February 15, 2016

Five Music History Sites in Transition

  • By: Katherine Flynn
United Sound Systems Recording Studios in Detroit

photo by: Geoff George

The United Sound Systems Recording Studio on I-94 at 2nd St. in Detroit.

It's no secret that the American music industry is in flux, struggling to adapt to the rise of online streaming services like Spotify and devise innovative ways to keep growing in the 21st century. This waxing and waning of fortunes affects the structures that house legendary record companies and recording studios, too. While business is booming for historic-recording-studios-turned-museums like Stax Records and Sun Studio in Memphis, other iconic spots haven't been quite as lucky.

Music lovers, musicians, and former industry professionals all over the country are working to ensure that sites with histories equally as rich as those of Stax and Sun are preserved—either for their original purpose, as museums or venues, or as something else entirely. Read on to learn about five sites that, as Muddy Waters would say, are trying to "get their mojo working" again.

United Sound Systems Recording Studios—Detroit, Michigan

It’s rare to find a still-functional American recording studio that got its start in the 1930s, but that’s exactly the case with the United Sound System Recording Studios in Detroit. By manager Chynita Richards’ estimate, the structure housing three recording studio spaces is about 100 years old, and the United Sound System Studio has been operational there since the early ‘40s. It was the first independent recording studio in the country, allowing artists, musicians and producers to record music, press a vinyl record, and get airplay without being signed to a major label. Artists like Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Parliament-Funkadelic, MC5, Isaac Hayes, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have all laid down tracks there.

The building went through a period of neglect in the early 2000s before being purchased by union postal worker Danielle Scott in 2009, who then reinstated it as a recording studio. The structure housing USS is currently threatened by the Michigan Department of Transportation’s planned expansion of I-94, but, according to Richards, the studio hasn’t heard any recent updates about when this might happen. The building, known as the “cradle of Detroit musical sound,” achieved a historic designation within the city of Detroit in May of 2015, but it's unclear whether this will ultimately offer the building the protection it needs. MDOT has suggested several options for the studio’s preservation, including moving it, but its future remains uncertain.

Local nonprofit the Detroit Sound Conservancy has been partnering with USS on advocacy efforts for the building’s preservation, and hopes to unveil a Michigan Historical Marker commemorating the structure’s history this summer.

“If United goes, that old style and history of recording, there’s nothing left,” says Carleton Gholz of the Detroit Sound Conservancy. “This could be something we could all rally around.”

The Chess Records building in Chicago

photo by: Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The original Chess Records structure on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

Chess Records—Chicago, Illinois

If you love blues music, you’re intimately familiar with the names Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Etta James, and Chuck Berry. These artists were all signed to Chicago’s celebrated Chess Records, and they all recorded at the company’s studio on South Michigan Avenue between 1956 and 1965.

Although Chess Records effectively folded in 1969, Willie Dixon’s widow Marie Dixon purchased the former Chess Records building in 1997, saving it from a proposed demolition, and moved the operations of Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation to the structure. The Foundation’s mission is to educate the public on the history of the blues and the business of music, and its programs include music clinics, the Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon Scholarships, outdoor concerts in Willie Dixon’s Blues Garden, and financial support for senior blues musicians. It also offers regular tours of the Chess Records building.

The Foundation is hoping to raise enough money to re-install sound equipment in the building within the next few years, returning it to a fully functioning recording studio. A growing American interest in roots music has led to tourism growth for sites like Stax Records and Sun Studio in Memphis, and Dixon and the Foundation feel that they can take steps to make Chess Records an even more inviting stop on the blues tourism trail.

The Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, N.Y.

photo by: Ron Stein, Coltrane Home

The Long Island house where John Coltrane wrote "A Love Supreme" and spent the last years of his life.

John Coltrane Home—Dix Hills, New York

This unassuming exterior of this two-story brick house on New York’s Long Island belies its rich jazz history: it’s where the legendary saxophonist and composer John Coltrane wrote “A Love Supreme,” his most immortal album, and spent the last years of his life before passing away in 1967.

The house was threatened by a developer’s plans for demolition 2004, but a passionate group of music lovers, musicians, and Coltrane aficionados knew if the house were to be destroyed, an essential part of America’s music history would be lost.

The city government of Huntington, New York was able to purchase the home, and the town in turn donated it to a newly-minted group called Friends of the Coltrane Home. As Ron Stein of the Coltrane Home explains, the house had been abandoned for several years and was in poor condition when the group acquired it in 2007. Holes in the roof, animal infestation, vandalism and rampant mold were just a few of the issues that the organization faced when attempting to start the structure’s restoration. (Stein adds that much of the initial funding for restoration work came as a result of the National Trust’s 2011 designation of the home as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places, as well as a National Trust grant, and the resulting publicity.)

Work on the house is still in progress, with the ultimate goal of transforming it into an interactive museum and learning center for a total cost of around $2 million. Stein says that the Friends group is hoping to open a significant part of the house to the public by the end of 2018. “We hope to carefully balance the faithful restoration of the home with a singular visitor experience that is dynamic, interactive and inspirational,” he says.

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama

photo by: Derek Bridges/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The original Muscle Shoals studio on Jefferson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama.

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—Sheffield, Alabama

This boxy structure with its formstone facade on the side of Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama, doesn’t scream “glamour,” but nevertheless, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio has played host to some of the biggest names in modern music history over the past 47 years. Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, Cher, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and Lynyrd Skynyrd are just a few of the big names that recorded tracks and albums at the studio after it moved into this roadside building in 1969.

In 2013, filmmaker Greg Camalier released the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” sparking a renewed interest in the musical history of the region and the studio. Former owner Noel Webster, who had been renting out the studio to artists intermittently (most notably the Black Keys, who recorded 10 out of the 15 tracks from their 2010 album “Brothers” there) and living in the basement, agreed to sell 3416 Jackson Highway to the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation, a local nonprofit, in August of 2013.

Thanks to a grant from audio technology company Beats by Dr. Dre, the sound studio is currently closed for a thorough restoration and renovation, slated to be completed in late March or early April of this year. The project includes a new roof, new electrical wiring, and new heating and air system. It will reopen for tours later in 2016, and once again become a fully-functional studio.

The Capricorn Records building in Macon, Georgia

photo by: Shakey1694/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The original Capricorn Records studio building in Macon, Georgia.

Capricorn Records—Macon, Georgia

A seminal recording studio in Macon, Georgia, once known as a home for the talents of Otis Redding, has sat vacant on the city’s Cherry Street for more than a decade. Now, Macon’s Mercer University has pledged to renovate it into a music incubator, partnering with local nonprofit NewTown Macon and Sierra Development to incorporate a market-rate apartment complex.

“The Capricorn Studio is the place where the Allman Brothers recorded, and many people credit it with being the birthplace of southern rock,” says Larry Brumley of Mercer University. Brumley adds that the university is hoping to raise about a million more dollars in donations to complete the project, which, once finished, will include a recording studio available for private rentals, a live music venue, a classroom, and rentable rehearsal spaces available to musicians at a low monthly rate. New construction directly to the right of the building will house conveniently-located downtown apartments.

Brumley adds that, despite a portion of the floor that’s fallen into the basement, the studio itself is in pretty good shape structurally, although all of the original recording equipment has been removed.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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