Historic Recording Studio Enters New Era
by Dave Charles 1/12/17
“It was a warm September night, the wind was blowing through the trees…’
The iconic lyrics of Donnie Iris’ song “Agnes” rolled through my thoughts as I stepped out of my car into an unseasonably warm night, not in September, but January. My feet sink into the sopping wet driveway of New Brighton’s legendary Jeree Recording studio. The mercury was in the low 50’s, but the rain was relentless, sometimes frighteningly intense, on my long drive from Pittsburgh to the building that I stand before now. An unassuming, re-purposed 19th century home that created countless recordings of local and national fame. And now, as the evening settled in and the dark, gray sky loomed ominously above, the building took on an intimidating, portentous persona. One of historic and cultural significance, tired and disheveled, but still standing proudly, much like the empty steel shells of the mills and factory buildings that still stand along the Ohio river and around the Beaver Valley area. Reminders of the region’s greatness, stoicism and resilience, and most importantly, significance.
Many times I have driven past the studio, knowing very well the musical history that has taken place there. As a working musician, I have often played many of the songs that were recorded there. Iconic hits like Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” were tracked there, and Donnie Iris and the Cruisers “Agnes” and “Ah, Leah” to name a few. I swore that someday I would stop, introduce myself and request a tour of the facility. As a hobbyist-level “recording studio historian”, I have toured and visited many great studios across the nation. And although this was one so close to my home, I hadn’t yet visited it. Many times, when I would pass by, it seemed dark and uninviting. A block-like Victorian ghost, with a slightly rundown and weary façade seemed sad yet unapproachable, expecting someday to hear it would be sold and repurposed or torn down.
Oddly enough, as these things go sometimes, my desire to know more lead to an unusual series of circumstances that actually produced the opportunity to visit and tour this facility. I (at first unknowingly) got a chance to meet the new owner, Al Torrence, on a gig my band was doing close by in Beaver Falls. A formidable guitarist, we needed a substitute in a hurry, and our drummer called him up. After the show, he mentioned he bought Jeree and my ears perked right up.
“You do not have any idea how important that place is to me!” I begged him enthusiastically, “Can I come see it?!”
“Absolutely, but you better do it soon,” Al replied politely. “I’m getting ready to start renovations.”
We agreed to reconvene after the holidays and, true to his word, he arranged for me to come visit. And as I stepped onto the slanted front porch, past the piles of old components and by-gone playback technologies haphazardly stacked perilously high across the old painted decking, I romanticized back to the studio’s “hey day” and imagined what it was like for hundreds of artists to show up to do work at Jeree’s.
“Dave!” greeted the friendly Al, loudly, as I entered. “Glad you made it!” He extended his hand and I earnestly shook it, and thanked him for his kindness. “This is it!” as he smiled warmly.
As I entered the main entrance, an impressive antique staircase and handrail demanded my attention. It climbs the right wall, splitting the entryway with a hallway that goes straight back to the business office. High on the right wall as you enter, a huge 100+ year-old stained glass masterpiece looms, quietly overlooking the entrance. It’s ancient, its magnificent and it’s in perfect condition. Noticing that I was staring deep into it’s details, Al noted, “It’s glorious when the sun comes through it.”
As I begin to peruse the detailed antique, hand-carved banister and staircase handrail, Al politely redirects me to the double doors on the left wall of the hallway, just inside the main door. He guides me into the main studio.
We enter a huge room, with the evidence of renovation work already under way, covered in brown and amber carpet, with a few large panels of diagonally hung, unfinished lumber. Various types of dismantled equipment, some keyboards and organs sit randomly around this room. A high, terraced ceiling that is covered with white acoustic tile hangs overhead.
Pointing at the ground, Al exclaims, “Look at these floors!” He bends his slender frame down and peels back the corner of the carpet exposing a very old hardwood floor. “I love a live room,” referring to the acoustical qualities of a room that is more reflective that absorbent. “All this carpet goes and I’m going to refinish these floors.”
