Get On Up!

The Saga of Starday Sound Studios {In Three Parts}

By Randy Fox

The home of Starday Records and Starday Sound at 3557 Dickerson Pike, Madison, Tennessee, circa 1965. Courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
The home of Starday Records and Starday Sound at 3557 Dickerson Pike, Madison, Tennessee, circa 1965. Courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum

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Mon 31 Jan 2022 12:30 CST

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PART ONE

The Home of the Hits

Starday Records brought the music to Madison

Driving South on a sparsely occupied stretch of Dickerson Pike between Old Hickory Boulevard and Briley Parkway, you’ll whiz right past the dilapidated, mid-century commercial building at 3557 Dickerson Pike. The tall, decaying cement block building behind it probably won’t even register — just one more abandoned commercial property awaiting the arrival of the wrecking ball. But those cement block walls hold the story of Starday Records, one of Nashville’s most important indie labels, and it’s a tale that stretches from Nashville’s most prominent Possum to the Godfather of Soul.

Like many upstart indie labels founded in the 1950s, Starday Records was sparked by the pursuit of hot hillbilly music, records sales, and cold hard cash. Founded in 1952 by Beaumont, Texas-based talent manager Jack Starns and Dallas-based jukebox operator Harold “Pappy” Daily — Starday initially focused on the wild and woolly sounds of the Lone Star State. With the addition of California-based record executive Don Pierce as a partner (Pierce would quickly buy out Starns’ shares in the company), the infant record label scored its first hit before its first birthday. Two years later, with Daily handling the talent and Pierce the business, the label struck honky-tonk gold with a young possum-eyed Texan named George Jones.

Starday Sound Studios in the 1960s. Tommy Hill at the recording desk with Junior Huskey on upright bass. Courtesy of Kent Blanton
Starday Sound Studios in the 1960s. Tommy Hill at the recording desk with Junior Huskey on upright bass. Courtesy of Kent Blanton

In January 1957, Daily and Pierce talked their way into a deal with Mercury Records to run the label’s country division. Pierce relocated Starday’s offices from L.A. to Nashville, purchasing a one-story, stone-fronted building on Dickerson Pike in Madison. The deal with Mercury lasted slightly over 18 months, and neither side was happy with the results. Shortly thereafter, Daily and Pierce also ended their partnership. Daily left with Starday’s biggest hitmaker, George Jones, while Pierce kept the label, the catalog, and the Dickerson Pike property.

With the label’s cash possum gone, Pierce made two critical decisions: (1) He doubled down on Starday’s image as THE country label and (2) began construction of a state-of-the-art studio behind the company’s offices in Madison.

The first decision was a case of recognizing a market and targeting it with maximum firepower. As the major labels began to chase crossover hits with the smooth “Nashville Sound,” Pierce realized there was still a healthy market for hardcore hillbilly in the hinterlands. He unleashed an ongoing salvo of country LPs in garish and kitschy covers with a dizzying array of niche sub-genres: bluegrass, hillbilly comedy, steel guitar instrumentals, and more. He was quick to sign fading Opry stars, and, through aggressive radio promotion, he revived the careers of artists like Red Sovine, Cowboy Copas, and Johnny Bond. As new stars emerged on major labels, he quickly bought masters to their early recordings from small indie labels. He pumped out cheapo LPs of formative material by Buck Owens, Dolly Parton, Roger Miller, and Glen Campbell, among others, along with the repackaging of George Jones’ Starday recordings under dozens of various titles. Pierce created new outlets for country record sales with the mail-order Country Music Record Club of America and created a unique “rack jobber” distribution network, selling Starday LPs through small record racks in country stores, five-and-dimes, truck stops, and supermarkets throughout the South.

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Pierce’s second decision, Starday Sound Studios, opened in May 1960 and was soon booked around the clock. Although reduced recording costs for Starday Records was the intent, the studio became a significant resource for the many small, independent labels springing up like mushrooms in Nashville. Along with this steady crop of country sessions, the studio also hosted pop, rock & roll, soul, and black gospel sessions, including some of the earliest studio work by a young Jimi Hendrix.

Like many upstart indie labels founded in the 1950s, Starday Records was sparked by the pursuit of hot hillbilly music, records sales, and cold hard cash. Founded in 1952 by Beaumont, Texas-based talent manager Jack Starns and Dallas-based jukebox operator Harold “Pappy” Daily — Starday initially focused on the wild and woolly sounds of the Lone Star State. With the addition of California-based record executive Don Pierce as a partner (Pierce would quickly buy out Starns’ shares in the company), the infant record label scored its first hit before its first birthday. Two years later, with Daily handling the talent and Pierce the business, the label struck honky-tonk gold with a young possum-eyed Texan named George Jones.

PART TWO

Ragged but Right

A new day dawning for the historic Starday-King Sound Studios property

Local historic conservationists, Madison community activists, and Nashville-centric music history nerds are all breathing a sigh of relief and feeling optimistic over the news that one of Madison’s most historically important music sites is now under new ownership. The former Starday-King Sound Studios facility at 3557 Dickerson Pike was sold in November to the non-profit Woodbine Community Organization, which announced plans to develop the property into an affordable housing community that focuses on the unique musical and historical legacy of the property.

