‘WE CUT A LOT OF HITS’

The Sound Shop Story

  • Ernie Winfrey still recalls the night a Beatle walked through the door. It was a warm June evening in 1974, and Winfrey was in his usual place, behind the mixing console at Sound Shop studio, just off Music Row.
         “Buddy Killen and I were working with [soul singer] Paul Kelly in the studio one night, and Paul and Linda McCartney just walked in the door,” Winfrey says. “They waved and sat down in front of the console. After we finished, Buddy introduced me, and Paul said, ‘It really sounds good in here.’ ”
         McCartney was hardly the first musician to appreciate the sound he heard, and he was far from the last. From 1970 until January 2015, thousands of musicians, songwriters, hitmakers, celebrities, and wheeler-dealers passed through the doors of the cement block building at 1307 Division St. They produced groundbreaking music, classic hits, and jingles that sold everything from groceries to good citizenship.
         In 1970, Nashville’s music industry was ushering in a new era. Just a decade earlier, Music City’s recording industry was concentrated primarily in two studios — RCA Studio B and Owen Bradley’s studio on 16th Avenue South, aka the Quonset Hut. When Bradley sold his studio to Columbia Records in 1961, two major labels had a lock on the majority of studio time in Nashville.
         With the demand for studio time increasing, many new independent studios opened, recording far more than just country music. Pop, rock, soul, and gospel sessions all filled Nashville studios, along with a growing market for commercial radio jingles. Between 1968 and 1970, five major independent studios opened their doors for business in Nashville — Woodland Sound Studios, Jack Clement Recording, Creative Workshop, Quadrafonic Sound, and Nashville Audio Recorders, the studio that would become famous as “Sound Shop.”
         The brainchild of Nashville producer and musician Danny Davis, Nashville Audio Recorders was established in the fall of 1969 on Division Street, about two blocks east of 16th Avenue South. The property, co-owned by Nashville songwriters Dallas Frazier and Billy Mize, had briefly been the home of the Nashville Musical Instrument Company, manufacturers of Gower guitars.
         Davis planned a state-of-the-art recording studio and full production complex to accommodate any type of recording session. To help foot the bill, he enlisted several non-music industry investors. The studio had more than 3,000 square feet of space and was paneled with costly Pecky Cypress wood that not only provided excellent sound insulation, but also gave the studio a very distinctive appearance. Billy Sherrill — no relation to the prominent Nashville producer with the same name — was a 22-year-old graduate of Murray State University in Kentucky who was hired as an assistant engineer before the studio opened.
         “I started around Thanksgiving 1969,” Sherrill says. “They were still hammering nails and building the studio, and we held the first session on Jan. 1, 1970. Danny was producing some people and doing his Nashville Brass stuff, but we were also cutting independent sessions. Thomas Wayne did all the booking and oversaw the studio, and Harold Lee was on staff as an assistant engineer.”
         Sherrill recalls steady business for the new studio through the first 18 months of its operation, but by July 1971, there were financial troubles behind the scenes. Davis’ partners wanted out, and it didn’t take long to find interested buyers.
         The interested buyers — who soon became the new owners — were prominent Nashville producer and publisher Buddy Killen, producer Bob Montgomery, singer-songwriter Bobby Goldsboro, and commercial jingle producer Kelso Herston. As Sound Shop, Inc., the four partners closed the deal in August 1971, paying slightly over $300,000 for the studio and equipment and $130,000 for the building and land. “I remember them coming down and looking at the studio,” Sherrill says. “The next thing they were the owners. We were already fairly busy, but it just got busier.”
         Along with the new owners and name came a new head engineer, Ernie Winfrey. A native of East Nashville, Winfrey began his music career while still in high school as the drummer of one of Nashville’s pioneering rock & roll combos, The Monarchs. By 1968, Winfrey was at Woodland Studios as an assistant engineer where he worked with all four of the Sound Shop partners.
         “I finagled my way into working with Buddy Killen,” Winfrey says. “I had known Buddy since the early ’60s. He was producing Joe Tex sessions at Woodland, and R&B was my forte. Buddy told Bob Montgomery about Woodland, and I started working with him and Bobby Goldsboro, and then I worked with Kelso Herston on jingle sessions. I don’t remember which one of them offered me the job at Sound Shop, but I jumped at it.”
