When the original Record Plant opened on March 13, 1968, it began with a bang. Record producer Gary Kellgren had decided to leave Mayfair Studios to set up his own shop and his impressive roster of clients went with him. The early success of the Record Plant was due in large part to the support of visionary artists like Frank Zappa. Just a few years before a nerdy-looking Zappa had appeared on the popular Steve Allen Show. He led the program’s bewildered network television ensemble in a little number he had written for orchestra, bicycle spokes, and wheel. Perhaps Stone or Kellgren were watching. Zappa wasn’t the wealthiest musician on the scene in the late 60s, but his was a voice that other musicians heeded. If the avant-garde leader of the Mothers of Invention liked the idea of a recording studio designed with the artists in mind, others would follow. The first three months of the Record Plant’s studio time were quickly booked in advance in part because of Zappa’s contrarian influence.
Record producer Tom Wilson, who produced Bob Dylan early in his career, talked Jimi Hendrix producer Chas Chandler into booking the Plant from April 18 to early July 1968 to record Electric Ladyland. Jimi Hendrix, in his tragically brief career, changed the way recordings were made. He proved that records could be both a creative force and a huge financial asset. The Beatles, Beach Boys and others had created breakthroughs that used overdubbing and layering that obviously were a step on the way to using technology to change the way music was heard. Hendrix completed the transformation of studio recording that had begun only a few years before. He saw the studio as a musical instrument that was fully expressive and capable of making listening to records an entirely new experience. It was no longer a simple matter of placing microphones or having musicians play louder or softer. Although the technology had improved, what happened in the 60s was that producers were more often trained sound engineers rather than primarily A&R men. As a result, many sophisticated fans began to create special listening rooms in their own homes where they could hear their records in comfort and take advantage of the new technology that made sound an experience that was different—and with more depth—than what could be heard live.
Hendrix later modeled Electric Ladyland, the studio he had designed to meet his every creative need, on the lessons he had experimented with at the NYC Record Plant. He died soon after the new studio was launched but his legacy continued to influence the recording artists’ approach to the environment where they turned their ideas into reality.
The long, strange history of the legendary Record Plant began in 1968 with one of the most famous initiations ever: the recording of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland album. The first big mixing only session, shortly thereafter, was the soundtrack to the Woodstock movie, and the Concert for Bangladesh that featured George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and Billy Preston. These landmark recording and mastering sessions led to a string of hit records that would eventually result in three recording studios sharing the same name and reputation for quality, not only because of the music produced in them but because of the endless supply of fun and good times the three Record Plants offered to the musicians who paid the bills.
Jimi Hendrix cut the first album in the Record Plant’s original New York studio in 1968; Bruce Springsteen laid down most of the tracks for Born to Run, and John Lennon finished the recording of “Imagine” there, adding strings and also saxophone by King Curtis to tracks recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London.
Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles recording at the Record Plant in New York in 1968
Later, Paul McCartney jammed with his fellow former Beatle for the last time in an all-night session at the Hollywood studio in 1974—the roster of artists who recorded in Record Plant locations included some of the most iconic names in the industry from Hendrix and Springsteen to Prince and Metallica. Despite the decline in record and CD sales and the technology that allowed great home recording studios, the Record Plant managed to hang on for a while. When it became possible for bands to build their own studios wherever they wanted, it was the beginning of the end for an important chapter in the history of commercial recordings.
Gary Kellgren and Chris Stone, a top recording engineer and a marketing guru, respectively, had made the Record Plant an environment more suitable for producing art than merely making a profit. The space they created featured state-of-the-art sound equipment, comfortable furniture and an atmosphere that inspired creativity. Over time, the original NYC Record Plant began to show its age and began to feel small and crowded, but it had marked a major break from the recording sweat shops that had preceded it. The west coast versions of the Record Plant ushered in an era of luxury and decadence that made the NYC location seem somewhat dated.
In 1969, the Record Plant opened a new facility in LA and it improved on the vision of the NYC original. Later, a third Record Plant facility opened in Sausalito, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The Record Plant West
After experiencing the early success of the New York studio, Kellgren and Stone decided to move to the West Coast and open another Record Plant in Los Angeles. They asked Tom Hidley, who had built TTG Studios in 1965, and was becoming known in L.A. for catering to the high-decibel needs of rock music, to design a studio that would make full use of the advances in technology that rocked the industry and offered space for recreational activities and expanding business opportunities.
On December 4, 1969, the new studio opened its doors on 8456 West Third Street near La Cienega Boulevard. Sometimes known as "Record Plant West," the new studio held a 16-track recorder, a big step up from the 12-track system housed in the "Record Plant East” as the NYC studio was sometimes called. Time was 20 to 25 percent less expensive than in other studios in New York, even though their technology was state-of-the-art. In 1970, to stay ahead of the game and remain an industry leader, the Record Plant East bought a new 24-track tape recorder. It was a massive machine (assembled by Hidley) and it set them back $42,000, a huge sum at the time, but it was only used for a few sessions and never really justified the expense.
By this time, Stone and Kellgren, who had sold the facility to Warner Communications had profited enough from their business holdings to buy back the studio and in 1972, they opened a third Record Plant in Sausalito, California, just a few steps away from the location where Otis Redding is said to have penned the opening lines of “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” in 1967.