The sandstone-fronted, mid-century-modern office building became the home of the country music record label Starday Records in 1957, while construction on the adjacent studio began in late 1959. One of the most prominent independent record labels in the 1960s, Starday Records played a vital role in the history of Music City, and the attached studio space was the birthplace of recordings that ran the gamut from country and bluegrass to Southern soul and James Brown funk classics. (The adjacent story provides a more in-depth history of Starday Records and studio.) Gusto Records purchased the label and studio in 1976, and the studio continued operations until the death of longtime studio manager Tommy Hill in 2002.

Tommy Hill, Starday-King  Sound Studios manager, in his office late 1997. Photograph by Jim Herrington
Tommy Hill, Starday-King Sound Studios manager, in his office late 1997. Photograph by Jim Herrington

For the last 19 years, the offices and studio remained unoccupied while both buildings fell into disrepair. In 2016, Historic Nashville, Inc. added the Starday-King Studios to its “Nashville Nine” annual list of the most endangered historic properties. But despite calls from community activists and concerned music fans for the preservation and restoration of the landmark property, Gusto Records expressed no interest in developing or selling the property.

In November, the situation changed dramatically when the Woodbine Community Organization purchased the property and an adjacent parcel at 3561 Dickerson Pike with plans to develop an affordable housing community of multi-family units.

“We are still in the very early stages of the project, but we’re looking to create an environment that will target musicians, songwriters, and singers whose income qualifies,” Tony Woodham, Executive Director of Woodbine Community Organization, says. “The legacy of the location combined with the diversity of artists that recorded there will inform the community we build. We hope to have community studio space, educational classes, areas for people to perform, and other related activities.”

Unfortunately, time and years of neglect have taken a toll on portions of the building. “It looks like the majority of the structure, especially the [studio] addition in the back, is not able to be saved,” Woodham says. “There are holes in the roof, and with the amount of flooding we have had in recent years, water has been pouring into the structure, but we’re going to do everything possible to retain the look and feel of the [mid-century design of the front building]. We may have to relocate it to another part of the project, but we do want to incorporate the site’s unique legacy and history into our mission of creating low-cost housing.”

Don Pierce (L) and unknown at Starday circa 1957. Courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
Don Pierce (L) and unknown at Starday circa 1957. Courtesy Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum

Woodham is coordinating with a team of local community activists and musical landmark preservationists, including studio manager Sharon Corbitt, who was one of the primary figures in the successful effort to preserve RCA Studio A. “Nashville’s recording community has always wanted the world to know about our rich and diverse music history, which includes not only country but blues, jazz, rock, gospel, and classical,” Corbitt says. “Starday-King Studio was a part of that rich history and included such artists as James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. Woodbine Community is not only taking care of those at need in Nashville but also looking to help preserve and share the legacy of Starday-King for years to come.”

Metro Councilperson Nancy VanReece also expressed her enthusiasm for the project. “I am so happy that Woodbine Communities has secured ownership of this significant part of Nashville and Madison’s music history,” VanReece says. “I will be working with them to ensure that the history of Starday-King and the things that happened there are preserved in any way possible while still fulfilling their honorable mission.”

That mission is one that Woodham is not taking lightly. “We feel very fortunate to have acquired this property,” Woodham says. “I do think Woodbine is a perfect non-profit to coordinate with others in the community to preserve the historical significance of the site while also bringing it forward in a way that will sustain it over time and have it really serve the community.”

PART THREE

Giddy Up, GO!

How fate smiled on a Music City landmark

While putting the finishing touches on the Starday Records history story, I decided to check the Davidson County Property Assessor database for any extra property information worth including. As soon as I pulled up the record, I noticed a new owner’s name and recent sale date. Knowing that multiple people tried to buy the property over the years for historic preservation — only to be flatly refused — my initial reaction was, “WHAT?!”

I immediately called my editor, and his response to my discovery was, “WHAT?!” This was followed by instructions to contact Councilperson Nancy VanReece, who had been involved in previous efforts to acquire the property. When I asked her if she knew about the sale, her response was, “WHAT?!” (It was a day for “WHAT?!” and interrobangs, apparently.)

Starday Superhero! Randy Fox outside Starday-King.<br>
Photograph by Chuck Allen
Starday Superhero! Randy Fox outside Starday-King.
Photograph by Chuck Allen

VanReece was familiar with the Woodbine Community Organization and immediately called Executive Director Tony Woodham. While I’m not privy to the exact text of their conversation, from what I later learned, his reaction to the news that Woodbine had just purchased the studio where classic records ranging from Red Sovine’s “Phantom 309” to James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” were recorded was along the lines of (you guessed it), “WHAT?!”

Fortunately, as a non-profit, community-focused real estate developer, Woodham — along with the staff at Woodbine — immediately understood the importance of recognizing and preserving the unique history of the Starday-King Sound Studios, even if the building itself is beyond saving. They began work on a plan to weave its legacy into the new, affordable-housing community that will transform that section of Dickerson Pike.

To that end, he and VanReece began assembling a team of local music community preservationists to advise on the plan. While the final details are still in the works, the story and legacy of one of Nashville’s most historically significant recording studios now has a bright future.