Peter Holsapple on Big Star producer John Fry, 1944–2014 | Music

Peter Holsapple on Big Star producer John Fry, 1944–2014

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John Fry, 1944-2014 - PHOTO COURTESY OF ARDENT MUSIC
  • Photo Courtesy of Ardent Music
  • John Fry, 1944-2014
John Fry, who died last Thursday in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 69, was best known as the producer and engineer who made Big Star’s signature sound the totem it became for the thousands of guitar bands that arrived in Big Star's wake. He was not only the guy behind the board; he was also a mentor, teaching Alex Chilton, Chris Bell and Jody Stephens (as well as many other neophytes over the years) just how to manipulate the studio he owned.

Fry kept Ardent Studios on the knife edge of technology for five decades, hosting everyone from Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers and ZZ Top to the White Stripes, the Replacements and Cat Power in his comfortable zone at 2000 Madison Ave. in mid-town Memphis. He started two labels and a film production company. In November of this year, he was honored with induction into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.

But it was the sound of Big Star's #1 Record and Radio City that captured so many of us: the bright, keening snap of Bell and Chilton’s electric guitars billowing out of stereo speakers like puffs of white smoke; Stephens’ muscular yet laid-back drums; Andy Hummel’s round, expansive bass notes; all those flanged and ethereal harmony vocals in the background. It was a maximum sound with minimal ingredients. The sculpting of Chilton and Bell’s songwriting into emotive bursts of post-adolescent treble yearnings should rightly be credited to Fry’s vision of their sound.

From the moment the needle dropped onto the opening grooves of “Feel,” a legion of young acolytes found a refreshing solace of sorts in a Southern band that didn’t try to ape the Allmans or Marshall Tucker but instead took cues from Beatles and Byrds. We recognized the revitalization of a sound we thought lost in the glut of psychedelia and white-boy blues. Simple songs with spacious arrangements of sweet chords, topped by innocent voices singing the teenage blues, were what drew us all. In 1974, there weren’t all that many of us, either, and fandom of Big Star was confined to a small, somewhat exclusive club of people who actually hunted down and found the albums despite their distribution issues with Stax Records.

It’s certainly a small miracle that Fry lived to see an era when, thanks to reissues and a documentary (Nothing Can Hurt Me), this pet project grew in the general musical consciousness from a tiny footnote into an influential legend. It only took about 40 years at a relatively glacial pace before songs Fry had helped Big Star build became cultural waypoints. And by that time, the band had broken apart and reformed, only to be splintered again by the death of Chilton in 2010. Meanwhile, a group of Triangle musicians—Brett Harris, Django Haskins, Skylar Gudasz, Shawn Galvin and musical director Chris Stamey, to sample—had begun a series of live orchestral performances of the enigmatic Third Big Star album, with Fry's enthusiastic aid. That opened yet another door through which many more new fans surely passed.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ARDENT MUSIC
  • Photo Courtesy of Ardent Music

When Fry handed the Ardent Studio keys to Chilton, Bell and Stephens (as well as to engineering stars-in-the-making Jeff Powell and the recently deceased John Hampton), it created a nurturing environment in which rich music could be tended by its own creators, rather than by company suits with little aesthetic interest in the final product. For Big Star, and for all who’ve listened to and loved the band’s music, the autonomy became a necessary impetus.

“If you acquire knowledge or skill or even wisdom, and you just keep it, then when you die, that dies with you,” John Fry said in a 2006 interview with David Williams of Commercial Appeal. “But if you share that with other generations—who in turn will share it and share it and share it—you’re doing something that lasts.”


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