One doesn’t typically use words like character, integrity, genuine, honest, and kind to describe executives in the music business, but that’s how those who knew him will surely remember John Fry. John was a singular figure in Memphis music. Reeling from the death of John Hampton just one week ago, the Ardent family of music producers, engineers, artists, and executives are now left to reckon with the sudden loss of the man who made it all possible. John Fry died yesterday afternoon, December 18, and left a hole in the hearts of the many people whose lives he touched.
John Fry and Dana Key gave me and my band Satellite Soul our record deal in 1997, and he changed all of our lives forever. Granted, the phrase “changed my life” is now used to describe anything from a song to a fast-food burrito, but in this case it happens to be literally true. The tribute I pay to this man is the honest to goodness truth: John Fry’s impact was life altering for many, many people. He was the hub of a wheel whose spokes touched every part of the American music business, and countless lives of creative people.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal said it well: “For fifty years, he was the rock of Memphis music. A visionary who built a world-renowned studio, he was a sonic innovator and an local industry linchpin. More than anything, though, John Fry was a mentor: to the legendary band Big Star, and to a generation of musicians and music professionals for whom he served as a guiding light, father figure and friend.”
Fry ‘s impact on Christian music was perhaps even more profound. It was a labor of love, and an incredible list of artists draw their lines to and from Ardent Records, the label Fry founded. Big Tent Revival, Skillet, Smalltown Poets, Satellite Soul, Jeremy Horn, Todd Agnew, Clear, Altogether Separate, Justified, Joy Whitlock, NonFiction, and Jonah33 all came from the Ardent Label. Records by DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Degarmo & Key, Jennifer Knapp, Grammatrain, and many others were mixed in his studio. John Fry’s legacy extends over decades of Christian music.
That John had this type of impact is due to the fact that he was a wise steward of his life, his abilities, his resources, his time, and his heart. John was kind–gentle even. He possessed an economy of words, getting more accomplished with a solitary, laconic sentence than most of the rest of us could if we blathered on for hours, which we did. On any given day at Ardent one would find the studios full of creative personalities; the full spectrum: moody, flamboyant, attention deficient, irresponsible, brilliant, insightful, ingenious, inspired, neurotic, and disturbed. In order for that to work, somebody has to have their feet on the ground. That was John Fry. Grounded. Whatever else was going on in that building, John Fry could always see the big picture.
It was John’s great love for music, and for the creative people who always seemed to struggle to find ways to record their songs and get them in the hands of the public, that drove him to pursue recording and engineering. He was a Southern gentleman in the best sense–a dying breed. His sense of humor was dry–Mojave-desert-dry, saltines-crackers-dry–but brilliant, and never cruel. When folks circled up for an ad-hoc conversation in the studio, the smart move was to stand next to Fry. He was going to direct a couple of hilarious side-remarks out of the corner of his mouth and you had to be close to hear them. John played the straight man to a lot of unconventional people.
At first, I thought he was a suit–just the guy who signed the checks. Then Paul and Skidd started telling us stories about what he had done in the studio, who he had produced, recorded, and what kind of impact he had on the music business. Ardent was Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Al Green, Z-Z TOP, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Big Star, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Allman Brothers, B.B. King, Robert Cray, Waylon Jennings, and R-E-M. Fry made it happen. I remember Ebersold saying, “He’s forgotten more about engineering than I’ll ever know.”
John wandered into the studio periodically throughout that first day. Once you are in for demos, you know there’s a good possibility the label wants to work with you. The big question at that point is about the songs. Do you have enough material for a record? Are the songs good enough? We put a good 30 tracks down live to tape in about twelve hours. His only comment was about the song, Equal to the Fall. He said, “If you don’t put that on the record, I’m tearing up your contract.” It was a vote of confidence I’ll never forget.
As I was slowly enfolded into the Ardent tradition, the John Fry stories trickled out, each one more unlikely than the last. His one liners were the wisdom literature of the studios. Over all the months of days I spent making records in that building, John would nearly always poke his head in the door. He was just making sure we had everything we needed. I never heard him say an unkind word. The worst day at Ardent beats the best day almost anywhere else. That was the world John Fry created.
John was a shrewd business mind to be sure–not that I can judge, I’m the world’s worst business person–but the heart of his business model was to surround himself with people he genuinely liked. I think perhaps he did this because he had already decided that he was going to be a kind and generous person who cared about other people. He might as well be that way for those he believed in, people who wouldn’t take advantage of him for his good heartedness. Ardent, therefore, was a verdant and capacious place. He was generous and kind, so Ardent took on those characteristics. “Your moods are affected by your surroundings,” Fry said. “I think there is something that operates in Memphis…and at Ardent. I can’t explain what it is. You come record here, something good happens to you.” Indeed.
John’s generosity toward those who were just coming up in the business left a deep impact on many lives, mine included. His passion for listening morphed into a passion for recording, then into a desire to groom the next generation, and pass along all that he had learned. John once said, “If you acquire knowledge or skill or even wisdom, and you just keep it, then when you die, that dies with you. But if you share that with other generations — who in turn will share it and share it and share it — you’re doing something that lasts.”
John’s work will last. His legacy certainly transcends musical excellence. John’s spirit of integrity, character, honesty, kindness, and generosity will live on through the lives of those he mentored and cared for. I will be forever grateful to be a tiny part of his vast legacy.