         With all four of the partners using the studio, and outside producers booking time, Sherrill and Lee soon moved up from assisting to working as full engineers. Eventually, they handled the majority of the country sessions, while Winfrey worked on pop, rock, and R&B, including many sessions with Joe Tex, such as his 1972 pop crossover hit, “I Gotcha.”
         “Joe Tex’s sessions were always interesting,” Winfrey says. “He insisted on recording his lead vocals while the tracks were being cut. He didn’t like overdubbing. He felt his vocals keyed the feel of the musicians. He would get into the song and start boogieing around, moving back and forth from the mic. I had to constantly adjust the mic up and down to follow his vocals.”
         R&B producer Brad Shapiro was also a frequent Sound Shop customer. For some artists, including James Brown and Wilson Pickett, Shapiro recorded tracks in Muscle Shoals or other locations, then overdubbed and mixed at Sound Shop.
         Veteran rock producer Nick Venet (The Beach Boys, The Hondells, and Stone Poneys) was another frequent Sound Shop customer. In an October 1972 issue of Billboard, Venet sang the praises of the Sound Shop engineers, saying, “They’re deeply involved in both music and technology. They function like associate producers. Their efficiency saves me a lot of money.”
         In addition to cutting great records, Buddy Killen’s love of publicity ensured that the Sound Shop name made frequent appearances in both the trade press and mass media. He brought in photographers to document sessions and actively pursued record deals for many Hollywood celebrities, including Burt Reynold’s notorious 1973 “so bad it’s good” album, Ask Me What I Am.
         With studio time in high demand, some projects were divided between various Nashville studios, such as Grand Funk Railroad’s 1972 album, Phoenix, which was recorded at Sound Shop and then mixed at Quadrafonic Sound. The album, which produced the Top 40 hit “Rock ’N Roll Soul,” proved to be a turning point for the band as they consolidated the trademark sound that led to their first No. 1 single, “We’re An American Band,” the following year.
         The Sound Shop’s most famous brush with rock & roll celebrity came in the summer of 1974 when McCartney brought his entire family and his band Wings to town. Lee Eastman was Killen’s attorney, as well as McCartney’s father-in-law and business manager. He asked Killen to find a country retreat near Nashville McCartney could lease for several weeks for a country vacation, sightseeing, and rehearsals for Wings’ upcoming tour of the U.S.
         After failing to find a suitable location for a reasonable price, Killen talked songwriter Curly Putman into renting his 133-acre farm located just outside Lebanon. With McCartney footing the bill for a Hawaiian vacation for Putman and his wife, the former Beatle moved his entourage to Tennessee the first week of June 1974.
         “They weren’t going to cut here, but Buddy was thinking, ‘Hmm, I’ve got a studio … ,’ and his plan worked,” Winfrey says. It only took one visit to the studio to convince McCartney to “give it a go,” but not everyone in his entourage was convinced at first, as the engineer recalls.
         “Alan Crowder, his road manager, pulled me aside and very seriously asked me if we could record rock & roll,” Winfrey continues. “I don’t know what was going through his mind. I think it was the simple fact that he didn’t know if we were capable of it. I said, ‘Hell yes, I do it at every opportunity I can!’ ”
         The McCartney sessions took place during the first two weeks of July. The band cut the songs “Junior’s Farm” and “Sally G,” which became a double-sided hit single for Wings that fall. They also recorded the Denny Laine composition “Send Me the Heart,” as well as “Walking in the Park with Eloise,” a Dixieland-style instrumental written by McCartney’s father that was released under the nom de plume, The Country Hams. Overdubs for several songs they had already tracked in London were also recorded, including “Hey Diddle,” “Bridge on a River Suite,” and “Wide Prairie.” Despite the thrill of working with McCartney, Winfrey says it wasn’t that different from other Sound Shop sessions, at least at first.
         “Paul’s limo would come to the back of the building so they could unload their gear,” Winfrey explains. “They would come in and leisurely set up their stuff. They had a roadie-type guy helping them, but Paul always carried his own guitar.
         “Buddy tried to keep it as quiet as he could, but somehow word got out. After a few days, we ended up with people outside the building trying to see Paul — front, back, everywhere. The limo driver had to pull down the driveway and all the way around to the back with people all around the car. Paul said he had learned how to handle crowds as a Beatle. He said you just have to walk slowly and smile. The important thing was not to run and scare them into a panic.”
