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ARDENT'S JOHN FRY/An Interview: 1975

A Preface:     When I contacted John Fry in mid- to late-1975, it was ostensibly to gather information about one of Ardent Records' artists and one of my favorite bands: Cargoe. Not long before, Ardent Records, a company formed by Fry and his engineer turned business partner Terry Manning, had drowned in a bankruptcy scandal not of their own making, tied to a sinking Stax Records by way of a distribution and manufacturing contract. As some comments here show, they were still dragging for bodies. Fry, forced to watch from the shore but always the gentleman and businessman, answered each and every question I posed with truthfulness and candor. It was obvious that Ardent Records was much more to him than business and that its demise cut deep. I could hear the frustration and despair as he relived that period of his life which must have been magic. He believed in Ardent and Ardent's philosophy of supporting good and not just mainstream music and musicians. He still believes. Today, Ardent Records exists as a full-fledged record company--- okay, music company--- owned by Fry and headed by Jody Stephens, former Big Star drummer (Yes, the same Big Star drowned in Stax Lake, but saved by legions of fans who would not let the music die). I post this edited interview as a tribute to what Ardent Records is and what it tried to be.

Q:    Did Cargoe record any tracks which were not released? A second album, maybe?

FRY:  Not a whole album. There are possibly two or three tunes around that were not released. Of course, Terry did all of the production on that, so I'm not as familiar with that as he would be.

Q:     Was Cargoe's first LP, the one recorded before the contract with Ardent, released in any form?

FRY:  No. The only thing that was ever released was a single. Feel All Right was released as a single on a local label (Beautiful). To my knowledge, it was never nationally distributed. Supposedly, Cargoe had recorded a lot of the songs on the Ardent album for those people, but (the album) was never released. We basically did it over again after they broke loose from those other folks.

Q:     Did Feel Alright make it higher than #97 on any national charts?

FRY:  Well, somewhere in the 90s on those charts. That was about it, though.

Q:     After the initial distribution agreement folded, why wasn't the Cargoe album reissued?

FRY:  You mean the distribution agreement with Stax?

Q:     Yeah. As I heard it, you had a distribution agreement with Stax and then Stax signed an agreement with CBS. Right?

FRY:  Well, at the time we contracted with Stax, they handled all of their distribution through independents. After we'd been with them six or eight months, I guess, they made a deal to pull out of the independents and go through CBS. So we really had only one distribution agreement, with Stax, but it later developed into a question of which distributor handled Stax. Of course, eventually they were distributed by CBS as opposed to the independents.

Q:     At that time, the Cargoe album was pulled off the market, right?

FRY:  No. Well, let's put it this way. I suppose it was. It was still in the Stax catalogue and if someone had tried hard enough, they could have ordered it. CBS, based on sales (or lack of sales) up to that time, did not elect to press any Cargoe product and put them into their inventory. Now, Stax had some inventory and could have supplied any orders that they received, but it was not put into the CBS distribution system like it was a current release or an item in someone's catalogue for which there was demand because there really wasn't. Well, they thought so. Whether they were correct or not is another matter.

Q:     Do you have any word on the members of the band, where they are now?

FRY:  I can tell you something, but I'm not sure how up-to-date the information is. Bill Phillips is around Memphis still and was playing with some bands in clubs and places like that... nothing particularly distinctive, to my knowledge, but he was still playing music. At least, I don't think he's moved back to Oklahoma, which is where they were all originally from. Max Wisley is living in Tulsa. I think he's working in computers or something like that. Tommy Richard still plays. He's in San Francisco and, frankly, I've never been able to get it straight, actually, what it is he's doing. But I don't think he's playing rock anymore. I think he's going to music school out there and is kind of interested in... I hate to say jazz, because what does that mean these days? Somebody says that, you really don't know exactly what they're talking about. And Tim Benton, the last I'd heard, was going to music school at North Texas State.

Q:     What problems did you have with distribution and why do you think they happened?

