Ensconced in a residential enclave inside Houston’s historic East End, SugarHill Recording Studios remains a secret to many locals. Freddy Fender’s platinum single, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” and Destiny Child’s gold CD of “The Writing’s on the Wall” adorn the paneled hallway connecting the illustrious Studio A with Studio B. Six decades of hit recordings have been spawned from these hallowed rooms.
When vocalist Hank Schyma records with the Britpop psychedelic Southern Backtones at SugarHill, he plays on the same grand piano as Todd Rundgren did in 1977. “There’s this sort of voodoo that you experience at SugarHill, knowing that all your heroes have passed through its doors and recorded on the same equipment,” Schyma says. Cultural icons such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones, Clay Walker, and lately, soloist Beyonce Knowles, have enjoyed sojourns inside the modest white brick studios on Brock Street.
Today SugarHill Studios relies on the legacy of Studio A and B, proven rooms used by myriad music icons, and the pedigree of its experienced staff. “Many ‘big box’ recording studios have vanished in the last five years but we’ve managed to stay in business,” says Dan Workman, a co-owner of SugarHill Studios and a trustee of the Grammy Recording Academy, whose record production company Dan Workman Music is headquartered on site.
Founded in 1941, SugarHill Studios is 10 years younger than the venerable London-based Abbey Road Studios, lionized in 1969 by the Beatles’ namesake album. “As far as we can tell, SugarHill may be the oldest continuously operating recording studio in the United States,” says Andy Bradley, a SugarHill co-owner who has served as the studio’s chief engineer for 21 years, in tandem with his position as chief of recording services at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. Rodney Meyers, also a studio co-owner, owns Essential Sound, a full-service mastering company based at SugarHill.
The seeds of SugarHill’s success were planted in 1941 when Bill Quinn founded Quinn Recording, the studio’s earliest precursor, a few blocks away from SugarHill’s current location. “Quinn was one of the first America producers willing to record the music of major black, Cajun, and hillbilly artists,” Bradley notes.
Quinn’s first successful label, Gold Star Records, included an eclectic mix of country, Cajun, and blues artists. In 1947 Quinn scored his first major hit record with “Jole Blon,” a Cajun and Western swing classic sung by Harry Choates. A year later, the legendary blues artist Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins recorded “T-Model Blues” and “Tim Moore’s Farm” at Quinn’s studio, both of which hit Billboard’s Top Ten charts for rhythm and blues.
Bradley recounts a surprising tale about Lightnin’ Hopkins, told to him by contract engineer Jim Duff, who recorded for Hopkins in 1968. “Duff got a call from Lightnin’s manager, who told him that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were in town and wanted to hang out with him at the studio,” Bradley says. “Lightnin’ Hopkins turned them down, saying he was too busy. He wasn’t interested in talking to anyone while he was recording.”
With Gold Star Records, the ingenious Quinn made music industry headlines in 1951 when he sold the rights to 32 unreleased master blues recordings by Hopkins and Little Son Jackson. In 1955 Quinn moved to 5626 Brock Street and established Gold Star Studios, which would later become SugarHill. That same year, George Jones helped catapult Gold Star Studios’ reputation by recording the classic hit, “Why Baby Why,” followed by “Just One More,” which hit number three on the Billboard country charts.
In 1958, D Records signed a variety of successful Houston-area artists who recorded singles at Gold Star Studios. One of them was J.P. Richardson – known as The Big Bopper – who recorded “Chantilly Lace,” which sold millions of copies. The iconic single has been heard in innumerable films and logged three million radio airplays, according to BMI, which collects music royalties.
A gold star embedded in the tile in SugarHill’s Studio B symbolizes the blockbuster legacy of Todd Rundgren, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, and many others. Legendary singer/songwriter Willie Nelson has brought his own celebrity to the East End studio. Nelson’s song, “Family Bible,” was recorded by Claude Gray at Gold Star Studios and went on to hit number 10 on the Billboard charts.
