The January 2011 issue of the KBS newsletter, Blues News, featured a cover photo of Cole Stevens and Jeff Carpenter. The newsletter included a complimentary article by Cole of his recent experience while recording his band at Jeff’s studio, Alfresco Place. This free recording time was one of the perks for winning the 2010 KBS Band Competition. The result was an excellent CD, Enjoy The Ride, which has eleven songs by the Bryant Stevens Band. The release was celebrated at Stevie Ray’s on January 8. Everyone who has recorded with Jeff has always had high praises for his expert recording and production processes.
To dig deeper into Jeff’s background and to discover the magic that goes on during these sessions, we got together in the basement studio of his home at 1801 Alfresco Place. Jeff grew up in Louisville and went to Atherton High School where his son, Declan, will be attending next year. As a kid, he never imagined going into the recording business but always listened to the radio. Like many of Jeff’s generation, he was a big fan of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other pop music. While growing up, several of his friends learned to play guitar and start bands. Jeff would hang out with them and volunteer to work the sound. Summing up these years, Jeff said “Music has been a special part of my life and given me a lot of joy and comfort.”
Following high school, Jeff attended Spalding, U of L and JCC, lacking just twenty-five hours to obtain his Bachelor of Science degree in Communications. The temptation to go into broadcasting got him some training at WHAS and eventually he obtained a radio operator’s license to become a DJ or newscaster. Then Jeff decided that wasn’t for him because he was much more interested in the technical side, like operating the board and getting into stereo equipment.
During the 70s Jeff met Rick Crampton, who was recording the Louisville Orchestra. After some pestering, Rick took him under his wing and let him watch some of the sessions. Eventually Jeff purchased some of his professional recording equipment. During that time, Jeff was working at the American Printing House for the Blind in their mastering department where he met Mick Puckett. They hit it off with their mutual interest in recording and became business partners. They got with Rick and did recordings for WFPL when it was a still jazz station. Together, they would record some of the live sessions at Iroquois Amphitheater and U of L Shelby Campus. They would mike up these big band performances on location and record them on eight-track.
Jeff and Mick found a commercial building on Frankfort Avenue across from the Masonic Home. That was the beginning of Real to Reel Studios, where they recorded with reels of analogue tape. From 1977 to 1980, they recorded mostly demos for local groups that were trying to get work, doing covers from the Eagles and Led Zeppelin. Jeff noticed a dramatic change when musicians began doing their own tunes. He said, “There was a little explosion in the local punk and new wave scene for they were wanting to record original music. Since it was so rough and raw, other studios were reluctant to record it and we were willing to do it. From that time on, our business took off, bringing in an influx of new people. It was an exciting time.” During that time, they recorded a young man named John Timmons, a guitarist who used a magnetic e-bow on his strings like a slide. His band was called Jil Thorp and the Beat Boys. In another life, Timmons became the owner of ear X-tacy Records. Jeff also recorded John’s brother, Andy, who later gained recognition as a hard rock guitarist in a band called Danger Danger. Jeff also worked one year at Crescent Recording Studios, located above Mom’s Music. Tommy Cosdon, of Cosmo and the Counts fame, owned the studio and hired Jeff as his engineer. They recorded Pure Prairie League while the band was in Louisville on tour.
Jeff relocated Real to Reel to 2309 Taylorsville Road in 1981 and was there for fourteen years. One of his earliest studio projects, one that unfortunately never materialized, was when Scott Mullins was producing Rollin’ and Tumblin’ Records. Scott brought in legendary blues guitarist Eddie Kirkland and Florida harp man Rock Bottom for a taping session. Jim Baugher, Rusty Ends and Gene Wickliffe were also playing on that session. There were six strong tracks recorded but they were never released, due to a lack of time. Jeff loved Eddie’s voice and recalled Eddie telling the story of when he was sent out on the road to perform as John Lee Hooker when Hooker was sick. Actually, they played together for five years when they were both living in Detroit.
To help Jeff recall his thirty-plus years contributing to Louisville’s music scene, we went through a box of blues recordings I had that were recorded at Real to Reel and Alfresco Place. The following are Jeff’s comments:
Murphy’s Law. It’s The Law – “They were a great energized group.”
The Rusty Spoon Blues Band. Midnight Screams. “One of my favorites. That kicked off the Rollin’ and Tumblin’ label. Tanita Gaines’ son Curtis did the singing on that. He had a phenomenal voice. It was a shame that shortly after we did the album, Curtis went to tour in Japan and wasn’t around to promote the record.”
Winston Hardy and the Roadmasters. Mumbo Jumbo. “Oh, Winston, the one and only! Tommy Cosdon and Winston co-produced the record and they were a pair. I felt it would have made a great sitcom. Tommy came from a seasoned discipline of getting down to work while Winston was much more esoteric in his approach and brought a lot of fun to the music. We did a basic rhythm track first which consisted of guitar, bass, drums and keys and the other people were brought in after the fact.”
Santa Is A Bluesman Vol. 1 through 4. “I think Scott (Mullins) had a brilliant idea; it was a grand way to showcase Louisville musicians and groups. My favorite was the Metropolitan Blues AllStars on “Where’s Santa Claus When We Need Him.”
Heavy Harp – Anthology. “We brought in Billy Branch from Chicago with an all- star local backup band. When you threw people together of that quality, the musicianship was just sterling. I recorded Sam Myers several times. Usually we did a lot of late night sessions when Sam liked to get started after ten or eleven o’clock.”
