Hitsville, Houston

SugarHill Studios, 75 Years Young

Destiny’s Child, Freddy Fender and Willie Nelson are only a few of the legendary artists who've recorded tracks at the nation's oldest studio.

By Adam Doster September 19, 2016 Published in the October 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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SugarHill Studios is full of surprises. Take the silver sconces, fastened to a plaster wall in Studio A, known around these parts as the House of Hits. “I was in here recording one day, after we had bought this place,” says Dan Workman, SugarHill’s president and senior producer. “I never really knew what the f*** was on ’em! And then I realized—it’s birds and cows!”

Studio manager Casey Waldner skips over to the light fixture for a closer inspection. “And there’s an elephant on this side!” she says, unable to contain her glee. “I see an angel, too. It’s like we’re archaeologists!”

In a sense, they are. SugarHill—celebrating its 75th birthday this month—is the oldest continuously operating music studio in the country, as far as anyone can tell. Like the most fruitful archeological sites, it’s tricky to locate. (In this case, at 5626 Brock, near Produce Row in the Third Ward, at the one-time home of SugarHill’s founder, Bill Quinn.)

Inside its narrow corridors, preserved treasures abound. There are two glass trophy cases in the lobby stuffed with memorabilia, autographed by the greats who’ve cut tracks here: Destiny’s Child, the Big Bopper, Freddy Fender, Willie Nelson, Cash Money Millionaires. Eclectic band photos and scuffed stickers line the neon-lit hallways. Through a small camouflaged door, visitors can even spelunk into a functional reverb chamber, a dark room not unlike a racquetball court into which sounds are piped and sonically altered.

“If you were going to design a recording studio from the ground up, you wouldn’t start with somebody’s house. Everything here is ad hoc and ersatz,” says Workman. “But it works. It was just put together until it sounded good, and then they stopped, and they were smart enough never to change it.”

Workman is angular and animated, a middle-aged rocker in gray plaid pants and Chuck T’s. He first played at SugarHill in the late-’70s, then picked up the basics of engineering piecemeal, reading books and fiddling with gear, from a cassette deck up through a table-sized board. By the mid-’90s, SugarHill had fallen into relative disrepair. With two partners and a Small Business Administration loan, plus personal savings, Workman—who was already leasing space inside—purchased the facility outright and set about rehabbing: a new roof, an HVAC upgrade, cosmetic painting, an overhaul of the control rooms. Left intact were the two commercial studios, with their vintage mics and time-tested acoustics, aging brown pipes hanging over ugly green flooring. “It doesn’t look like a doctor’s office, it doesn’t have that sterile atmosphere,” says Waldner. “It’s a very down-home feeling, which we love.”

One of the live rooms at SugarHill - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Of course, when Workman took over, most musicians still relied on engineering pros. The sinking cost of recording equipment, combined with the sinking value of streamable music, has upended SugarHill’s business model. Now they tackle lots of pieces of projects. They’re anything but picky, recording audio books, movie voiceovers, tape transfers and music videos.

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Dan Workman

Image: Todd Spoth

They’re also format-agnostic, willing to accommodate both analog fetishists and digital natives. And the region’s sheer variety of musical styles—“literally every genre you can think of,” Workman says—helps the studio diversify financially. In the end, though, artists return for the mystique, and because they know SugarHill’s staff will treat them right. “We’re just good people doing good stuff,” Workman says. “There’s nothing very complicated about it.”

Back in his office, decorated with posters and shag carpeting in the style of a teenager’s bedroom, Workman throws his feet on the coffee table and reminisces about the “Bootylicious” session, when an 18-year-old Beyoncé wrote and performed her chart-topping anthem over a 14-hour stretch, right around the corner. (“It was astonishing.”) He can’t predict how the industry will change in the next five or 10 years, but he feels confident that SugarHill will adjust accordingly. “If the restructuring of the recording business hasn’t taken us out yet,” he says, “I don’t think it’s going to.”

If you try really hard, you can picture Beyonce standing right there recording some of her best hits! This is the view from one of the vocal booths at the legendary Sugarhill Recording Studio in Houston, Texas. #sugarhillstudio #houston #texas #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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