Three Tracks, Echo, and a Bunch of Hungry Teenagers

A short tour of some of the Twin Cities' historic recording studios

Before there was a cultural and financial incentive for music that could be produced on a computer and reproduced on ear buds, the Twin Cities were home to several recording studios with identifiable sounds. Here's a quick survey of a few of the major studios and the hits and non-hits they produced.

 

Kay Bank
(Also known as Swedien Recording, Universal Audio Recording, Micside, Cookhouse, Nicollet, and Creation)

Courtesy of Tom Herbers

Originally built in 1914 as the Garrick Theatre, 2541 Nicollet Avenue South in Minneapolis stands as the longest-running recording studio in the state, and possibly its first commercial studio as well. Engineering legend Bruce Swedien (Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, B.B. King) converted the old theater into a studio in 1955. In 1957 it was purchased by Vernon C. Bank and renamed after Bank's wife, Kay. One of Bank's partners was Amos Heilicher, who along with his brother Dan, who died in May of 2005, owned one of the largest record distributors in the U.S.

By 1964, the success of Dave Dudley's "Six Days on the Road" and the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" had put the studio on the map, and bands were coming in from all over. Randy Bachman brought an early version of the Guess Who down from Winnipeg to get the "Kay Bank sound" (three-track recording and echo!). Kay Bank offered an attractive package to local bands: For $495 you'd get three hours in the studio, a thousand 45s, and fifty promo packages delivered to radio stations in the Midwest. Several Kay Bank clients, such as "Liar, Liar" creators the Castaways, wound up on the Heilicher brothers' record label, Soma (Amos spelled backwards).

Kay Bank evolved into Universal Audio (UA Recording) in 1968, Micside in '70, then Cookhouse in '71. Cookhouse lasted until 1983, when Twin/Tone records made the building their home with offices upstairs and Nicollet Studios filling up the 3 recording rooms.

Recorded there: Bobby Vee; Art Blakey; Dave Dudley's "Six Days on the Road"; The Trashmen, "Surfin' Bird"; The Castaways, "Liar, Liar"; The Chancellors (led by future engineer/producerDavid Rivkin, a.k.a. David Z); The Gestures; Hüsker Dü, New Day Rising, Candy Apple Grey, Warehouse: Songs and Stories; The Replacements, Tim; Paula Abdul, some of her debut album; the Wallets; Soul Asylum; the Magnolias; Prince, early demos

 

Sound 80

In 1969, after working at Kay Bank, Tom Jung and Herb Pilhofer founded Sound 80, named by Brad Morrison, the same ad man, believe it or not, who had previously christened a Hormel ham Cure 81 (perhaps while sipping Vat 69 scotch). The studio was in south Minneapolis on East 25th Street and is probably most remembered for a couple of days in late 1974 when Bob Dylan rerecorded half of Blood on the Tracks there with a group of young Minneapolis musicians. Paul Martinson was the engineer on those sessions. (See Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard's 2004 book, A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks.)

In the spring of 1978, 3M brought a prototype digital tape machine into Sound 80. Head engineer Tom Jung recorded what are believed to be the first commercially released digital recordings: a jazz album with Flim and the BB's, and two classical albums, both with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, one of which won a Grammy for Best Chamber Orchestra Recording in 1979. Jung resigned from Sound 80 in 1979, moved to New York, and continues to be a pioneer in digital-audio technology. The building is still standing and now is the home of Orfield Labs, an audio testing company.

Recorded at Sound 80: Bob Dylan, part of Blood on the Tracks; Prince, demos, 1977; Suicide Commandos, Make a Record; The Suburbs; Leo Kottke; Flamin' Ohs; Michael Johnson; Cat Stevens,1976; Dave Brubeck, 1978

 

Dove

After "Surfin' Bird" put Kay Bank in the spotlight, a more obscure vein of Minnesota garage and psychedelic music starting coming out of Dove Studios. Don Peterson and Darold "Arv" Arvidson opened Dove in St. Louis Park in the spring of 1964, and moved to 98th and Bloomington Avenue South a year later. Don ran the business side and Arv handled the technical stuff, building much of the equipment himself. Some Dove highlights include most of the Litter's '67 album Distortions, the Calico Wall's drug-referencing '67 single, "Flight Reaction," and C.A. Quintet's dauntingly titled '69 double album, Trip Through Hell. While the Calico Wall pushed the limits of sanity and sound technology, they never got to play live, since bandleader Peter Steinberg was drafted shortly after the recording was made. Original copies of Trip Through Hell, Distortions, and other Dove creations are rare and fetch high prices among record collectors/speculators.

The Stillroven, the Underbeats, and T.C. Atlantic also recorded at Dove. Long unknown visionary Michael Yonkers's 2004 Sub Pop/Destijl disc, Microminiature Love was recorded at Dove in 1968. In early 1970 Dove closed and the equipment was sold to producer Warren Kendrick, who opened his own facility called Audio City on East Lake Street.

 

Blackberry Way

University of Minnesota film student Paul Stark purchased a house in Dinkytown in 1971 and started P David studio. Stark rented some rooms to students while using most of the house to record various bands, folk artists, and film-related projects.

One of Paul's early clients, Chris Osgood, would later join Paul in forming Twin/Tone Records. Around 1978, shortly after Twin/Tone came to be, P David evolved into Blackberry Way, and Steve Fjelstad, Mike Owens, and Kevin Glynn took over the studio from Stark. Their band, Fingerprints, was one of the first three bands on Twin/Tone along with the Suburbs and Curtiss A.

Blackberry Way, named from a song by the Move, grew along with early regulars Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, and the Replacements, who recorded their breakthrough album Let It Be and others at Blackberry. Steve Fjelstad did the bulk of the engineering at the studio, until he moved over to Nicollet studios with Paul Stark and the Twin/Tone offices. Blackberry Way continued through the late '80s with the Flamin' Oh's, the Magnolias, and others using their services.

 

Flyte Tyme

Producers and songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis began Flyte Tyme not as a studio but as a band in the mid-'70s. In 1981, Prince took them under his wing and shortened their name to the Time. Prince eventually fired the duo from the band, and Flyte Tyme resurfaced in a new form. The S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle, Change, and Alexander O'Neal provided some of their first successes as writer/producers. Without a studio of their own, most of the projects were being done in a studio on Old Shakopee Road in Bloomington called Creation, a modest home-based facility where engineer Steve Weise recorded several hits with Jam and Lewis. By 1985 Weise and Flyte Tyme were in need of a much-deserved bigger and better working space. They found the space in a building at 43rd and Nicollet in south Minneapolis. Still not the typical "world class" studio facility, it was sufficient to keep the string of hits rolling. Janet Jackson's sound-defining Control came together there as did the Human League's #1 single "Human." Steve Weise left the Flyte Tyme family in late '85 to continue Creation studio, eventually buying the famed building at 2541 Nicollet, thus bringing us full circle. Steve Hodge took over at the mixing board for Flyte Tyme as they went on to build a sprawling 17,000-square-foot complex--containing five studios, a rehearsal facility, and a game room--located south of Southdale in Edina. Jam and Lewis closed the Edina operation in 2004, moving to a new studio facility in Santa Monica.

 

Tom Herbers has been recording music and other things for over 20 years. He's also the owner of Third Ear Recording Studio in Minneapolis, and still likes music.

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