Refinish. Not replace or cover over. He said “REFINISH”.
And it was at that very moment that I just knew it, because it was obvious as the dust covered grand piano he was standing next to...
Al is in love. Deeply in love. His eyes twinkle with excitement as he tells me about the main room, the funky, carpet-covered isolation booth in the corner, and the plans he has for this beloved space. He doesn’t want to gut it and remove its soul, he wants to preserve it, and modernize it, but retain it’s character and essence. Thankfully, I understand that this hallowed place is in good hands.
“These will be sanded and finished,” he says, pointing to the rough-cut lumber sections. “Keep it the same, but update it.”
I listen intently to Al. And as he is telling me this, I’m simultaneously slammed by two disparate emotions. The first is of relief. “He GETS it,” I say to myself. “This historic, important place is safe.”
Then, the second, more unsettling one hit me. The thought of “I hope he knows what he’s getting into” was dancing around my mind.
Al is a young man in his early 20’s. Smart, polite and of slender build. An excellent musician, he oozes intellect and is keenly observant. I sense from my short times around him, that he is courteous and unpresumptuous, but being only the second time I have ever met with him, I clearly hear the passion in his voice. And as of this time, I do not know of his background outside of music. Being quite a few years older than Al, with an extensive background in restoration and construction, I see a LOT of work. And if Al’s complete vision is to be realized, it’s a SERIOUS amount of work.
“And THIS! This is the control room!” he excitedly beckons, breaking my internalized dialog, and pointing towards a very dirty, cloudy, large piece of glass on the far wall. Through it, I vaguely see the back of a huge console, and empty tape reels and cables hanging arbitrarily along the walls. He guides me through a short, angled, carpet-covered hallway that connects the control room to the main studio. As I walk through it, I see an opening to the right leading into the same office at the end of the main entrance hallway. But when I enter the control room, my attention is demanded by the console desk. Or, shall I say, what remains of it, now to my left, and completely in pieces.
“I’m restoring it!” he says, with a gigantic grin across his face. I look down and see an open chasm of a console desk. Only one track is there, and it’s of a design and manufacture I have never seen before. It is silver with colored control knobs, tiny silver mini-switches and a large, round, black plastic fader button. “It’s going to be great!”
That second thought crept back into my head, but now accompanied by a tinge of horror. We are standing over the remnants of the console that has had thousands of sessions done through it. It has recorded music I have heard my ENTIRE life. Music that takes me to places in my mind, reliving memories both good and bad, and reminding me of growing up, my friends, my family, and long forgotten adventures. This console is a legend in itself. An integral part of music history, people’s lives and memories. And it was in pieces, most of which were nowhere to be seen.
I swallowed hard, and felt a bit uneasy. But soon, I was smiling with glee as I looked over behind the console desk and saw the old reel-to-reel recording unit. Above it were more empty reels, and mounted on the wall is the studio’s cabling nerve center. Dozens of slightly mis-aligned XLR panel-mounted inputs sit there quietly, waiting patiently to be used again. Obviously hand-wired, the neatly tie-wrapped cables drop behind the recorder, just as the day they were installed.
I turned to face the glass and looked back into the studio’s main room. Above, and to either side of the window on the angled overhead bulkhead sit the main playback speakers. Relics of the 70’s, I asked if they were still functional. “Yep,” replied Al. “And they still sound amazing.”
Turning back towards the door, I am led to a room off of the control room to another isolation booth that is loaded with all of the giant boom stands and equipment that is obviously being set out of the harms way of this budding restoration project. “Great drum room” Al says, gleefully. “Hard surfaces, and all of these acoustic panels are removable.”
As I peer around, I think of some of the drum tracks that were recorded here. And the first that jumps out is Kevin Valentine’s work on Donnie Iris’s “Do You Compute?” and I ask Al, “Did Kevin do all of Donnie’s tracks in here?”
