Hidden Houston

The sweet sounds of SugarHill Recording Studios

The sweet sounds of SugarHill Recording Studios

Nestled on a quiet street just off Old Spanish Trail in southeast Houston is the home of SugarHill Recording Studios, an unassuming metal-clad building with a long, vibrant and sometimes sordid history.

A hidden gem in this city's (and nation's) musical history, SugarHill was founded in 1941 as Quinn Recording and remains the oldest continually operating recording studio in Texas. In its 69 years of continuous operation, the studio has recorded virtually every style of American popular music, with special emphasis on the sounds of Texas and the upper Gulf Coast region. It also has hosted some of the world's most renowned producers and artists, some of whom will likely surprise you.

Indeed, I grew up in Houston as an avid (read: obsessive) music fan, and it wasn't until three years ago I learned that the 1958 early rock staple "Chantilly Lace" by the Big Bopper was recorded at SugarHill, just a couple of miles from my childhood home.

It was also the site of the original recording of Willie Nelson's "Night Life" (rejected by his label because it sounded too "jazzy"), a slew of George Jones hits in the mid-1950s, a run of Freddy Fender classics in the mid-1970s, the most gloriously twisted psychedelia by the legendary 13th Floor Elevators and The Red Krayola and the incomparable blues of Houston's native son, Lightnin’ Hopkins.

What other musical nuggets are hidden among the stacks of reel-to-reel cannisters in the vaults of SugarHill? I headed over to the studio to find out more.

Immediately upon entering the lobby, I found a glass case filled with memorabilia from the studio's illustrious history. Freddy Fender LPs, Beyonce plaques and framed gold records. These mementos are interesting, but ordinary. I longed to amble among the shelves of archived reel-to-reels, the ghosts of music past. 

The vault isn't very big in size, but it's massive in terms of its historical importance. The room is filled with a patchwork of mismatched bookshelves, each packed with old magnetic tape housed in faded cardboard boxes with the names of the artists crudely scrawled on the spine. The songs that sit on these shelves, some perfectly executed, others flawed and relegated to B-sides, outtakes or the trash heap, come alive as I peruse the library.

An impressive variety of musicians' names catch my eye: the country popster B.J. Thomas (remember "Hooked on a Feeling"?), the theatrical wild man Screamin' Jay Hawkins ("I Put a Spell on You"), rock-and-roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, local experimental punk band Culturcide, voodoo Night Tripper Dr. John, R&B belter Barbara Lynn and Texas Tornado Doug Sahm.

Man, I would love to have been a fly on the wall when all of these tracks were laid to tape! The stories I could tell.

Lucky for me, and for SugarHill, the studio has two such flies: Andy Bradley and Roger Wood. SugarHill's official historian, Andy has been a studio engineer for 25 years. Roger is a professor of English at the Houston Community College System’s Central College and an expert on Houston's music scene, past and present.

This spring, the two of them are set to release the definitive history of the celebrated studio's 70 years of music making. The book, House of Hits: The Story of Houston's Gold Star/SugarHill Recording Studios, tells a story that effectively covers the postwar popular music industry.

In it, Andy and Roger describe how Houston's lack of zoning ordinances allowed founder Bill Quinn's house studio to grow into a large studio complex, just as SugarHill's willingness to transcend musical boundaries transformed it into one of the most storied recording enterprises in America. The authors offer behind-the-scenes accounts of numerous hit recordings, spiced with anecdotes from studio insiders and musicians who recorded at SugarHill.

During my visit to SugarHill, I sat down with Andy and Roger to get their perspectives on one of Houston's most impressive (but hidden) musical treasures.

To the average music fan Houston is not considered one of the musical hotbeds of the country. Where does the city (and SugarHill) fit into the nation's history?

Roger Wood: Houston experienced such phenomenal 20th-century growth in terms of its general business climate that it never really needed to embrace the music industry as a key component of its self identity. Compared to big oil and heavy industry, the music biz was small potatoes in the eyes of City Hall and the economic/social power structure.

Yet Houston is home to one of the oldest continually operating studios in the world. The Gold Star/SugarHill facility is almost unique – regionally and nationally – in terms of the amazing diversity of styles and genres that it has impacted through key recordings…. Cajun, blues, country, zydeco, rockabilly, pop, R&B, psychedelic rock, country-rock, gospel, Tejano, hip-hop and more.

