Ardent Records co-founder, music promoter was 78


John King, co-founder of Memphis’ Ardent Records, veteran music promoter and radio historian, has died.

King’s family confirmed he died Monday morning. He was 78 years old.

A charming and tireless promoter of the Memphis music industry’s golden years, King was perhaps best known for his efforts on behalf of ’70s Memphis pop group Big Star, whose debut album, “#1 Record “, came out 50 years ago. . “Without John, no one would have known Big Star,” said band co-founder Jody Stephens. “He was such a creative and enthusiastic guy.”

King helped revive the band after their brief split in 1973, making them the centerpiece of a legendary one-time event in Memphis known as the National Association of Rock Writers Convention. “John had this independent spirit, this spirit of Memphis, to think outside the box,” said Robert Gordon, author of the Bluff Music story “It Came From Memphis.”

“He was not intimidated by the fact that no one had ever courted and gathered the [country’s] main rock writers together. John knew the value of flying them to Memphis – the good press Ardent would see in return,” Gordon said. “It’s a legendary event, even still. Largely because he resurrected Big Star, producing their second album, “Radio City.”

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King was also a noted record collector, and the donation of his archive – 30,000 45 rpm singles, 10,000 LPs, 20,000 CDs and over 1,000 other pieces of musical ephemera – would form the basis of the Memphis Audio Library. Listening Lab which opened at the Crosstown competition in 2021.

“It’s the biggest collection I’ve ever seen,” said Sherman Willmott, founder of Shangri-La Records, which helped launch the Memphis Listening Lab. “John always hoped that his collection would end up in a place where it could be enjoyed. The fact that we were able to make it happen in Memphis was the fulfillment of John’s dreams.

“It’s amazing equipment for Memphis and music fans who come to Memphis from all over the world. And it’s an incredible legacy that John leaves behind.

The collection has continued to grow

Born into a wealthy family and raised in East Memphis, King hit his teens just as rock ‘n’ roll was booming, with Bluff City serving as ground zero for music. “At 12 or 13 is when I started collecting records,” King recalled in a 2021 interview with The Commercial Appeal. “Once I put my teeth into something I can’t let go. That’s how the collection started…and why it hasn’t stopped growing.

As much as he loved music, King also loved radio. In 1950s Memphis, radio was a dominant cultural force, with legendary stations like WHBQ and WDIA in their heyday, while DJs like Dewey Phillips were as much stars as the artists they produced.

Former Ardent publicist and DJ John King stands inside the Memphis Listening Lab, a new public space in the Crosstown Building that gives patrons, researchers and the public access to his huge library of recordings.

“I really liked the radio and all this people. Since my childhood I subscribe to [music industry trade magazine] Bulletin Board and read it cover to cover,” recalls King, who attended Memphis University School.

With record label contacts gleaned from Billboard, King — a naturally enterprising kind — actually started his own radio station, in a way. “My friend [and MUS classmate] John Fry I had a fake radio station, WHJR, and we would send these requests to addresses we found in Billboard requesting recordings,” King recalled. In the early ’60s, King and Fry actually hooked up to a real station, the tiny KCAT in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and worked there for a while.

In 1961, while still teenagers, King, Fry and fellow friend (and future FedEx founder) Fred Smith formed Ardent Records – following in the tradition of entrepreneurial Memphis labels like Sun, Hi and Stax. Early acts on Ardent included fraternity rockers like the Ole Miss Downbeats, and King took the lead in promoting the records.

After “failing” MUS, King was sent to a private school in New Jersey. “I loved it because I was going to Atlantic City on the weekends, and these girls from Philadelphia were coming to town, they were exotic to me,” King recalled. “But what I really loved was radio – especially in those days when radio was really a regional phenomenon. When I was back east, I was going to bother all the radio people in Philadelphia, just trying to learn and be in the business.

After graduating from high school, King attended Southern University in Sewanee. He eventually joined the Air Force where he managed to get his hands on some equipment – ​​an IBM Selectric and a Gestetner mimeograph – and began writing and publishing his own radio tip sheet, where he would choose the upcoming hit records for program directors. “I managed not to make any money, but I enjoyed doing it,” King said.

Back to Memphis

Back in Memphis in the late ’60s, King continued to perform his tip sheet, working from Ardent Studios on National where his old school pal John Fry had built a renowned recording facility.

The studio eventually moved to its current location on Madison in Midtown, where King also became co-owner of nearby Trader Dick’s bar, a well-known watering hole for musicians at the time.

As Ardent – ​​both the studio and its affiliate label – grew in the early 1970s through a partnership with Stax Records, King became the company’s head of marketing and public relations.

Memphis cult band Big Star became a legend thanks in part to the shrewd promotional efforts of John King in the 1970s.

Most famously, King came up with the idea of ​​holding the first (and only) National Rock Writers Association convention in 1973. A multi-day gathering of more than 100 rock writers from across the country, the conference would help career-defining critics beloved Memphis pop group Big Star, who reformed to play the event to great acclaim.

Even after Stax closed in 1976 and Ardent returned to the studios, King continued to work in radio promotion and continued to add to his record collection. “I was a member of NARAS, and as a member they sent out these monthly reports, where you could check off whatever albums you wanted,” King said. “That’s how I continued to collect without breaking the bank.”

In the early 2000s, King decided to use this collection to pursue his lifelong passion for broadcasting in a more modern way, launching an internet radio station called Tiger Radio and producing his own original radio shows in tribute to the DJs he had listened to. growing up.

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A lab of listening pleasure

In 2018, King — then retired and struggling with health issues — began thinking about doing something with his massive record collection, which he housed in a rented office on Poplar.

The following year, Willmott was commissioned by a group of anonymous Memphis philanthropists and organizers with Crosstown Arts to find a way to turn King’s huge private collection into a public amenity inside the Crosstown Concourse. The idea of ​​a listening library, or listening laboratory, was born.

Former Ardent publicist and DJ John King, left, sits with archivist Jim Cole inside the Memphis Listening Lab, a new public space in the Crosstown Building that allows patrons, researchers and the public to access its huge library of recordings.

In April 2019, King’s collection was moved to a storage facility in Crosstown as construction began to transform the second floor space – the site of the former Sears building’s kitchen – into an archive and library. well appointed for study, research and, especially at King, for listening pleasure.

When he visited the completed Memphis Listening Lab in the summer of 2021, King seemed deeply moved that his life’s work lives on. “I’m so lucky they were able to do this,” King said. “They keep saying how lucky they are to have all my stuff, but I think I’m very lucky too.”

A private family service for King is planned, but a public memorial at the Memphis Listening Lab will be held at a later date. The King family requests that any memorial contributions be made directly to the Memphis Listening Lab.


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