In March 1973, third studio, Studio C was added to the Record Plant West operation at Third Street in LA. Gary Kellgren initiated a series of Sunday night jam sessions hosted by the LA Record Plant, led by his good friend Jim Keltner, a well-known studio drummer. The jams became known as the Jim Keltner Fan Club Hour and became a favorite gathering place for talented musicians to play along with Keltner. Pete Townsend, Ronnie Wood, Billy Preston, Mick Jagger and George Harrison were just a few of the talents who showed up at the sessions and jammed.
Kellgren drowned in his swimming pool in 1977, along with his secretary and girlfriend Kristianne Gaines. She couldn’t swim and likely drowned trying to save him. Guitarist Ronnie Wood later wrote that Kellgren probably died of electric shock while trying to fix some underwater speakers in the pool. His death completely devastated his partner, Chris Stone. He now had the sole responsibility for keeping all three of the Record Plant locations operating. Putting most of his effort into the LA facility, he eventually lost interest in the Sausalito Record Plant.
Tragedy soon struck again. Studio C was ruined in an electrical fire in January 1978. Marshall Chapman, the talented blues singer, and songwriter was working on a new album in Studio B at the time and she helped other musicians and engineers carry irreplaceable master recordings out of the building to keep them from being lost in the fire. She later said: "We might as well have been rescuing Rembrandts from the Louvre ... I remember seeing 'Hotel California' [written] on one, and 'John Lennon' on another. I nearly fainted when I saw I was holding a box containing the master tape from Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life."
Studio C was rebuilt and fitted with new digital recording equipment. Stephen Stills became the first major American artist to record on digital equipment, rather than an analog system.
The LA Record Plant added more remote recording trucks and in 1982, Stone began recording soundtracks that the Record Plant mixed in the studio, including the music for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Annie, and many other successful films. The Plant was quickly outgrowing its Third Street site.
The Third Street facility closed in 1985 and reopened in 1986 at 1032 Sycamore Avenue in Hollywood in the old Radio Recorders "Annex," a historic studio where Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong had once recorded.
In 1972, the owners of the Record Plant opened a third location in Sausalito, California. After a name change late in its run (to Plant Studios), the 2200 Bridgeway location closed in 2008 after nearly four decades of recording talented artists from the 19-year old Prince to Metallica, and from Carlos Santana to Andrea Bocelli.
The Marin County incarnation of the Record Plant was the culmination of its founders’ vision of a new way to record music. It was a shade more decadent than the first two locations had been, but it was a dream more completely realized than the previous locations had managed. Part recording studio and part luxury resort with the recording artists who were working there housed on the property itself—with all of the amenities an eccentric rock star could demand, including drugs, beautiful women, and handsome men.
Its striking inlaid-wood front doors, which are still there for the curious to view, are the work of Dave Richards, a local artist who had hand-painted Janis Joplin’s celebrated, psychedelically rendered Porsche and designed the murals and interior woodwork. The Record Plant had ample space for a Jacuzzi, guesthouses, organic chefs (long before you could buy organic cuisine nearly anywhere in the world), a tennis court, and its own speedboat docked nearby. The conference room floor was a large waterbed.
Its Halloween 1972 opening was attended by rock royalty, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who came dressed as redwood trees. The grand opening was a great success and was followed by a long series of hit recordings by the artists who flocked to experience the working environment of the newest jewel in the Record Plant’s crown.
Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours at the Sausalito Record Plant. Released in 1977, it has sold over 40 million copies to date. Santana's Supernatural, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, Sports by Huey Lewis and the News, five Metallica albums, and the Grateful Dead's Wake of the Flood were among the many successful albums recorded at the Sausalito facility. Bob Marley made his first American recording there.
The Plant’s fortunes improved for a time when Metallica made the Sausalito facility’s Studio A its home base. In 1986, the government sold the studio at auction to Bob Skye, who recruited Arne Frager, a recording engineer to become his partner. Frager remodeled Studio A expressly for Metallica and producer Bob Rock in 1993–1995. At the band's request, he raised the roof from 14 to 32 feet high so that drummer Lars Ulrich could record a bigger drum sound. This was perhaps the biggest change a recording studio had ever made to please one client. Journey also played a large role in the Plant's return to financial solvency by turning out a string of hit records. Journey's hit songs kept the studio successful in the years immediately before the Plant was sold again and the recording industry as a whole went into a steep decline.
The Record Plant on San Francisco Bay is essentially a large piece of—and potential repository for—music memorabilia that defines the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s music scene. Dave Matthews did most of his early work at 2200 Bridgeway. The hits kept coming until mp3s essentially replaced both CDs and LPs and recording studios were only for bands and record companies with very deep pockets.
The Record Plant was founded by Stone and Kellgren on an artist-centered philosophy, an unusual step for a commercial business. This had never been done before. The question many “suits” asked was: Are record companies businesses or art colonies? For a brief shining moment, the answer seemed to be both. Chris Stone called the Plant “the artist’s living room.”
According to Maureen Droney, who engineered albums at the Plant in the mid-80s, “Studios really do retain the energy of the records that were made there. There was an aura of magic and fun that came from the people who recorded there before.”