A wide smile slowly spreads across his face, and his eyes narrow behind his stylish wire-rimmed glasses. For a moment, he reminded me of Donnie Iris himself, as he pointed around me to the door we just walked through. Just below the window was a small black rectangular plastic engraved sign, with cursive letters engraved in it that read, “Kevin’s Domain.”
“I guess so!” I replied happily. My mind raced as I thought of all of the work he had done here, as well as others. The drums for “Funky Music” rolled through my head as well. An awesome moment for an old romantic like myself. Much like the same feeling when I was in Studio A in the Motown Hitsville studio in Detroit. Those places are important. Sacred. Amazing people did amazing things here. And you can feel it if you know how to tune in to it, or if it’s important to you.
We left that room, and entered the business office. Greeting us was a room with only a few folding chairs left, a well-worn beige carpet, and a bunch of packing boxes. Around the edge of the room were reels of tape, in their original boxes, with handwriting on them of artists work, many of which I know well. MASTER TAPES! Names like the Granati brothers band “G-Force”, Billy Price, and other artists. Too many to recall, just neatly stacked and being gone through. One wall is covered with album covers and vinyl 45 records, while above the fireplace on the other wall are promo shots and signed pictures of artists famous or forgotten, with many never recognized at all. A small shrine of the lives this place has captured and touched. The ceiling is painted white and has begun peeling, exposing magnificent antique pressed tin panels, in perfect condition as it almost defiantly sheds its modern, flaking skin.
In one of the chairs sits an older gentleman, with thin-rimmed glasses, black jeans, and a well used ball cap that says “Bleeds Black and Gold.” I extend my hand and introduce myself.
“Don Garvin,” he replies, not standing but firmly taking grip of my extended hand.
And there he sat. The man who engineered and recorded all of these works. I know Don’s name well, though we have never met. He’s a local legend, a formidable guitarist in his own right, and a walking tome of music history. He seemed a bit put-off by my intrusion, as I am sure he was sorting through 40 plus years of his work and life. But as we talked, he seemed to perk up as he realized there was someone he has never met who knows his work, deeply respects his legacy and asked him questions that gently prodded some fun and dusty memories out of him.
We talked in the business office for a good half hour. “How many hours has he spent in this building!” I thought, as I listened to him speak. As we discussed his lengthy career, his former partner, the late Jerry Reed (not that one) and what it was like when things were really clicking for the studio, I felt as though Al was getting a tad fidgety as his mountain of work wasn’t getting any smaller as Don and I talked. But I couldn’t help myself. The more Don disclosed, the more he opened up, and the more interesting he became.
Before long, we were back in the control room. “I built that console, you know?” he quietly and proudly stated. “My own two hands.”
I instantly knew that Al’s endeavor to restore that console was safe. If anything needed addressed, the manufacturer was a phone call away. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief wash over me.
“YOU built this? By yourself? Designed it AND built it?” I exclaimed, looking at the single remaining track dangling in the desk rails. I noticed the very detailed solder work on hundreds of perfectly installed components on just this single track. “Very, VERY impressive,” I complimented. “What an accomplishment!”
“Thanks,” he beamed. “That console, and everything else in this place. All of it.”
My eyes darted back to the XLR panels above the recording unit. Hand made, yet perfectly “almost perfect.”
Seemingly filled with even more pride, he told us of the choices he made in components, why the channels are purposefully not over-complicated, yet still very versatile and powerful. “Great microphones do most of the work. That EQ section is really all you need if you know what you’re doin’.”
“Yeah, that’s easy for HIM, coming from a man with DECADES of dialing in tones and frequencies, mixing all styles of music and genre’s, movie sound tracks (one of my favorite movies “Creepshow” had its sound track recorded here) and a set of golden ears!” I thought. He continued.
“He’s just cleaning it up. Mostly aesthetically. But some minor repairs.”
“Is this a “clean” channel?” I said, using air quotes then pointing to the lone channel, with it’s silver strip of metal and knobs still hanging in the rails.
