As a sophomore in high school, avid electronics buff John Fry decided to start a record label and recording facility. Building a makeshift recording studio in his grandmother's sewing room, he formed Ardent Records in 1960. The studio, located in Memphis, later moved out of his grandmother's house and became a multi-million dollar operation, recording everyone from ZZ Top to Big Star to R.E.M. during its almost 40-year history.
The label's first release in the early '60s was of a Jacksonville, Florida singer named Freddie Cadell. The single didn't exactly skyrocket to the top of the charts, but the experience allowed Fry and his friends to familiarize themselves with the process of making records. The label went on to release four more singles before Fry retired from the business at the ripe old age of 17. Persuaded by friend and future producer Jim Dickinson, Fry restarted the label in 1964 by recording the group Lawson & Four More. Again, the group never became hitmakers, but one of their members, Terry Manning, was entranced by the recording process and went to work for Fry. With a production team in place, Fry moved Ardent to a rental space on National Street and, along with Dickinson and Manning, began developing the studio's reputation. It wasn't long before Ardent became the B studio for Stax Records and Fry began engineering sessions for Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, and Booker T. & the MG's.
During the '70s, Ardent moved to yet another larger facility and began attracting big-name rock acts, recording ZZ Top and mixing several Led Zeppelin releases. Perhaps most famously, Ardent also became home to Alex Chilton and Big Star. The cult group recorded all three of their releases at the studio, with Fry engineering the first two. When recording technology moved from 16- to 24-track, Fry bowed out of production work, complaining of the growing complication of the whole process. He retained ownership of the studio and label of the same name, though, overseeing records by the Replacements, the Afghan Whigs, and George Thorogood. Following a heart attack, Fry died at a Memphis hospital in December 2014 at the age of 69. The studio he originally started in his grandmother's sewing room had long ago secured its legacy as one of the most respected recording facilities in the South.