Visit To Sunset Sound
Vintage Rock Landmark
Story by Junkman
Photos by Alex Kluft
I am not one to pass up an opportunity to visit with a legend, if I can help it. I’ve met many over the years and visited many legendary places, I am proud to say. Recently, I was invited to attend a birthday party for multi-platinum producer Warren Huart (Aerosmith, Korn, Ace Frehley) at Sunset Sound recording studio in Hollywood, a facility that has produced so many classic recordings, that the word legendary doesn’t seem enough of a word to describe it.
Opened in 1958 as a studio for Walt Disney to make the soundtracks of classic movies such as Bambi, Mary Poppins, 101 Dalmatians and many others, Sunset Sound eventually took on new life as the upcoming rock n’ roll era took shape. Salvatore “Tutti” Camarata, Disney’s director of recording, saw the potential of the music business, took over and a star was born.
Over the years, so many classic records were recorded in the three studios on the property. Led Zeppelin II and IV were done here. Pet Sounds from the Beach Boys, the first four Van Halen records, Exile On Main Street from the Rolling Stones, the first two records from the Doors, and Prince’s Purple Rain are just a few of the over 200 gold records that were created within these walls.
Upon arrival, I immediately engaged in conversation with two of my favorite bassists, who just so happened to be the first two people that I ran into. Bassist Jerry Jemmott is a musician’s musician and a hero to just about anyone who has played the bass guitar.
“I was Jaco Pastorious’ hero,” he told me, referring to the late, great bassist for Weather Report. “He loved the way that I played, and I was a teacher to him on many occasions. I’m in his documentary. Did you see it?”
Jemmott has appeared on hundreds of records, and performed and recorded with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Freddie King, and BB King, as well as jazz greats Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, and many others.
We got to talking about the history of the building, and for the first time in the evening, it was mentioned that the place was supposedly haunted. “If these walls could talk,” Jemmott smiled, “nobody would believe them.”
I also got to talking to another bassist I admire named Tony Franklin, who had recorded at Sunset Sound back in the 80s with The Firm, a band he was in with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers, and current AC/DC drummer Chris Slade.
“It was a real treat to record with those guys,” he said. “The recording process is much easier when you are working with that level of talent.”
Other noted musicians in attendance that night included musicians Brandino ( Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige), Cj Vanston (Spinal Tap, Joe Cocker), Scott Shriner (Weezer), Paul Ill (Christina Aguilera, (Alicia Keys), Tanya O'Callaghan (Maynard James Keenan), Erik Eldenius (Billy Idol), Matt Starr (Ace Frehley, Mr. Big) and Pete Thorn (Chris Cornell, Melissa Etheridge).
Top producers and engineers like Cameron Webb (Motorhead, Weezer), Ross Hogarth (Van Halen, Motley Crue), Brian Lucey (Black Keys, Counting Crows), and Tommy Vicari (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince) were also on hand.
By now people had started gathering in Studio 1. A buffet was served and a cake with candles was presented to Warren Huart, who was serenaded by family members and guests with a rousing and not surprisingly in-key (after all, the room was full of professional musicians and songwriters) version of “Happy Birthday,” a song that every songwriter wishes he had the rights to.
I took this time to approach studio manager Craig Hubler, who spoke with me about some of the history of the building as we sat behind the studio mixing console.
“I think I am now the longest serving employee in this place,” he said.
Among the things he told me, were stories of some of the performers who recorded there over the years, including Prince, who he described as “eccentric,” but, after getting to know him, became a trusted friend and a wonder to work with.
“He was also very shy,” Hublet explained. “But once he knew you, it was a whole different story. He basically lived in Studio 3 for about nine months of the year during the recording of Purple Rain.”
He also touched a bit on the hallway of the studio being “haunted,” mentioning that it stays a lot colder than other rooms in the complex, even though it has the same amount of insulation as the other rooms.
I checked out Studio 2 and sat at the Steinway piano that was used on so many recordings by the likes of Elton John, Tom Waits, and Aretha Franklin, among many others. To say that I wasn’t “haunted” by the aura of greatness that had used that room and that piano for so much recorded creativity would be an absolute lie.
The building, I was also told, has not changed much since its heyday in the 1970s, and that holds part of its charm, as well as its much-revered sound. As recording equipment gets upgraded, you just don’t mess with great acoustics. In other words, they “left well enough alone,” and rightly so.
Studio 3 had a live band whose playlist featured just songs that had been recorded there. I heard plenty of soul classics, a few Zeppelin favorites, and even a Neil Diamond number or two. I took another lap around the complex just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Checked out the office, bathrooms, lounge area, even storage rooms, which were filled with sound-dampening foam and sound baffles, before I decided to call it a night and let my mind recover from a visit to a true “Musical Magic Kingdom.”
If Walt Disney had only known what this place would become, he may have never let it go. Interestingly enough, I was told that one of the most popular recordings in recent years at Sunset Sound studios was the soundtrack to Disney’s “Frozen.” Sunset Sound and its archives are frozen in time, and will always be cherished. A true Vintage Rock landmark.