsumed into a more intricate network of hallways, offices, storage rooms, and studio spaces. One could easily overlook the currently extant architectural clues, but to the keen observer its original foundation, main walls, and roofline remain detectable even today within the larger footprint. Known with changing times under a variety of business names—including Quinn Recording, Gold Star, International Artists, and SugarHill—it is the unlikely home of one of the most noteworthy independent recording enterprises in the history of postwar popular music.
As with all accounts, this one has a narrator, a role overtly assumed by me, Andy Bradley, abetted by the writing skills, research, and historical insights of my collaborator Roger Wood. Speaking in the first person at various points in the book, I sometimes directly relate experiences and observations that are part of my ongoing professional relationship with the historic recording facility now known as SugarHill Studios.
But there are many voices that ultimately inform this story. Beyond Roger's own distinctive coauthorial voice (which invisibly influences the texture, tone, and shape of the entire narrative), there are scores of musicians, producers, engineers, and others who share their own oral historical accounts. These portions are culled mostly from a series of documented interviews I conducted (over several years) and are interwoven into the text in the form of quotations, most of which adopt a personal perspective too. Otherwise, except when thus signified, only I shall wield the first-person singular pronouns.
So who am I?
I am a Japanese-born Canadian of Russian and Anglo parentage who grew up in Asia and Australia and moved to Houston in 1980. A large part of my life was, is, and will always be music—as a fan and as a longtime professional audio recording engineer. Growing up overseas did not stop me from amassing a large record collection filled with American rock, blues, and country music. Some of my favorite recordings came from artists such as the Big Bopper, Sir Douglas Quintet, Bubble Puppy, 13th Floor Elevators, and Lightnin' Hopkins. I also grew up intrigued by records produced by Pappy Daily, Huey P. Meaux, and Don Robey. Today it still blows my mind to realize that I work in the space where they made so many classic recordings.
In the 1970s in Australia I worked as an audio engineer and roadie for various bands and sound companies. Under a pseudonym ("Supermort") as well as my own name, I also worked as a part-time journalist writing a rock column and music-related articles for several Australian magazines.
Then in 1980 I moved to Houston and started working at the ACA Studios. After four years of being mentored by the veteran audio man Bill Holford, I approached Meaux, then the owner of SugarHill, with a proposal to bring my client base and take over his studio operations. Meaux agreed, and I became the latest in a long lineage of engineers to work in this historic place. So I was thrilled years ago to have the gig, and I still am. It comprises the bulk of my professional work (though I also have served for many years as the senior audio engineer at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music).
But I actually came to the profession circuitously, all thanks to Radio Birdman.
You see, as a journalist some of my work (published in magazines such as Rolling Stone, Ram, and Juke) focused on the extraordinary Australian alternative rock band known by that bizarre moniker. I was a big fan and eventually worked for Radio Birdman as a roadie. I soon developed deep friendships with all the principals, interacting with them professionally and personally on the road, on stage, in recording sessions, and at home. These guys are integral to my life's path.
Today Radio Birdman is widely considered to be one of the all-time greatest Australian bands. For example, John Dougan, writing in the All Music Guide to Rock, credits these "highly regarded punk forefathers" with "changing the course of Australian rock forever." Led by Deniz Tek, Radio Birdman's sound and style disregarded many established rock band conventions. They also established an independent record company that enabled them to sidestep the major label morass.
Working as a sound technician and roadie for Radio Birdman first brought me into recording sessions and set in place the chain of events that led to my career as a professional recording engineer, my part-ownership of a famous studio, and my coauthorship of this book.
Many factors have coalesced to facilitate the research and inspire my efforts, ultimately including my invaluable collaboration with Roger Wood to bring this book to fruition. Our work together has taught us many things—not only about the history of a rare, almost unique studio complex but also about Houston, the upper Gulf Coast region, the state of Texas, and American popular music at large.
As early R&B star Joe Hinton sings in the title line of a 1964 hit record that was written by Willie Nelson and recorded at Gold Star Studios: "Ain't it funny how time slips away?" This book seeks to reclaim slippery time, or at least a meaningful portion of it, the part that relates to a place that has produced a huge quantity of great music in many different eras and styles. May you enjoy your journey back in time, back to what was originally a simple residential structure in an unzoned neighborhood, back to the place where Bill Quinn founded the enterprise that would become, however unlikely, a house of hits.