"It's got this vibe to it," Cris Brown says. "It was a no-brainer for us. Some of our favorite records were made here. We had a chance to take it over, and we jumped on it."
Brown and business partner John Falls are the new owners of the studio on Rayner Street that since the late 1960s has been known as Sound of Memphis, Kiva, and House of Blues. The newest owners are proprietors the of production company Tattooed Millionaire Entertainment.
"If you look at it, and you look at the history of it from back when it was Kiva through House of Blues, there have been legendary records made here. Legends who ran the place."
Music publisher Linda Lucchesi recalls the original legends who built this unique studio. Her father Gene Lucchesi Sr. built the studio with his earnings as producer for Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs' "Woolly Bully."
"There were three men who worked together. There was my dad, Stan Kessler, and Paul Bomarito," Linda Lucchesi says. "My dad got so gung-ho when 'Woolly Bully' became a hit that he wanted to build a studio. They had been doing everything over at Sam Phillips'. So he built it, and Stan didn't like renting the studio out to make money, because he really is a creative person. Dad had to work over at Delta. That was the real bread and butter other than the hits they got on Sam. 'Li'l Red Riding Hood' was right behind it."
In the 1970s, Lucchesi caught a break when he met modern country super producer and Velvet Underground nemesis Mike Curb.
"Dad struck a deal with Mike Curb, and it became a joint venture, which was Mike Curb and Sounds of Memphis. That was the logo on the front of the building. It was a brick building. The deal between MGM and Sounds of Memphis was the first huge deal in Memphis. Then right behind that came Atlantic. They used it as an in-house production company. Mike Curb brought all of his people in. Tons of people."
Solomon Burke, Martha Reeves, Gloria Gaynor, and Rufus Thomas are just some of the artists who worked at Sound of Memphis.
"The Bar-Kays bought the place," Lucchesi adds. "A lot of people do not know that. But I have all the paperwork on it. I was involved back when that happened. The Bar-Kays weren't able to pay the bills, so it went back into my father's lap, and we got involved again. What I wanted to do was get it stable where I didn't have to rent it out, because that is just so hard, I'm not going to lie about it. Then Gary came into the picture next."
Gary Belz bought the building in the late 1980s with James Gang guitarist Joe Walsh and had the tracking room redesigned by legendary acoustic designer Tom Hidley, a man responsible for what we think of when we think recording studio. Hidley designed rooms to have a neutral response (neither bassy nor trebley sounding) so projects could be worked on in multiple locations and not have the problems associated with rooms that had conflicting acoustic responses. John Meredith, a specialty contractor who worked on Abbey Road Studio in London and is based in Memphis, did the construction in 1987 and 1989 on what would become Kiva Studios.
Kiva Studios eventually became House of Blues when Belz partnered with Isaac Tigrett in the 1990s. House of Blues recently moved operations to Nashville. A Mix magazine interview with Belz described his decision to abandon Memphis. It's terribly depressing. I suggest you don't read it.
The studio's new owners are aware of what they are getting into.
"It's a huge part of the history of Memphis music," Falls says. "Isaac Tigrett was involved, one of the founders and creatives behind the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues brand. From conception, you have Tom Hidley and John Meredith working together to build this tracking room. That is an incredible combination."
Brown and Falls have done well for themselves and look forward to taking up the mantle of this historic place. Brown signed with Universal in 2004 as the singer for One Less Reason. Falls signed with Atlantic and Warner Music Group as the singer for Egypt Central.
"I signed two major label deals, and John had major label deals," Brown says. "We never felt that as artists we were represented correctly. They soaked up all the money. Then independently, once we broke free from the labels, we were able to make a really good living playing music and selling records. Now, we want to take that expertise and push it. There's so much talent in this area, Memphis being the birthplace of rock-and-roll. There's a band here called Empire City that we signed. It's one of those things: We're going to be an artist-friendly label. It's about everybody making a living moreso than an entity taking all the money and starving out the artists."
Given the industry's issues over the past decade, the two will need more than a recording studio to make things work.
"If you're going to use it as a rental facility in Memphis, you're really up a creek," Lucchesi says.
Fortunately, Falls and Brown have a wider outlook on the business.
"Multiple people who work at the label — as well as Cris and myself —either engineered or produced," Falls says. "We have that in-house. But on this particular project, Tom Lord-Alge (U2, Simple Minds, Dave Matthews, Avril Lavigne) is going to be mixing. So we will do some things outside. We can make any record for any artist that we sign. We have a production company in-house, so we can do videos, documentaries, behind-the-scenes, and live footage. We're really trying to build a one-stop shop and base it out of Memphis."
"That's why it's called Tattooed Millionaire Entertainment," Brown adds.
Brown and Falls are currently in the middle of their own renovations. But that hasn't slowed them down or diminished interest from people who have worked there in the past.
"We have a lot of people calling about House of Blues because of the historical value of the building. People who recorded here years ago are trying to get back in. We're renovating at this moment. So we're actually using Young Avenue Sound right now until we have all the wiring redone. We're really redoing this building and bringing it up to date."
Those lucky enough to have worked there may recall the freaky oxygen-depleting fire suppression system or the exponentially freakier (like getting into crystal skull freaky) holographic angel that decorated the main tracking room.
"The Halon is gone," Brown says of the Star Trekkish fire suppressant. "The holographic angel is gone. But the reverb tanks are still here."
What did the angel look like when they pulled her out of the wall?
"It was a huge chunk of glass," Falls says. "We still have the spotlight for the hologram. We're in the process of figuring out what we're going to put in there."
It better be weird.