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RCA Studio B: “The Home of 1,000 Hits”

United States
By Ted Drozdowski

© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.

27 November 2007 — Country Music has its hallowed places, and among one of the most revered is Nashville’s RCA Studio B.

The outside of this rectangular brick building at 1611 Roy Acuff Place is nondescript, save for the chink a nervous Dolly Parton put in the wall with her car as she arrived for one of her early recording sessions. Even so, it didn’t take long, after opening its doors, for this studio to become known as “The Home of 1,000 Hits.”

Historic RCA Studio B exterior building. photo: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Studio B’s first sessions transpired in November 1957, a milestone celebrated this year by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum through tour packages, live broadcasts from the studio, recording workshops and panel discussions, all of which have a rich history to examine. Researchers are still trying to verify the very first artist who recorded there, but some of the earliest include The Stanley Brothers and Don Gibson, whose “Oh, Lonesome Me” was the first big crossover hit to emerge from the facility.

Eddy Arnold’s majestic “What’s He Doing in My World?,” Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City,” The Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “Good Luck Charm,” “It’s Now or Never” and “Little Sister,” and smashes by Skeeter Davis, Donna Fargo, Don Gibson, Hank Locklin, Jim Reeves, Porter Wagoner and many more are all part of Studio B’s legacy.

Eddy Arnold records a vocal track. photo: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Nashville businessman Dan Maddox built and leased the facility to RCA Records to accommodate the label’s local recording interest and in particular its hot young Country producer, Chet Atkins. But it was seasoned by the work of Nashville’s top session musicians.

Although many of the players had rural roots, they were a sophisticated lot with a strong grasp of music history. Some were classically trained. Some played in jazz bands and were deft improvisers when not obliged to follow charts. They were also dedicated craftspeople who wanted to get the best performances at every turn.

Jim Reeves records with his backup band. photo: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

“They were really committed to studying the room right from the start,” said John Rumble, Senior Historian, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, “so they’d know how to adjust their own sound to get excellent results for the artists they were supporting.”

The musicians often held Sunday afternoon picking parties around a galvanized tub of cold beer. Chief Engineer Bill Porter’s tapes of these jams revealed that the room had a problem with “standing waves” — points where an amplified sound would bounce off a wall and cancel out, or where volume would swell suddenly. To remedy the problem, Porter cut pieces of acoustical ceiling tile into small pyramids and hung them at different levels to break up the waves. “The session musicians called them ‘Porter’s Pyramids,’” Rumble recalled.

Atkins’ A-Team included guitarists Harold Bradley, Ray Edenton, Hank Garland and Grady Martin, bassist Bob Moore, pianists Floyd Cramer and Hargus “Pig” Robbins, drummer Buddy Harmon, saxophonist Boots Randolph, harmonica ace Charlie McCoy and others whose names recur on credits for the 35,000 songs cut at Studio B during its 20 years of operation.

Producer Chet Atkins works the consoles as Waylon Jennings observes after recording a track. photo: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

The same players would also record at the Bradley Film and Recording Studios, which included a surplus Army “Quonset Hut,” located on 16th Avenue South, a stone’s throw from RCA Studio B. In fact, Studio B was built to compete with the Bradley studios, which were owned by Bradley and his brother, producer Owen Bradley. They ran their operation from 1955 until 1962, when Columbia Records purchased the Hut and operated it until 1982. Throughout the decades it was the home of hits recorded by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Burl Ives, George Jones, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

“I don’t think Studio B compared favorably to the Quonset Hut for sound,” said Harold Bradley, who still does sessions and is President of the Nashville chapter of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM 257). “The Hut was very large and my amp was at the very back of it. So I was 35 or 40 feet away from Patsy Cline when we were recording ‘Crazy’ there, but you could hear everything well, which was important since that was before they started using headphones in studios.

“But somehow,” he continued, “whether we recorded at the Quonset Hut or Studio B, the songs turned out great and I always got the guitar sound I wanted on tape.”

Rumble agreed that Studio B was not a remarkably designed room. “It’s concrete block construction. There’s nothing fancy about it. Between the engineers and the players, there was a genuine esprit de corps. They were aware that they were doing something special in Nashville and building its reputation as Music City U.S.A.”

The product of these historic interactions between the players, engineers, producers and vocalists, defined what would become known as the “Nashville Sound.”

Up to that point, Country spun on an axis of fiddle- and guitar-driven honky tonk, or the jazz-inspired beat of Western swing, or the high and lonesome strains of mountain folk or bluegrass. In the mid ’50s, sales declined as rock ‘n’ roll lured young listeners. In response, Country record label executives signed Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and other rockabilly artists to reach this burgeoning market, while also helping hard-edged Country acts update their sounds and adapt to changing tastes.

Additionally, to appeal to the pop audience — and, as Atkins later joked, to keep their jobs — he and Bradley replaced Country’s raw fiddles, weeping pedal steel guitars and down-home singing with lush string sections, cocktail piano and crooners nestled on cushions of three- and four-part harmony from vocal backing groups.

In 1957 Atkins applied this formula at Studio B to produce Don Gibson’s catchy “Oh, Lonesome Me.” Two crossover classics, Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go” and The Browns’ “The Three Bells,” further proved the Nashville Sound’s viability in the marketplace.

Aside from occasional projects such as Gillian Welch’s Time (the Revelator) in 2001, Studio B has been closed as an active recording center since 1977. It is, however, far from mothballed. In 2002, The Mike Curb Family Foundation purchased the studio from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, to which Maddox had donated the facility in the early 1990s. It is operated now by the Museum and Nashville’s Belmont University as a tourist attraction and learning laboratory. Students in Belmont’s Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business get hands-on experience on its vintage gear, which is augmented now by a computer-based Digidesign Pro Tools system used exclusively for mixing two-track masters.

“Our educational mission is not just to preserve what’s here at the studio but to preserve the history of recording,” explained longtime RCA Studio B Manager Michael Janas. “We literally make students relive the entire history of recording at Studio B. They start with 16-track tape. When they’re ready to mix to a master, they do it to quarter-inch analog two-track tape and then to the two-channel Pro Tools system so they can see the similarities.”

Except for the computer, all of Studio B’s gear is either original or was manufactured during its halcyon years. That includes a 1972 API recording console that is historic in its own right. It came from a mobile recording unit used for The Band’s The Last Waltz, Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! and U2’s Rattle & Hum, as well as concert tapings by Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young with Crazy Horse.

“The music that came out of RCA Studio B in the late ’50s and early ’60s not only changed Country Music,” reflected Janas, “it also influenced what The Beatles and countless other artists wrote and recorded. It affected how we make and listen to music in Western culture.”
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