“Oh, yes!” he laughed loudly. “You should see the dirty ones! Lots of miles on this board!”
We talked a bit more, and he showed me some more fascinating artifacts, including an original script of a very popular movie that was scored there. Eventually, he gathered some items, and politely dismissed himself and quietly left. But time waits for nothing and no one. I realized that the similarities between Don and his former studio are fascinating. He, too, is an older bloke, a survivor of a time gone by, and perhaps even his passion for this place may have faded a bit. Perhaps himself feeling under-appreciated or forgotten, wondering why even keep this place any longer. Or maybe his passion is still there, but just the sheer scale of updating it is more than he wished to endure. It most certainly is a daunting endeavor.
After Don left, Al and I talked for a while longer about his vision of how to keep the soul of the studio but still offer modern amenities as well. A perfect marriage of old and new. I congratulated him on his purchase. Again, I was feeling as though I may have wore out my welcome a bit, but Al didn’t hint to that at all, as I stepped back into the hallway towards the front entrance. I couldn’t help but let him know what I was thinking.
“This is going to be soooooo much work, you know that, right?”
A pleasant but exasperated smile came over his face. “Most definitely. But I’m passionate about it. It needs done.”
My eyes drifted around the studio one last time, soaking it all in. This is the last time I would probably see it in its classic state of grace and historic prominence. The end of an era, indeed.
Either way, and thankfully, Al is working to keep this landmark alive. Yet, sadly, with all of the newer (and arguably not better) technologies that have come about, studios like Jeree’s are almost all gone. So, too, fades the culture and “old-ways’ of making records. The days of moving into a studio and working out your songs, building and playing tracks that MUST be right going to tape because you couldn’t “nudge” them into place or auto-tune the sloppy vocal. Or the limited number of tracks themselves, and the collaboration with studio musicians, producers and/or your band-mates, to name just a few “old-ways”. You HAD to be good, because places like this always (and sometimes mercilessly) let you know exactly how good you really are at that moment in time. A place were dreamers tested their chops, their creativity and their desire to persevere. A place where many dreams were achieved or dashed in one session. And the dismal state of today’s repetitive, copy-cat, over-processed modern music reflects how important that process still, most certainly, is.
Many would say that we need more of these places, not less. To most musicians, every aspect of music is to be shared. It’s creation, it’s production, it’s live performance, and in it’s broadcast. It must retain it’s artistic imperfections that come from, ironically, trying to make it perfect! Not pumped through a computer program, on mid-quality speakers in an acoustically inept room and adjusted with a “formulaic” plug- ins and not developing and trusting your ears, in a tuned specialized environment. Not by people producing music that is rigid and sterile, in their bedrooms, all alone, with no creative input or critique, and no skills as an educated, skilled audio engineer.
I shake Al’s hand, thank him for his wonderful hospitality and sincerely extend multiple levels of help I am willing to donate. I volunteer myself and the time of other people I know are as determined to see this place survive as Al is. He humbly accepts and says we will be in touch.
I step off the porch, back into the rain, quickly tip-toe my way through the mud, and climb in my car. It’s absolutely miserable out, but I’m elated. I sit there for a second, finding my Donnie Iris playlist on my phone and “Agnes” explodes over the sound of the heavy rains relentlessly beating down on my car. It all sounds different now. Cleaner, brighter, and more detailed. I hear every note, every nuance and every aspect of its production. It’s exponentially more meaningful, because I now have a deeper understanding of where and how it was created. I wonder for a moment if Donnie sat here in this same parking lot listening to the first mixes in his cassette tape deck in his car.
I pull out of the driveway and head south towards home, music blaring. As I pull away, I am confident I will be back, perhaps to help with renovations, but definitely to record my own music with my own band there. I want a piece of that legacy. I want my music recorded on that console. I want my music recorded in a place of historic relevance that once revived, will help others create new, meaningful music.