Electric Lady Studios
New York, New York
Electric Lady is one of the most famous studios in the world for many reasons – not the least of which is that its owner was none other than Jimi Hendrix. The story (and the mythology) behind the studio has become only more legendary over time and until this day, John Storyk (co founder of WSDG) is frequently asked about what it was like to build a studio for the greatest guitarist who ever lived.
During his time in architecture school, John fell in love with the work of two architects: Antonio Gaudi, who was very well known and remains very popular, and another talented sculptor/architect named Frederick Keisler, who was not very well known in his day and is possibly even lesser known today. Keisler was primarily a sculptor by trade who designed only a handful of buildings in his entire career. But towards the beginning of his career in the ‘20s, he designed an obscure movie theater on 8th street that everyone seemed to have forgotten about - the first movie theater in the United States that had been built without a stage. The design was exceptional and incorporated a Bauhaus influence with curves and very artistic use of light. At the front of the room, there was a startling iris opening which served as the thematic centerpiece of the theater - likely the very first thing movie-goers would notice after walking through the door.
The basement of the theater served as a polka club for 40 years, while the theater itself got renovated a few times over the course of time. During the '60s, the club became a popular blues club called the Generation. At the time, Storyk was an architecture student at Princeton -- he was also a blues musician (with possibly more passion than talent). A frequent patron of the Generation, he would often go there to hear blues legends: Buddy GuyJunior Wells and many others including Hendrix himself. All the while, Storyk didn’t have any idea that atop the club was this rare architectural gem of one of his personal heroes, Frederick Keisler; he was already intimately familiar with the theater through his studies, but had no idea as to its location or geography.
Upon graduation from University and during a summer evening in 1968, perhaps feeling a little bored at the time, he leafed through the Village Voice want ads while having an ice cream and was transfixed by the following ad:
“Carpenters wanted to work for free on experimental nightclub.”
He picked up the phone and dialed the number. Fast forward three months later: he not only designed the club, but was also the lead builder and did it all for free. The club was called Cerebrum and was instantly famous, gracing the cover of Life magazine and earning a “must visit” status with other clubs such as the The Ritz, which just opened on 8th street, and Dionysus, which was a living theater. On one particular night, Jimi went to the club. He and his manager, Michael Jeffrey, expressed intentions to buy the Generation club and convert it to Jimi’s very own club. He instantly liked what he saw at the Cerebrum and asked who designed it so they might design his new club.
Storyk finally got a call from Jeffries – a brief conversation and informal proposal ensued. The meeting between Hendrix, Michael Jeffery and Storyk occurred in the winter of 1969. Storyk had only recently graduated in June of ’68, and realized he could do this. It took him around a month or two to design the club and arrive at a final drawing.
Much to Storyk’s chagrin, Jim Marron, who had been hired by Hendirx and Jeffery to run the club, determined that the club would not be successful in that location. He subsequently convinced Hendrix to build his own personal recording studio in that basement and arranged for the young English producer/engineer, Eddie Kramer to be hired as the principal studio consultant to the project.
Storyk promptly quit his architecture job – the only employer he had ever worked for to develop the designs for the new venture. Storyk, now at 23, took an internship for Bob Hansen, the industrial acoustician who had been hired to develop the isolation details for the studio. By May of 1969, he completed the drawings for Electric Lady. Jim Marron went on to become the studio’s first manager and of course Eddie’s career speaks for itself.
As far as program requirements for Electric Lady, Eddie Kramer was adamant about having a tall room – he believed in tall, bright rooms, like A&R where Phil Spector did some of his greatest work, and other studios in London like Olympia and Abbey Road. Kramer believed that drums should go in a big room. Thankfully, Storyk was able to accommodate Kramer’s need for high ceilings since they were on the ground floor and able to dig for footings. If Electric Lady had been on another floor, its famously high, sculpted ceilings would not have been possible.
For the interior, Jimi specified theatrical lighting and a passion to have as many curved surfaces as possible. Storyk made all the walls white, so they could become any color they wanted once the light hit. The lighting served as a background to accommodate any possible mood Jimi brought into the studio, or wanted to evoke into his recordings. Jimi also loved the curves, one of the elements that survived from the initial design of the club. Hendrix was very astute to the interior design of the studio, and left his mark on many features. One day he came in and decided that he didn’t like the doors, which had vertical vision windows and were also quite expensive. He asked Storyk if he could make the tops all round - so all the doors were thrown away and went to other studios.
Another element of Electric Lady that has been preserved is the custom mural that is now in the lobby just off the hallway. As for the exterior, the brick window has been retained. The sculptural curve was cut out however, to gain another foot of space for another tenant. Ironically, Storyk and Kramer posed for a shot in front of Electric Lady – with the curve still in tact – only two weeks before it was demolished forever.
All in all, Electric Lady took nine months to build – there was lots of starting and stopping, depending on when Jimi had received funds from his touring. One unexpected hiccup in the project was the Minetta Brook, unfortunately whose path ran directly below the studio. Storyk had to change the design, essentially back-filling and changing one of the walls. As for construction, he had to move go from block to stud because block wouldn’t provide sufficient support.
What was it that made Electric Lady so special? To begin with, in 1968, artists just didn’t have their own studios – not even The Beatles. The artist-owned studio was a renegade concept, yet another trail blazed by Hendrix himself in the quest for creative innovation. For Hendrix, Electric Lady was a customized vehicle for his music– not unlike his upside down backwards Strat.
Despite the changes to the original structure, Electric Lady is a facility that has evolved and thrived. The control room has been renovated two or three times- an upstairs mix room was also years later, also designed by WSDG. Now the studio is busier than ever, continuing to defy the odds, blazing its own trail. The Electric Lady epic continues into the 21st century. Storyk still believes that the studio room at Electric Lady is as good as any in the world – he admittedly doesn’t know why to this day, true to room’s mystique.