FRY:  Well, we had known all the people at Stax for a long time. They had been our good friends and good customers at the recording studio and we thought a lot of them. Al Bell and Jim Stewart, who were the top executives there, I think were responsive in some degree to what we were doing. But certainly the people who worked there did not understand at all what was going on with this kind of music. They had never had any success with records directed towards the kind of market we were appealing to. What they had been doing was entirely different. They were working in an entirely different area and they just were not prepared to help us. At the same time, we were not prepared to help ourselves. Now, we gradually got to the place where we were prepared to help ourselves, as far as promotion was concerned. At one point, we had four full-time people in promotion and we generated a lot of radio airplay on some of the product, but we were never in a position where we could control the sales and distribution aspect. There was never anything you could call a coordinated marketing program and we never had any appreciable success in having product available in the areas where records were played on the radio. It was a... well, you had to be there to appreciate the organization, or lack of it, that Stax had in that regard. And I'm not trying to be bitter about it or anything else, but it was just unbelievable, you know? If you're looking for an answer as to why this whole operation failed, I think you could say that the final cause was my having the bad judgment to make a deal like I did to begin with.

Q:     When, exactly, did Ardent (as a label) fold? Was the decision yours, Stax's or CBS's?

FRY:  Well, the situation with Stax deteriorated steadily from the time they made the CBS deal, not only with our records, but also with their own releases. By the time you went through the bureaucracy at Stax and then went through the much larger one at CBS, the situation was just impossible. Then Stax began to encounter some financial difficulties. At the same time, we had grown rather disgruntled--- after beating your head against a wall for a certain length of time you discover that it hurts, that you don't want to do it anymore. And we'd gotten tired of doing work that we thought was good--- a lot of people who reviewed records and made comments about things like that for a living seemed to agree with our assessment of the worth of what we were doing. We got a little tired of putting all this work into creating product that was going to be put into the hands of someone who frankly just didn't give a damn. You could imagine the effect on the artist. You know, there were a lot of places somewhat secretive about what exactly went on. We had the type of situation where people could walk in at any time and be just as well informed with what was going on on the business end of it as they wanted to be. And when they would hear about some of the stuff that was going down as far as distribution was concerned, it did little to help their level of enthusiasm about what they were working on. I guess Stax is on the edge of bankruptcy now. The whole company is in bankruptcy court here in Memphis. There has been a protracted legal battle as to whether they're really solvent and what kind of bankruptcy provisions of the law the thing should be handled under. But the long and short of it is that they're out of business because they did not have sufficient means to continue operating. The demise of the label and the decision not to release any more records was pretty much coincident with what was going on with Stax.

Q:     Is the reissue of any Ardent product possible, say through the sales of tapes to other companies, or through another agreement on your part?

FRY:  Under the terms of the distribution agreement with Stax, they own the masters. Any masters that were actually delivered to them and deemed satisfactory for release and put out became property of Stax. There is at present a great deal of litigation going on to determine who is going to wind up owning that property. No one right now is in a position to say that they have a clear title. There are a number of creditors who claim security agreements and so forth. That is going to have to be decided in the courts. When someone establishes clear title, they would be in a position to sell the tapes or license somebody to manufacture and release product. If there was a demand. We've had some inquiries from England which we have not been able to handle because of the legal situation.

Q:     Would Ardent be interested in buying the tapes back?

FRY:  The only reason we would have an interest in buying them back is if there was some distributor who wanted to reissue them. We would be interested in seeing that that happened, I suppose, whether it involved our buying it back or participating in helping someone negotiate buying or obtaining a license to release them. If someone else bought them, I assume that contractual obligations of paying us royalties would be included. The answer, I guess, is that we would be interested in seeing them released if someone felt that that was the thing they ought to do. We did have some foreign inquiries. It is strange that the foreign distributors contracted with Stax were almost universally disinterested in doing anything. There were other foreign distributors who would have released the records, but by virtue of the fact that Stax had an exclusive arrangement with other people for those foreign territories, nothing was ever done along those lines. The only things that were ever released... The Cargoe single was released in Canada. And there was an EP on Big Star with four tunes on it that was released in Brazil. The record industry in Brazil is so sophisticated that we didn't know it. They didn't even send to us for a tape. They took an album and mastered the EP by playing back the record.

