Save the Starday-King Studios
Nine historic Nashville properties in eminent danger of being lost forever comprise the “Nashville Nine,” a list released annually by Historic Nashville Inc. Among the 2016 line-up is the Starday-King Sound Studios, a nondescript mid-century modern office complex far from the tourist attractions, towering condos and hip neighborhoods of the “new” Nashville. Once home to one of the largest independent record labels in the world, Starday Records played a vital role in the history of Music City, and the attached studio space was the birthplace of records that ran the gamut from high lonesome bluegrass to hardcore honky tonk and sanctified gospel to funky soul classics.
The studio deserves restoration and revitalization as an important Nashville historical musical landmark and as a monument to the independent music spirit that transformed Nashville into Music City USA. We at Muddy Roots support the effort to save and restore the Starday-King Studio to its former glory. To that end we have created an online petition to raise awareness of the historic importance of the property and influence the current owner to either make repairs or sell the property to someone that would.
Starday Records was founded in 1953 as a stone country record label, sharply focused on the music of Texas. Beaumont, Texas-based talent manager and club-owner Jack Starns and Dallas-based jukebox operator and country music talent scout Harold “Pappy” Daily initially founded the company. They soon added a third partner, Don Pierce, a California-based record executive and business partner of Daily. Shortly after Starday scored its first hit, “Y’all Come” by Arlie Duff, Starnes sold his shares to Daily and Pierce over personal differences.
Starday seemed poised to become a significant player in the country music field, especially with Daily’s discovery of a young honky tonk singer named George Jones leading the pack, but other forces were at work. With the success of Elvis Presley’s first records on Sun, a wave of young, Texas hepcats hitched a ride on the rockabilly train. Daily lacked any feeling or understanding for rock’n’roll other than the general impression that it was crazy. As a result, Starday produced some of the wildest and craziest rockabilly ever recorded. While records by Sonny Fisher, Rudy Grayzell, Glenn Barber, Sleepy LaBeef and many others failed to hit nationally for Starday, many fans now view it as one of the greatest rockabilly labels, second only to Sun Records.
In January 1957, Daily and Pierce struck a deal with Mercury Records to produce country and rockabilly recordings as “Mercury-Starday.” Pierce relocated Starday’s offices from L.A. to Nashville. The company purchased a one-story stone office building at 3557 Dickerson Pike, about eight miles northeast of the developing Music Row area. Pierce chose the location based on cheaper real estate prices and the desire to make Starday truly independent in both attitude and location from other Nashville-based labels.
The deal with Mercury lasted slightly over 18 months with neither side happy with the results. Shortly after the agreement with Mercury expired, Daily and Pierce also ended their partnership. Daily left with Starday’s biggest artist, George Jones, along with a new discovery, former deejay J.P. Richardson, soon to be known as the “Big Bopper.”
Pierce retained most of the important masters and retained use of the Starday name. He made two very important decisions. The first was to double down the concept of Starday as an exclusively country label. As country music became slicker and more pop-oriented in the wake of the rock’n’roll explosion, Pierce recognized there was a market for traditional-sounding country music along with niche genres like bluegrass, gospel, hillbilly comedy and guitar instrumentals. There were also many well-known “name” country artists who appeared to be on the downside of their career arc and were being dropped by the major labels. Pierce aggressively sought out such artists — Red Sovine, Moon Mullican, Cowboy Copas, Johnny Bond and many others.
Pierce’s second decision was to build a state of the art studio to reduce recording costs for Starday releases and provide additional income through contract work for other labels. A large, two story cement block addition was constructed onto the back of Starday’s Dickerson Pike offices. The studio portion was designed by recording engineer Glen Snoddy who subsequently designed and managed Woodland Studios in East Nashville. Country musician and singer Tommy Hill ran the day-to-day operation of the new studio throughout most of the ‘60s.
From the time of its official opening in May 1960, the Starday studio was booked solid with in-house recordings and sessions for other labels. Pierce’s decision to emphasize traditional country music proved wise. With the help of Charlie Dick, (the husband of Opry star Patsy Cline) Starday built an extensive radio promotion department that serviced country music radio stations across the country. Starday releases became ubiquitous on even the smallest country radio stations and revitalized the careers of many of the label’s older artists.
Pierce placed a greater emphasis on the production and sale of country LPs than his major label competitors. Throughout the 1960s, Starday released scores of LPs with garish and kitschy covers that became favorites of country music record collectors. Starday was extremely successful with LP sales by utilizing a unique “rack jobber” network. Starday sales reps spread across the South, installing small record racks in country stores, five-and-dimes, truck stops and supermarkets. Starday releases were sold on a commission basis with a regularly replenished stock. Pierce also launched a unique mail order distribution outlet, The Country Music Record Club of America, in 1963, and built a warehouse onto the back of the Starday studio to facilitate the operation.
The Starday Sound Studio became a major resource for the many small, independent labels that sprang up in Nashville during the 1960s. In addition to a steady diet of country sessions, the studio hosted pop, rock’n’roll, soul, and black gospel sessions. The studio became a favorite of WLAC radio DJ and independent record producer, Hoss Allen who cut several soul and gospel records in the studio, including some of the earliest session work by a young, hotshot ex-GI guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.
In 1968, Pierce sold Starday to the Nashville-based LIN Broadcasting Corporation which also purchased the renowned Cincinnati-based R&B and country label, King Records. As Starday-King Records, the label became the largest independent record label in the world, and King’s biggest star, James Brown, began cutting records at the Starday studio. Brown loved the studio and continued to record there for several years after leaving King to sign with Polygram Records in 1971. Brown cut such classic hits as “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine,” “Super Bad” and “Hot Pants” at Starday and reportedly, the exterior of the building was painted brown in his honor.
In 1971, Starday-King was sold to a partnership that included the famed rock’n’roll songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The new owners’ primary interest was in the Starday-King publishing catalog, and the label and studio were allowed to flounder.
In 1976, the Starday-King label, its extensive catalog of master recordings and the studio were sold to Moe Lytle’s Gusto Records, a label that Lytle co-founded with Starday’s former studio head, Tommy Hill after Hill’s departure from Starday in 1968. Under Gusto’s ownership, the Starday label was revived and Hill once again took over management of the studio, returning it to full working order. Hill continued to operate the Starday studio until shortly before his death in 2002.
Since Hill’s death, the Starday-King Sound Studios has sat abandoned and neglected for a decade and a half, a sad but hopefully not final end to a great musical legacy.
The building may or may not survive. Nashville and the entire music community would lose a massive landmark. If you have any old pics, videos, recordings or memories related please post them in The Starday-King Studios Legacy FB group so it can be documented and celebrated.
- Moe Lytle
- Gusto Records
Save the Starday-King Studios
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