Wired For Sound

Thursday, April 8, 2010

House of Hits

House of Hits: The Story of Houston's Gold Star/SugarHill Recording Studios by Andy Bradley and Roger Wood (University of Texas Press) 352 pages, $23.07, available from Amazon.

Texas has always been one of America's most sentimental regions, which makes it seem odd that the state's most populous city is perhaps the most unsentimental large metropolis to be found, not just in Texas itself, but the country as a whole. Houston's aggressive live-only-for-the-future approach toward public policy, a socio-religious tenet firmly in place among its business leaders since the turn of the 20th century, has resulted in one of American capitalism's greatest municipal triumphs -- an economic juggernaut to which the total collapse of a giant energy corporation like Enron hardly musters a digit in unemployment levels. But such statistics make the corollary to the city's futurism that much more bare: a civic idea devoted entirely to hypothetical future rewards necessarily prohibits (and often obliterates) the past. Wholesale physical destruction of old buildings was/is an obvious manifestation of this idea, but less discernible was/is the psychological damage that has ensued. Houston has survived as a city without a history for at least a generation now. One result of this enforced historical amnesia has been that not one in 50,000 of the city's residents has ever heard of Gold Star Studios, much less cares about it. That may change with this book.

Like most people, Bill Quinn came to Houston from somewhere else. Also like most people, he stayed. From humble origins as Quinn's Radio Repair shop around 1940, Quinn expanded into uncharted territory when he built a recording studio and, more remarkably, record pressing plant, during the latter part of the WWII years. This was not something you learned by going to college. After a year or two of experiments and failures, he succeeded in getting the Gulf label off the ground in 1945, to be followed by the much greater success of the Gold Star label the following year. Quinn was more interested in technology than running a record label, though, and the Gold Star label went kaput in 1951 when the IRS sued for back taxes. Quinn soldiered on, engineering for other labels that rented his studio, most notably Starday, Duke/Peacock, and D, and an endless number of smaller ones, from Azalea to Zebra.

But Bill Quinn is just one aspect of the story that has been going on now for 70 years -- a singularly remarkable fact in a city in which even the best business models are expected to fail as soon as a new trend comes along, and where lawyers and oilmen -- not music business people -- are upheld as civic leaders . Quinn sold the studio around 1963, and it eventually wound up being purchased by the infamous International Artists label. The Bubble Puppy's 1969 psychedelic ride "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" was a long way from Harry Choates's "Jole Blon," but it was a huge hit that should have set the studio on solid ground for the new decade. Yet IA, too, succumbed to tax problems in 1971.

By any reasonable measure, the story should have ended there -- but record hustler par excellance Huey P. Meaux -- who had recorded the Sir Douglas Quintet's "She's About a Mover" at Gold Star in '65 -- had other ideas, buying and refurbishing the studio in 1972. Along with the new gear came a new name -- SugarHill (one word), chosen, according to Bradley, because "it did not evoke any particular music genre and thus would leave the future of the enterprise open to any potential type of production." (The New Jersey rap label/studio named Sugar Hill came later.) By 1975, Huey made good on that promise, taking the then-forgotten Chicano rocker Freddy Fender and giving him a country song with a new bridge -- sung in Spanish. Fender's "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" was a #1 pop and country hit, eerily reminiscent of the success Harry Choates had had with his crossover hit "Jole Blon" 28 years earlier. Prior to now, few people have had any inkling of a connection between these two improbable hits.

That's House of Hits' greatest strength -- forging links between eras, genres, songs, labels, and artists that, prior to now, had only been vaguely connected in popular and regional music histories. Focusing on a studio instead of a particular band or genre creates a wider palette for stories to unfold, intersect, and commingle in unexpected and interesting ways. For example, who would have known, prior to reading this book, that Jimmy McCracklin's 1965 hit "Think" (#8 R&B on Imperial) was recorded at Gold Star? The only potential clue of a Houston connection was a co-writer credit to that notorious non-existent songwriter, "D. Malone." And yet McCracklin is here, quoted at length on why and how "Think" came to be recorded at the studio.

Bradley conducted 90 interviews for this book, with perhaps the most revealing quotes coming from either studio engineers or close observers to the operation. If names like Ray Rush, Glenn Barber, Doyle Jones, Roy Head, Wiley Barkdull, Guy Clark, Bill Dillard, and Mickey Moody mean anything to you, then House of Hits is an essential read. There are great quotes from all of the above, unique to this book, that guide the reader on an almost-yearly tour of the studio, its characters, and its songs, from the 1940s until 2009. The book gives important artists their due, but stays on subject -- which means that, for example, an in-depth musical analysis of Eddie Noack's Starday sessions won't be found here. It's a book about musicians, but the studio itself plays the starring role.

Conspicuously absent from the interviewees was Huey P. Meaux. Huey was either in jail or on parole during the period this book was being written, and was inaccessible or inimical toward being interviewed in depth about his legendary career. This unfortunately means that the section devoted to "the Huey years" (1972-1984) is a lot drier than it would have been with his participation, an unavoidable weakness.

Nearly all of the old recording studios in Texas -- Jim Beck, ACA, Ben Hall, Sellers, Nesman's, Texas Sound Studios -- have long since faded into history, but Gold Star/SugarHill has defied very long odds, and today is not only the oldest operating recording studio in Texas, but among the oldest in America. You can book your next session there for competitive rates, or you can just drop by and have a chat with Andy Bradley for a history lesson, free of charge.

P.S. - The 42 page discography in the back of the book is a wonderful bonus, but the statement made there that "much of this information was researched by Andrew Brown" is, of course, not true. Anthony Rotante began working on a Gold Star discography in 1955, and Chris Strachwitz, Mack McCormick, the late Mike Leadbitter, Neil Slaven, Al Turner, Phil Tricker, Dave Sax, Dick Grant, Doug Hanners, and many, many others have compiled the information found in this section over the decades, to which my own contributions have been comparatively modest. I assisted the authors of House of Hits, but was not directly involved, and when the information was being shared I never thought it would actually make the final book. I certainly didn't intend to take credit for other's work. So, to all of the above researchers, just consider me the steward of the information that you have so painstakingly compiled.

University of Texas Press webpage about House of Hits

Houston Chronicle article about House of Hits