Q:     Sort of a bootleg?

FRY:  It was perfectly legitimate, except their technical standards leave a little something to be desired.

Q:     How did Ardent come to sign Brian Alexander Robertson?

FRY:  Gosh, I sure don't know. He was introduced to us by a guy in the publishing business who knew the house attorney at Stax. Al Bell and Terry Manning became interested in him on the basis of his demos, which were really good, I thought. He was signed and they recorded him in England and recorded him here some. Terry produced. Well, Terry didn't really produce. If you look at the album credits, there was a Georg Kajanus who was credited as co-producer or arranger or something. To my way of thinking, the net result was pretty unsatisfactory. If you could have heard the guy's demos in comparison with his album. It was unfortunate. If the other product that we had was not something well-suited to Stax's marketing concepts and their abilities, then certainly someone as exotic as Brian Alexander Robertson was not. I think probably that if I'd had my way about it, if the decision had been entirely up to me, we wouldn't have released it. But once someone's gone that far and spent that much money on a recording budget, they usually go ahead and put it out. We did get some favorable response from that, and then we received an awful lot of unfavorable response. The radio people were particularly unimpressed at every level and it was impossible to get airplay. A lot of the other records got airplay, but that one did not. A lot of resistance.

Q:     Was either Big Star's third album or Alex Chilton's solo album recorded for Ardent?

FRY:  When the group had gotten down to Jody Stephens, the drummer, and Alex Chilton... after the termination of the Stax agreement (I just went over and said, look, it's pointless to go on with this, let's have a release, and they said all right)--- we recorded 18 sides and attempted to place it but could not get a label interested in picking it up. The material was a lot different than what the whole band had done. I could understand where there'd be resistance to picking it up. It's a little unusual.

Q:     But I've seen companies release unusual stuff before.

FRY:  Yeah, I have too. But our ability at making records and handling the technical end of the business has always been a lot better than our ability to deal with record moguls. And you have to understand that the Big Star band was originally four people and after the first album, Chris Bell dropped out of the picture. Then, after the second album, Andy Hummel dropped out.

Q:     Where is Chris Bell now?

FRY:  Chris is still around. He's living in Memphis, playing off and on in bands and working on some tapes. He's got some interest now, in England... a possibility of making some kind of a deal. But nothing's come of it yet in terms of a record release.

Q:     Did the Hot Dogs record anything after I Walk the Line?

FRY:  They're all still around. Terry still has some of the stuff he produced. They recorded some things toward the end of the Stax agreement and Terry hung onto them. And they recorded producing themselves. Of course, they are not the same band. Greg Reding and Jack Holder still have a Hot Dogs band and they've been playing continuously in the area, but they have a couple of new guys--- a drummer and a bass player. They've been in and out of two or three management types of situations and are recording some more stuff.

Terry started out way back in the early days as an engineer. He worked with us through the time that the distribution thing fell apart. At that time, to be frank with you, there was a little friction between Terry and myself because it was his opinion that we ought to stick with Stax to the bitter end. I said I can't take it anymore, so you go your way and I'll go mine and that was where we left it. We're still on good terms. He worked for Stax until they went completely out of business. He still does a lot of free-lance engineering and comes over to work in our studio all the time. We're on friendly terms now, but he doesn't work here, per se, and we don't have a production interest together. But he's still living and working in Memphis.

Q:     Are any records available through the studio?