Metropolitan Blues All Stars. Hillbilly Nation. “We cut that thing live in the studio. That was lickity split. We set it up and the guys said ‘Let’s Go.’ We were hoping that would capture the energy.”
Da Mudcats Blues Band, Back to the Basics, I Wanna Play in Your Big Back Yard, Blue Kentucky Moon. “Jim (Rosen) and I got to be pretty good friends and he introduced me to Tim Krekel. It was from that introduction that I went on to do the L&N album with Tim. When Jim was ill, he managed to come over and we talked quite awhile. He was an extraordinary harp player. I received lots of accolades for Back To The Basics which was produced by Tim and included Reese Wynans who had played keyboards with Stevie Ray Vaughn.”
Robbie Bartlett. One Girl’s Opinion, A Night With..,” “Robbie is such a pro. Her voice is truly an instrument. She could sing the phone book. On One Girl’s Opinion, we picked songs she normally didn’t do, trying to think outside the box. The second album was more of a fan’s request of what they wanted to hear.”
MR2 BLUE. What It Was. These guys were introduced to me through Jim Rosen. This album was a labor of love. We stopped and started it on a few occasions. I think they had a unique sound. What they brought to the blues was cool.”
Mary Anne Fisher. Songbird of the South. This was one of those things where Peter Rhee and Michael Murphy talked to me over the years about recording Mary Ann. Peter decided “let’s just do it.” We put a studio band together for her. Everyone was just thrilled to do it and brought their best talents. Peter realized that Mary Ann was getting up in years and it was very difficult for her to be taxed very long. It was harder for her to do what she had done so well when she was younger. We set up three sessions where we could go so long and get her at her best. We were up against her health and her time being able to do it. We remastered two early Segue recordings. I was surprised, these were great tunes and it’s a wonder she didn’t become a big star.”
Blind Dog Gatewood. Alfresco Place. He was a lot of fun, a one-man band. He takes you back a few years to when a guy has his foot on the bass drum and the high hat. It’s not easy to pull it off, you got to keep it interesting or you will lose people quick, especially when we are so used to seeing a band.”
Jessie Buntyn. Rock Me. He was a friend of Ricky Feathers with Bodeco and that is how Scott (Mullins) got turned on to him. He borrowed some of the best qualities of the old raw blues guys and put a unique twist on it. There was a drone to it that was really kind of hypnotic. This was the last vinyl I ever did.”
Big Al and the Heavyweights. Gator. “This got nominated for best independent album in Nashville. It came together quickly to capture it live. Roguie Ray played harp on that one.”
The Stella-Vees. Come Round Baby. “I told Jason (Lockwood) what are you doing with this black man’s voice.”
Susan O’Neil. Don’t Blame The Blues.
“These guys are sweethearts and I’m especially fond of them. We took a while to record this over a couple of years. Sue is terrific, I love her voice. I grew up with Rocky McClure who played guitar on some of the cuts. During his career, he went out to Vegas and played with Frank Sinatra.”
Bryant Stevens Band. Enjoy The Ride. “It’s always fun when you get in a situation with quality musicianship and the comfortableness of everyone doing their thing. You can really just enjoy the ride like the song. I thought they were all great players and enjoyed Cole’s and Dana’s singing. “Gimme Your Nickel Sally” is a pretty cool tune. I want to say that Brendan Lewis, who was on the album, deserves an A+ as a bass player. He did a wonderful job.” (Brendan has since left the band to avoid playing in loud situations due to an ear problem. He will be toning it down to do acoustic duos and small groups.)
What was Jeff’s magic that went on in the studio with all of these sessions? Jeff said, “People tell me I have the patience of Job. Music is something that needs to be allowed to happen. You can’t push people or force it. I’ve tried to create an atmosphere where people will feel it is conducive to their music. I try to be there in a supportive role but get out of the way and bring the technology but not let the technology get in the way either. It becomes an artist oriented situation.”
Jeff likes the creative process when everyone is setting up, starting the first tracking and then listening to the playback. Jeff will say “Here is where we’re headed, this is the sound we got, what do you think?” When he gets the nod that it’s okay, then it is time for everyone to relax and have fun. This puts the artist in the driver’s seat. Jeff does not like to assume a producer’s role unless he is asked.
I won’t begin to give a detailed description of Jeff’s recording equipment except to say his format of choice is Radar 24, a 24-track digital system by Iz Technology Corporation. Their approach to digital sounds much more analogue than the other systems. Jeff is the only one in Kentucky that has this system. When Jeff worked with the band, Velvet Elvis, he went to Memphis with them when they recorded at Ardent Studios. Alfresco Studios is copied after that design on a smaller scale. A custom drum set built by musician, John Hayes, is available for studio use.
Currently Jeff is working with Rusty Ends on a new blues project with an R&B flavor. Jackie Metry, a music teacher at Assumption High School, will be singing on the album. Jeff is also producing another CD with Jackie of songs Jeff has written with his wife Mary Kennedy, Rusty Ends, and Michael Walker with Earbone. There will be an excellent aggregation of local musicians calling themselves Sons and Daughters. The CD will take its name from the title track “The Man From Baldango” which has a Bob Dylan feel.
Jeff is encouraging new, young bands wanting to record to contact him and he will give them a great rate.
We closed our interview with Jeff recalling, “It has always been feast or famine for me. I’ve been fortunate enough at times to make a really good living and at other times it has been kind of scary. When I started I was one of four studios in town. Now with personal computer set ups in the home, the technology has leveled the playing field. I will be doing this as long as nature will allow.”