         Veteran Nashville musicians joined the band for some of the McCartney sessions. Sherrill recalls they made quite an impression on McCartney.
         “He got Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Lloyd Green, and some others in the studio,” Sherrill says. “Paul played them the song on the guitar once, and Chet started making out a numbers chart (the simple and efficient musical chord charting system used by Nashville session players). Paul asked him if he wanted to hear it again, but Chet said he had it and kept writing. Paul wanted to know what he was doing, and Chet started explaining the Nashville number system. Paul was just shocked. He’d never seen anything like that before, and it freaked him out, which I thought was very cool.”
         Winfrey recalls McCartney was impressed with not only Nashville’s musical shorthand, but also the pure skill of the Nashville cats’ ability to adapt to challenges. “On one song, Paul was playing an ocarina, and Lloyd Green was on steel guitar,” he says. “Ocarinas are notorious for being slightly out of tune, and Lloyd had to tune his steel ever so slightly whichever way that ocarina wanted to go.”
         Although the McCartney sessions brought rock & roll flash to Sound Shop, as a studio and production facility, its best and busiest days were still ahead. By the start of 1975, Killen had bought out his partners’ interests and become the sole owner of the building, equipment, and production company.
         “I think Buddy just wanted the studio for himself,” Sherrill says. “He was really busy, and the others guys would get hacked off if they couldn’t get studio time. It was just one of those things.”
         Although Killen now had primary say, he also recognized the importance of the income from the commercial jingle business. In February 1975, he forged a new partnership for the Sound Shop production company with experienced jingle producers Craig Deitschmann and John Shulenberger. They brought many prestigious clients with them, including Budweiser, Lincoln-Mercury, Bell Telephone, and General Electric. In the spring of 1975, Sherrill left Sound Shop for a position at Jack Clement Recording. Not long thereafter, Mike Bradley, a fellow Murray State graduate, looked him up for advice, and Sherrill sent him to Sound Shop.
         “I met with Craig Dietschmann, who was the studio manager at the time,” Bradley says. “He said we’ve got big plans over here, we want to build another studio, and you’re welcome to hang around until there’s a reason to staff somebody. That’s what I did. Ernie Winfrey was doing most of the big record sessions at night. I worked a security job in the daytime, and then I would hang around and watch over Ernie’s shoulder all night. After a few months, Craig offered to let me run the dub room.” Within a year Bradley was a full-time engineer, mostly working on jingle sessions.
         “At that time, a lot of guys didn’t like to do jingles, but I had a ball doing them,” Bradley says. “I got to work with so many different musical styles. I would work with 25 different singers every week. I got to know people rapidly, and the speed I developed would be valuable later on.”
         Bradley worked on many well-known jingles, including the popular and fondly remembered “Tennessee Trash” campaign for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Sound Shop was one of the busiest production houses for commercial jingles in the U.S., and Bradley worked with many celebrities — Hollywood actors, sports figures, and even a future president.
         “We did the campaign for Bill Clinton when he was running for governor of Arkansas,” Bradley says. “Craig went down there and spent a couple of weeks with them out on the campaign trail. When he came back he said, ‘I don’t know about Bill, but that Hillary, she’s the one to watch.”
         By 1977, Sound Shop’s business was evenly divided between record production and jingle work, with the jingle sessions usually being held in the mornings or late afternoons and record sessions starting around 6 p.m. and often going into the late-night hours.
         With the studio running at full capacity, a $300,000 upgrade and expansion was undertaken. The main entrance was relocated to the side of the building, and a smaller Studio B was added along with a reception area between the two studios; a second floor for additional office space was also added during the build out.
         Although R&B and rock records were still cut at Sound Shop, including hit albums for R&B singer Millie Jackson and some tracks for Neil Young’s 1978 LP, Comes A Time, the growth in country sales during the late ’70s and into the early ’80s meant that country sessions were becoming more prevalent in the studio.
         “We cut a lot of country records during that time,” Winfrey says, “T.G. Sheppard, Razzy Bailey, Janie Fricke, Lee Greenwood. It got so we were getting a No. 1 record just about every time.”