FRY:  We have such small supplies of those things that it wouldn't be practical. I've seen the records as cut-outs in stores. I went into Peaches, which is a big record store in Fort Lauderdale. They also have one in Atlanta, I think. It's one of those supermarket-sized places. They had tons of Cargoe, both Big Star albums and even some Hot Dogs in their cut-outs. It really blew me away. I didn't expect to see that, but anyone who wanted them, they could go in and give them two bucks. There is still some inventory floating around out there and if somebody wanted to look hard enough, they could probably get themselves a record. We do answer requests. If you want to get to the bottom line of the distribution thing, I have a file about three inches thick of letters that came in during the times that these things were released. The records were on the market, they were being written about in the trade and consumer music press. The letters came in from anywhere you could imagine. Every place in the United States, foreign countries, Puerto Rico. Basically, they said I desperately want to buy this record and I've been to every store and I can't buy it and they can't order it. That, to me, just summed up the distribution situation. And when you stop and think about how hard it is for some guy out there who isn't in the record business to just procure our address... Getting our address in Memphis is not as easy as getting CBS's in New York. For somebody to go to all that trouble, to send you a letter saying that they wanted your record... Considering how fickle the public usually is, I've often wondered what factor I should multiply by to come up with what we should have sold. In other words, if I've got one person who went to all that trouble, if the product had been available and on display in a store, how many more would have bought it? Should I multiply the number by 100 or 1,000 or what? I've received so many of those things. We've answered as many as we could. If somebody went to that much trouble, we usually would send them the record for free. I think we may have distributed more that way than we actually sold.

Q:     Were you pleased with the critical response to Ardent?

FRY:  Well, I couldn't be anything but pleased. That was the only gratifying part of that experience. That was the only thing that you had to kind of keep you going, at times. But at the same time, it was a great source of frustration. It would be easy for me to understand if you had no sales on a record, if you put it out and no one played it on the radio, if no one had anything to say about it or everyone wrote it up and said it was the worst thing they'd ever heard. But when you have people saying all these nice things about you and you're not selling any records, it really makes you sure that that there's something bad wrong. If it were one or two people writing good reviews of your stuff, you could say it was a fluke. But all these people wrote about us in widely circulated magazines--- I didn't send you anything like the whole file. There are files five and six inches thick. Clippings from college newspapers and music reviewers in local newspapers. For every one that we got hold of, there were probably many more that we never saw. I'd say that it ran 95% very complimentary. And while it was very pleasing to have all those nice things said about what you were doing, it made you even more frustrated with your inability to get things into the hands of the public.

But enough of that. To fill you in on what the nature of our business is now, I got so disgusted with the whole thing at the time the distribution thing was falling apart and Stax was going out of business, I made a deal to sell the studio to some people. I was completely out of the business for about six months and then these people went broke. Anyway, we have a couple of guys from Kentucky who have a writer's deal with Screen Gems Publishing and we're trying to get them on as artists. We still have some connection with a few production projects, but it's mostly on the basis of our saying to somebody, all right, we think you have some ability there and we're willing to let you use our facilities and we'll help in any way we can. But we expect to participate in some way if and when anything happens. We have several people we're working with on that basis, but we're not really trying to run a label or a production company.

Q:     Are there thoughts of getting back into the record business if, say, something should jell?

FRY:  Yeah, I suppose that's tempting. On the other hand, that thing was such a miserable and frustrating experience that I'm not sure I'd want to run the risk of repeating it. I'm, shall we say, gun-shy about that prospect. But I have no definite plans. It's kind of a question of seeing what particular situation presented itself and acting on that.

More Musical Musings:

Scott Boyer/Talks About the Capricorn Rhythm Section
Christian Rock/The Early Years
Gabrielle Gewirtz/Check Her Out!
Audrey Martell/Pop Rock Par Excellence!
Notary Sojac/A Pacific Northwest Legend
Bill Pillmore/Return of the Cowboy
Jess Pillmore/One of 2005's Best!
WFMU Terry Manning/Cargoe Interview
Steve Young/Rock Salt & Nails

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