Blast From The Past: RCA Studio B

Few recording studios can rhyme off the household names who recorded there like RCA Studio B can; Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves to name just a few. Known as Nashville’s ‘Home of 1000 Hits’ this historic studio was a big pat of Nashville’s journey to becoming Music City and is the birthplace of the Nashville Sound. Between 1957 to 1977 over 35,000 songs were recorded at the infamous studio under the guidance of great producers such as Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley and Bob Ferguson to name just a few and in the two decades it was operational, it was responsible for 60% of the country hits that were on the charts at that time.
Dolly Parton recorded some of her early duets with Porter Wagoner at RCA Studio B in 1967. Her first recording session there saw her record three songs with her duet partner and mentor including ‘The Last Thing On My Mind’, her very first single which was a top ten hit. She was so nervous about the session that she drove her car into the side of the building accidentally. She would later go on to record her parting gift to Porter at the same studio, ‘I Will Always Love You’ in 1973, Dolly has made over $25million off that one song alone.
When they first opened studio B they spent weeks trying to figure out where the vocalist should stand, the typical spot of the centre of the room, did not sound as good as it should. The sweet spot turned out to be six steps away from the door and they marked it with an X so they’d know for future sessions. All the musicians would record in the same room as the vocalist, so each session was captured live as was custom in country music at that time and it played host to full string and horn sections and beautiful backing vocalist sections that truly brought the songs to life.
Roy Orbison honed his sound at RCA Studio B. The first song Roy Orbison recorded there was ‘Come Back To Me’ which was supposed to be the big hit with ‘Only The Lonely’ acting as the B side but it was producer Fred Foster who knew that they had to switch them. He made the decision to add those iconic vocal sounds that became synonymous in Orbison’s music. He had a five octave vocal range that at Sun he’d been encouraged to limit the use of. At RCA Victor he had the freedom to be his unique self which got him the notoriety he deserved.
The Everly Brothers made RCA their recording home for a number of years, and it was here they recorded their most infamous hit ‘Cathy’s Clown’. Drummer Buddy Harman developed the idea for that distinct drum sound at the beginning of the track, recording them with a tape loop, making it sound as if there were two drummers. The idea was to emulate clowns marching into the room. “Cathy’s Clown” was recorded live in a single take, with Don and Phil sharing a microphone. Also in that session was pianist Floyd Cramer. Cramer’s slip-note style of playing was the cornerstone of the Nashville sound. He had success as a solo artist but he can be heard on scores of hit records during this time as he was one of the most in demand session musicians of his time.
Another notable artist who frequented Studio B in it’s early days was Jim Reeves. Known as ‘Gentleman Jim’, Reeves was a perfectionist who never got mad if one of his session musicians made a mistake and never blamed them but he would like to do another take until it was perfect. That often meant recording late into the night or the early hours of the morning and when he was satisfied he would smile at the band and tilt his head to one side.
Reeves wasn’t the only artist that would find himself at the studio at all hours of the day and night. Elvis Presley recorded over 200 songs at RCA Studio B, many of those saw Cramer backing him up on the piano as you can hear on ‘A Big Hunk O’Love’. If you visit RCA Studio B on tour, you will see a number of coloured lights on the ceiling. These were installed at Elvis’ request as he searched for the right ambience and mood to help him get into the zone when he was recording various songs from rock n roll, to country, to Christmas tunes. He’d record Christmas music in June and they’d isolate the red and green lights, put up a Christmas tree for him and crank up the AC. When he recorded rock and roll, all the lights would come down except the Red ones, transforming the mood in the room.
On the 4th April 1960 at 4am in the morning, Presley requested that all the lights be completely switched off. His producers obliged. He recorded ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’, a song that the King himself was not overly keen on but Colonel Tom Parker insisted he recorded because his wife was a fan of the song. In the pitch black, with the musicians not being overly familiar with the song, they did one take of the song which was near perfect. At the end of the original recording, you can hear a click which is actually the sound of Elvis bumping into the microphone stand as he couldn’t see where he was going. The rest of the track was so perfect, they left it in there. He would go on to record such career defining tracks as ‘It’s Now or Never’ and ‘Devil In Disguise’. The last song Elvis recorded at RCA Studio B was ‘My Way’ on June 10th and 11th 1971.
In 2008, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride and Wynonna Judd would return to the spot where Elvis stood and recorded some of his most notable hits to sing with the voice of Elvis on an album of Christmas duets. In the early seventies, Marty Stuart recorded at RCA Studio B for the first time at just 13 years old as part of Lester Flatt’s band. In 2010, he too returned to record his album ‘Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions)’ which produced the Grammy-winning song ‘Hummingbyrd’.
In modern times, the studio is owned by The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum who run tours and open it up to students from nearby Belmont University as a classroom for them to learn about analog recording. Artists still go back to the iconic, historic studio to record their latest projects when they can with one of the latest albums to come from Studio B being John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band, ‘Leftover Feelings’ released in 2021.

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