Before Ray Price’s version of Nelson’s classic “Night Life” became a hit, Nelson recorded the song for D Records at Gold Star Studios. “Fans agree that Willie’s vocals on that record are fantastic,” Bradley says. “But when Pappy Daily, who owned D Records, first heard it, he said, ‘This isn’t country,’ and refused to release it because it sounded too much like jazz.” Nelson’s own version of “Night Life” didn’t see light until all of D Records’ songs were re-released in boxed sets a few years ago. “Last year Willie Nelson asked me to send him an mp3 version of it, because he didn’t have one,” Bradley says.
In the 1960s Huey P. Meaux began producing records at Gold Star Studios, attracting a high-caliber clientele. Studio luminaries included Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, Freddy Fender, the Sir Douglas Quintet, Bobby “Blue” Bland, B. B. King, Junior Parker, and Houston singer/songwriter Mark James, whose songs were recorded later by Elvis Presley. After Meaux bought Gold Star Studios in 1971, he christened it SugarHill, after a street in Houston’s Post Oak area.
In 1996, Bradley teamed with Workman and Meyers, who were leasing space in the studios for their own recording-related businesses, to purchase the property. “When we bought the business under RAD Audio, we had every intention of moving, and had drawn up plans to relocate downtown,” Workman said. “But then we got push-back. Our clients didn’t want us to move away from Brock Street. For them, SugarHill’s historical significance was a big part of its vibe. They urged us to reconsider.”
In April 2010, The University of Texas Press released House of Hits, a new biography of SugarHill’s illustrious legacy. Based on 100 interviews, Bradley and music historian Roger Wood trace the history of the musicians and record producers who have recorded at SugarHill, its technical and architectural adaptation to changes in recording technology, and studio’s celebrity ascendance under savvy producer Meaux. The book weighs in on why Freddy Fender’s 1975 hit single “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” was revolutionary. “It was the first country music record to go platinum and reach number one on both pop and country Billboard charts,” Bradley says.
House of Hits also highlights ’70s- and ’80s-era sojourns at the studio by Marcia Ball, Doug Sahm, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, Kinky Friedman, Ricky Nelson, and a variety of Tejano artists. Cementing SugarHill’s 21st-century legacy, also captured in the book, is the success of Destiny’s Child, the Grammy-winning band who recorded The Writing’s on the Wall and songs from Survivor. “We’ve also commissioned a documentary version of the book on DVD, featuring interviews and recording sessions with musicians inside the studio,” Bradley says.
In addition to the studio’s unimpeachable legacy, musicians today appreciate the broad experience of its staff. Southern Backtones has recorded four full-length records at SugarHill over the past ten years. “There’s this family relationship that you develop with the people there, and the experience of recording with Dan Workman is nothing short of holy for me,” says Schyma, the band’s front man. When a serious infection temporarily deafened the fastidious Schyma, forcing him to defer to Workman and staff for the final mix on Southern Backtones’ third album, he couldn’t have been more pleased with the result.
To stay in business, SugarHill has embraced change. Nowadays, all records are made on the same equipment. Garage bands can record good music using their own laptop computers, a reality that has threatened the old studio model. “Instead of being fearful of musicians recording at home, we have encouraged them to use our big room to cut drums or bring over their finished recordings and mix them here,” Workman says. “We’ve become an information clearinghouse for people recording at home.”
Music legends continue to book sessions at SugarHill Studios. Roy Head, whose blockbuster single “Treat Her Right” still gets constant airplay, recently recorded a new album at SugarHill called “Still Treatin’ ‘Em Right.” “It’s his first new album in over a decade, and at 69, he still sounds great,” Bradley says.
With SugarHill’s renowned clientele, the studio owners have a vested interest in promoting Houston’s music scene. In December 2008 Workman partnered with W. Ross Wells of Zenfilm to produce “Live from SugarHill,” a monthly video podcast series that showcases bands performing in SugarHill’s renowned Studio A.
“To promote Houston’s music scene to the rest of the world, it’s easier if we raise the consciousness of the people who live here,” Workman says. “Because Houston’s music scene is much more eclectic than Austin’s, people don’t realize how great it really is.”