Andy Bradley: Houston was the Texas center of R&B, blues and country from the early '40s to about 1980. The city fathers have never cared enough about that to make a big deal about it. Too much oil, cattle and pork barrels. Some very important recordings, both musically and culturally, were done at this studio. "She's About a Mover" set the tone for a whole genre of Tex-Mex rock. The 13th Floor Elevators recordings are steeped in legend and cult following. "Treat Her Right" was the first mega-hit white soul record. Freddy Fender changed the face of country music for a time. His first hit recordings sold more than anyone before him, and he was the first bilingual hit country singer.

What did SugarHill offer that made legendary artists like George Jones, Freddy Fender, Willie Nelson want to record there?

AB: It has always been the hip place to be. Many musicians in town call it their home away from home. Sleepy LaBeef said that it is one of the most comfortable places to record.

Soon after its founding in 1941, owner Bill Quinn started Gold Star Records.  Why was it so special?

RW: Quinn's Gold Star Records label documented a cross section of white and black working-class music in the largest city in Texas during the era in which independent recording was inventing itself.  His studio essentially offered an open mic to any singer of country, blues or gospel who had an idea to record a song that might prove popular on regional jukeboxes. Perhaps because Quinn was from Massachusetts, he did not discriminate based on race. Hence, he made some of the earliest and most important recordings in Texas music history.

AB: Quinn was a 'Yankee' and started recording blues, Cajun and conjunto music when his southern peers ignored those genres. Lightnin' Hopkins, Harry Choates, Lil Son Jackson, Hank Locklin are some of the early names that Quinn helped to put on the map with his label.

What are some of your favorite songs recorded at SugarHill?

RW: If you mean across the Gold Star/SugarHill spectrum, Lightnin' Hopkins doing "T-Model Blues," George Jones doing "Why Baby Why," The Big Bopper's classic "Chantilly Lace," Roy Head's "Treat Her Right,"  Sir Douglas Quintet doing "She'a About A Mover," Clifton Chenier doing "Louisiana Blues," O.V. Wright doing "Eight Men, Four Women," Bubble Puppy doing the psychedelic masterpiece "Hot Smoke and Sassafrass" and Freddy Fender doing "I'll Be There Before the Next Teardrop Falls."

AB: "Jole Blon" by Harry Choates, "Night Life" by Willie Nelson, "Funny (How Time Slips Away)" by Joe Hinton, "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" by Freddy Fender, "Renunciación" by Little Joe Y La Familia, "Soul of the Wine" by Johnny Bush, "Bootylicious" by Destiny's Child.

SugarHill has enjoyed many successes but it also harbors some sordid tales. Can you give us a peek into the colorful controversies that surrounded the studio?

RW: The Huey Meaux arrest in January of 1996 – the end result of a police raid in which the studio was swarmed and ransacked by gun-toting police officers is the most infamous. Meaux, a former owner of the studio complex, was still there as a tenant as part of the sale agreement he had worked out with the new owners. It turned out that he was utilizing his private office and warehouse space for illegal activities regarding sex, pornography and drugs with young females.

Prior to that, back around 1970, a guy named J.L. Patterson, who was later convicted of fraud in a separate matter and sentenced to prison, drove the company into temporary closure (before it was resurrected by Meaux) because of all manner of shady financial dealings.

How has did SugarHill adapted to the countless changes in technology over the years?

AB: To this day we still marry all the technologies 24-7, 365 days a year. We have gear built in the '40s and stuff that arrived a month ago.

SugarHill is still an active studio today, despite changing hands numerous times. What accounts for its longevity?

RW: As Quinn did early on, and as Houston does in general, the studio has maintained a "no zoning" policy. It has never defined itself exclusively by a particular genre. It has always recorded a cross section of musical styles from people of various ethnic groups in the region.

Sample some songs recorded at SugarHill Studios:

"She's About a Mover" by The Sir Douglas Quintet

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"Jole Blon" by Harry Choates

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"T-Model Blues" by Lightnin' Hopkins

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"Before the Next Teardrop Falls" by Freddie Fender

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"Hot Smoke & Sassafras" by Bubble Puppy

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Welcome to SugarHill Recording Studios Photo by Katya Horner/Slight Clutter
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Inside the recording area Photo by Douglas Newman
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Booker T's organ Photo by Douglas Newman
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Rows and rows of reels...and music history Photo by Douglas Newman
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A few of Freddy Fender's original reels Photo by Douglas Newman
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Remember B.J. Thomas' "Hooked on a Feeling"? Photo by Douglas Newman
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Blues of Houston's native son, Lightnin’ Hopkins Photo by Douglas Newman