Houston’s Legendary SugarHill Recording Studios Turn 80 – Texas Monthly

In 1998, SugarHill Recording Studios sound engineer Dan Workman received a call from a man named Mathew Knowles asking to book studio time for a band called Destiny’s Child. “I didn’t know who they were,” admitted Workman. “They only released one album. They had a song that was playing on the radio [“No, No, No”], but none of the stations I was listening to. So, I was not flabbergasted at all.

Knowles showed up at the studio in Houston’s Third Ward with his seventeen-year-old daughter, Beyoncé, who performed a karaoke session with Workman. It wasn’t until Beyoncé gave her approval that Mathew brought in the other two band members, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, to record the tracks for the band’s second album, The writing is on the wall. Knowles, who produced the band, wanted to make sure the studio would be a comfortable place to record the three teenagers.

“There was just a real positive vibe there,” Knowles recalled. “The environment is very, very important when you’re recording. Little things can really define a recording session.

Destiny’s Child would become the best-selling artist in the history of the legendary recording studio, which celebrates its eightieth anniversary this year. That’s no small feat, considering the range of musical stars who have recorded there. Founded in 1941 as the Quinn Recording Company by amateur sound engineer Bill Quinn, the studio moved to its current location in 1950, changing its name to Gold Star. Over the next few decades, the studio would host Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby “Blue” Bland, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Smash Mouth, Travis Scott and thousands of other artists in genres ranging from gospel to gangsta rap, alternative rock to zydeco. Wandering through SugarHill’s windowless maze of recording studios, control rooms, and lounges is like traveling back in time through Texas musical history.

“We’re very lucky,” said SugarHill co-owner Ryan Youngblood as he showed me around the 10,000 square foot studio on a quiet afternoon last month. Dressed in a gray hoodie, jeans and expensive sneakers, the 37-year-old Fort Worth musician, producer and engineer sipped a Starbucks iced coffee while casually listening to the famous musicians he had welcomed. Lil Wayne rented the entire facility, all four studios, the week before. 21 Savage had been behind the mic recently, as had J. Cole.

Although SugarHill operates around the clock, with two shifts of about eight employees each, the busiest hours are from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., when the parking lot frequently fills with Rolls Royces and Lamborghinis guarded by a team. private security guards. Housed in an unmarked building in a working-class neighborhood, the studio’s low profile is a big part of its appeal. “It’s really exclusive and extremely private,” Youngblood said. “I don’t have a big sign on the front door.”

Youngblood and two business partners bought SugarHill in 2017 from an ownership group that included Workman, engineer Andy Bradley (who along with journalist Roger Wood wrote the definitive history of SugarHill, house of success) and college music professor Rodney Meyers. “At every stage of the business, the owners gave the studio a certain character,” said Workman, who started at SugarHill in 1994. what you might think of.. The current owners cater more to the hip hop community, while still keeping the diversity of musical acts in. They have made good investments and really made it their own.

Houston rapper Slim Thug, a regular on SugarHill, recently visited to cut a song that will play at Houston Rockets games at Toyota Center. “When you go out there in that mix, you’re going to meet other artists,” he told me. “You may be doing a collaboration.”

Since its beginnings as a Gold Star, the studio has challenged racial segregation. Don Robey (1903-1975), black record company owner and Fifth Ward native, a major musical impresario in mid-century Houston, booked many of his acts – including Bobby Bland, Junior Parker and Johnny Otis – in Gold Star. The studio has also recorded Mexican American music almost since its inception, including Los Dinos, the bilingual group led by Selena Quintanilla’s father, Abraham. “Like Houston itself, the Gold Star/SugarHill complex is a sprawling, seemingly unplanned and unrestricted multicultural place,” Bradley and Wood write in house of success.

At first, white musicians mostly recorded country or Cajun music, while black musicians recorded blues, known at the time as “race records”. In the 1960s, however, the barriers began to fall. White singer Roy Head recorded his hit single “Treat Her Right” for Don Robey at the Gold Star in 1965 with an integrated band of white and black musicians. It went to number two on the Billboard R&B chart. (The song was recently featured in the Quentin Tarantino film Once upon a time in Hollywood.) After a new group of owners briefly changed the name of the studio to International Artists in the late 1960s, it welcomed one of the strangest collaborations in Texas history: blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins recorded a jam session with psychedelic rock band The 13th Floor Elevators.

In 2017, country star Lee Ann Womack chose SugarHill for the sessions that led to her stripped-down, roots-inspired album. The lonely, the lonely and the departed. She had recorded most of her previous albums in Nashville and was looking for a more authentic sound. “I grew up in East Texas and just wanted to go back to Texas to record,” Womack told me. “I had heard of SugarHill for years, and thought there was probably some funk in there. My husband Franck [who produces Womack’s records] does not like sterile environments. He hates studios that are really pristine.

Christian bands, chamber music ensembles, and a number of young hip-hop artists who occasionally came in to watch Womack’s sessions were also recording at SugarHill at the time. “We saw the same people every day for a few weeks, but it was the rappers that we really connected with,” Womack recalled. “I think they were blown away by the musicality of the guys we brought in [from Nashville]. They would come to hear Glenn Worf play bass and freak out.

That SugarHill survived is a miracle. It weathered ownership changes, renovations, rebranding, Napster and the rise of streaming music services, and a sordid rape and child pornography scandal that sent the former owner of the studio, legendary producer Huey Meaux, in jail for more than a year. decade. When the studio first opened, musicians recorded songs directly onto wax discs in one take; today, producers use computers to piece together songs from dozens of instrumental and vocal tracks, samples of previously recorded music, and electronic beats lifted from the ether. But no matter how high-tech the production process gets, says Womack, there’s no substitute for recording in a real studio with real musicians.

“There is nothing like it,” she said. “Being able to react to them, and they react to me. This is where it gets really fun.

Hear some of the greatest hits recorded at SugarHill:

“T Model Blues”, Lightnin’ Hopkins

“Why Baby Why,” George Jones

“Treat Her Right”, Roy Head

“She’s talking about a mover”, Sir Douglas Quintet

“Survivor”, Destiny’s Child