         With the jingle and record production running on overtime, Sound Shop evolved into something more than just a studio, as Bradley recalls. “The thing that set it apart for me was that it became a ‘hang place,’ ” he says. “We had so many people that came through and spent time sitting on the couch, just waiting for sessions to start. Eventually, musicians who weren’t doing anything would stop by and just hang out. Anytime you came out of the control room, there would be four or five of your pals out there. It just became a fun place to be, whether you were working or not.”
         Winfrey left Sound Shop as a full-time employee around 1979 to become a freelance engineer, but he still chose to do most of his freelance work at his former place of employment. By the late ’80s, Bradley became the studio manager and oversaw another major renovation in 1989.
         “We gutted Studio A and rebuilt it completely,” Bradley says. “We wound up with a great studio. I think it was the best tracking room in town.” The renovated Sound Shop continued the tradition of scoring hits when producer Don Cook began using the studio for a string of million-sellers by Brooks & Dunn. By the late ’90s, Killen had become a millionaire through his many business interests.
         After selling his publishing business to Sony Music in 1989, Killen dabbled in many new projects, but kept Sound Shop as one of his favorite holdings, as Bradley recalls. “Buddy told me once, ‘I’ll probably die in the Sound Shop, this will probably be one of the things I’ll never sell,’ but he eventually changed his mind and started talking seriously about selling it. I never really wanted a studio, but I didn’t want to see someone come in and change everything. I was freelancing by that time, but Sound Shop was where I did 99 percent of everything I did. I took on Don Cook as a partner, and we worked out a deal with Buddy to buy the studio.” Bradley and Cook operated Sound Shop until 2008, when they sold the studio business, equipment, and Sound Shop name to the Christian music production company Riverbend Media.
         “At that time, I thought they would be a savior for the studio,” Bradley says. “Their plans sounded good. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. I maintained an office and did my work there, so I never really left, but the last six years were difficult because I couldn’t do anything about what was happening.”
         Studio B was eventually leased to the music production company Destiny Nashville, while Riverbend Media continued to use Studio A for occasional sessions. In spring 2014, it was announced that the property was being sold for redevelopment. A final and tearful farewell party was held on June 15, 2014. Dozens of producers, engineers, musicians, and others who held fond memories of the studio gathered to say their goodbyes. Scattered sessions continued through October, while the building served out its time on real estate death row.
         On the morning of Jan. 28, 2015, Winfrey received a phone call from an old friend saying Sound Shop’s time was up. By the time, he made it to Division Street, 45 years of Music City history was already a jumbled pile of rubble.
         “I didn’t know what to expect when I got there,” Winfrey says. “I was hoping there would be something left that looked like the studio, but there was nothing — just heaps of stuff. A few months earlier, this friend of mine had taken a couple of loose bricks from the entranceway and had them inscribed with the original Sound Shop logo. We were standing there cursing the condo guys, and he snuck around the back and squeezed through a small gap in the fence to get a couple more bricks. It was really bittersweet. There was so much history in that building, and they tore it down just to put up a condo.”
         Although Bradley didn’t secure any physical souvenirs of the building, his memories are vivid. “I think back on some of the people I got to meet and work with, and it’s incredible,” he says. “There was never a time that I didn’t enjoy being there, and it was common to work 16 to 18 hours, seven days in a row. I look back now and think how in the heck did I do that? But I think that’s true for anybody who really loves what they’re doing in a place that they love.”
         Sherrill also has his treasured memories of Sound Shop. After becoming a freelance engineer in the 1980s, he frequently worked on projects at the studio he helped to build in 1969. “Most studios are basically alike,” Sherrill says. “Some sound better than others, but Sound Shop was always a place I loved.”
         Ultimately what made Sound Shop so special wasn’t the brick, mortar, and wood. It was the talent, personalities, sounds, and experiences that created a special time and place where musical magic was captured on slowly unwinding spools of tape. The recordings and memories remain, but the physical connection of standing in the spot where that magic happened is now gone, forever erased from a city that sometimes seems incapable of balancing its past and future. It’s an equation that may fill bank accounts with dollars, but it leaves the cultural soul of Nashville in poverty.
         “Some of the engineers and artists I worked with call that time between the late ’60s and mid-’80s the ‘Golden Age of Recording,’ ” Winfrey says. “There was so much going on. All the studios were busy, and it was an exciting time. We always had fun at Sound Shop, and we cut a lot of hits.”