Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios was in danger of closing, until the arrival of Lee Foster. Now it celebrates its 45th anniversary with a concert series kicked off by Patti Smith
Electric Lady Studios co-owner Lee Foster with Patti Smith, who first recorded there in 1974. ‘I love the atmosphere of the studio,’ she says. ‘It’s someplace I feel a sense of continuity.’ PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARIO SORRENTI FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE
ON AUGUST 26, 1970, Jimi Hendrix threw open the doors to Electric Lady Studios, his Greenwich Village recording studio, to a group of musicians and friends. Named for the Jimi Hendrix Experience album Electric Ladyland, the studio looked like a New Orleans pleasure house embedded in a psychedelic space capsule. Patti Smith was at the opening party, along with Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood; all would go on to record there. Hendrix saw Smith sitting on the steps that night, like a “hick wallflower,” she wrote in her memoir Just Kids, and told her he wanted Electric Lady to be a place where artists of all kinds would record the “abstract universal language of music.” Three weeks later, Hendrix died in a London apartment after ingesting an excess of barbiturates. He was 27 years old.
Miraculously, his vision survived him: From its inception, his mother ship served as a rock, funk, disco and soul Olympus where gold and platinum hits were forged. In the ’70s, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones and Blondie all recorded there. It was Electric Lady where two members of a raw, young band called Wicked Lester laid down demos in 1971; they would return as Kiss to record Dressed to Kill. In 1975, John Lennon and David Bowie strolled in and improvised the number-one single “Fame,” for Bowie’s Young Americans album. That same year, Smith recorded her first album, Horses,there; and a couple of years later, Nile Rodgers arrived with his band Chic and recorded the multiplatinum single “Le Freak.” The enchantment held through the ’80s and ’90s, as AC/DC and the Clash showed up, then Billy Idol, the Cars, Weezer and Santana. The house that Jimi built welcomed them all.
Forty-five years later, Electric Lady still stands. Its block of West 8th Street now houses a medical clinic, a frozen yogurt shop and a Goodwill store. But keen-eyed observers will spot a groovy, oval-mirrored door tucked amid the workaday storefronts, a glass wall with silvery bubble letters bearing the studio’s name and, behind it, dark velvet curtains. Within, the Lady’s multigenerational family rocks on, recording, mixing, performing or frolicking on the roof at barbecues. Open any door in the past five years, and you might have seen Daft Punk laying down tracks forRandom Access Memories (winner of the 2013 Grammy for album of the year), Bono and Adele chatting with interns, or Jay Z and the Edge dancing with an engineer’s mom. U2 took over the top floor to cut their latest album, Songs of Innocence; Keith Richards came in to record an expanded version of Some Girls in 2011 (in July, he chose the studio as the place to give a first listen to his new solo album, Crosseyed Heart). The star British mixing engineer Tom Elmhirst has taken up permanent residence in Studio C, where last year he mixed Beck’s Morning Phase, winner of the 2014 Grammy for album of the year. On one day last winter, seven sessions proceeded simultaneously, including: Interpol in Studio A; Jon Batiste (the bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) in Studio B’s live room; and Lana Del Rey, Rod Stewart and producer and singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys all working on the third floor. “This place is a beating heart; it’s got its own rhythm,” says Elmhirst.
Yet only a little over a decade ago, the Lady nearly vanished. The music industry was in a downward spiral, the studio’s infrastructure was deteriorating, and 10 months went by without a single booking. “The place was almost on its back,” remembers the architectJohn Storyk, who was 22 when he designed the studio in 1969 (it was his second official commission; Hendrix took a chance on him, impressed by a Soho nightclub Storyk had designed called Cerebrum). Mark Ronson, who frequented the studio at the turn of the millennium, during the “soulquarian” period, when the Roots, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu recorded there, thought its “glory-days era had sort of ended.” Hendrix’s estate had sold the studio in 1977, and it changed hands again, in 2004. The owners thought they’d have to close it down.
One freezing New York night in February, a gaggle of partygoers were buzzed into the studio for a party to toast Electric Lady’s legacy. Descending a steep staircase, they emerged into an underground parlor with Persian carpets, Chesterfield sofas, fringed lamps and, everywhere you looked, speakers, consoles and recording equipment. A mural painted by the California artist Lance Jost curved around the subterranean walls, depicting an intergalactic spacecraft where blond astronymphs perched by broad windows, admiring the floating universe. This was the fabled Studio A—which looks virtually the same as it did back in the day, says Storyk. A wiry, tattooed guy in a knit cap and cowboy boots broke the nostalgic spell as he started to address the crowd. For a moment, he looked like Pinkman, Aaron Paul’s character in Breaking Bad, or, on second glance, a sound engineer, about to say, “Check, check….” But then he began speaking, in earnest, Southern-inflected tones. His name, he said, was Lee Foster. He was from Tennessee; and as he described the transformation of the studio over the past 10 years—the resuscitation of moldering floorboards and dated equipment and the slow return of the rock pantheon—it became clear that he was the protector of this monument to music’s golden age. “I will say this without a doubt,” says Eric Kaplan, counsel to the family who gave Foster the reins in 2005 (and who have always retained anonymity). “Without Lee Foster, Electric Lady would have died.” Since 2010, Foster has been the studio’s general manager, partner and minority equity owner.
Auerbach, who launched his new band, the Arcs, in Studio A in June, says, “Since Lee’s been here, it’s started to form into something more like what the founders had in mind.” Devendra Banhart (who feels such blood-brotherhood with Foster that he inked him with a tattoo at the studio) says, “Lee was the person who single-handedly reanimated Electric Lady.” To Ronson, most of whose hit 2015 album, Uptown Special, was mixed at the studio, Foster “made it somewhere that musicians and creative people and singers want to be. He feels like one of us.”