NPR Visits Blue Heaven Studios
In August, Blue Heaven Studios was visited by the renowned All Things Considered staff of National Public Radio (NPR). They had heard about the church-turned-recording studio and thought it worthy of reporting. To follow is the transcript of the show along with a few photos taken during their visit.
Linda: This is NPR's-All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel and I'm, Linda Wertheimer, We are going to listen now to some of the old men who learned the blues along the Mississippi, worked their way north, and finally came near the end of their lives to a little city way out in Kansas and a sanctified place to play music. (Let the Good Times Roll from Weepin’ Willie’s At Last, On Time recording)
Linda: Weeping Willie Robinson is an old time blues man, he is still working at the age of 73. He has several regular gigs around the Boston area, he has fans, but like lots of the elderly men who play the blues, he never made his own record, and he wanted to. He wanted to leave something of his blues behind. Now he has, Willie Robinson says he went to Salina, Kansas to do it because of Mighty Sam McClain, another musician and old friend.
Willie: He heard me make a statement one time in the House of Blues. I said I wanted to record one CD before I die, and he said "well, I'm gonna to see that you do that". But I had been promised so many things before and I didn't pay it much mind. And before I knowed anything he called me on the phone and said you can go into the studio, and we flying to Kansas, out there...and we flew right out there and did it.
Linda: Weeping Willie Robinson went back to Boston and a few months later a CD arrived in the mail from Kansas. It was everything he hoped it would be.
(At Last, On Time excerpt)
Willie: I was in heaven, I was on Cloud #9. I felt so good. I wanted to scream but had to be cool (ha, ha), I wanted to jump up and scream?
Linda: Mr. Robinson went to Blue Heaven Studio, Salina, Kansas to make his recording, finding the old men of the blues and coaxing them to come all the way out to the middle of Kansas to be recorded is the project of Chad Kassem. He is a transplanted Lousiannian very intense about the music he collects and produces. When he brings the elderly blues artists to Salina, they find Blue Heaven Studio is in a church, a substantial red brick church on the corner of a downtown Salina street. It's been wired for sound by some of the best engineers and designers in the business, they were also, Kassem says, startled to see what they would be working with.
Chad: When they drove up each one of them came at a different time and all of their reactions were the same, they go "Wow, this is a church". I said, "Well I told you it was a church". They said "no, no but this is a church". I said "Yeah, I told you it" They said "'We thought like Little House on the Prairie with the steeple and all the people and stuff", ya know and I'm like "OK", like and then the next guy drove in, and he says "You know in New York we have nothing like this", he goes, "ya know, normally we just have an isolated studio room that you have to, you know, pump in fake ambiance". He goes, "you are just so fortunate".
Linda: The church was built early in the century. The sanctuary is a vaulted room with a beamed plaster ceiling that looks like the hull of a ship turned up-side down. The preacher's of bygone days could stand on the altar, where the stage is now, and easily be heard by everyone. Gary Gruver is a musician who was there the same day we were. He played a few bars on his saxophone to show us the way the room effects the sound. (Music: Gruber plays the sax) . For the elderly blues men who have been playing here there is no need for electronic manipulation of their music. They can play as they always have. The church makes its contribution, the reverberant sound of its high ceiling and oak beams, and the result is a good acoustic recording of the blues. This is a man who has played in Kansas City most of his working life. He is called "Little Hatch", short for Hatchet, a nickname he acquired when he was much younger. (Music: From Little Hatch’s Goin’ Back recording on APO) Little Hatch was part of the inspiration for Blue Heaven Studios. Chad Kassem first heard him years ago.
Chad: Fifteen years ago when I came to Salina, I went to Kansas City for the weekend and I went into a night club and heard this, I guess back then he was probably a 65-year-old blues guy playing acoustic blues, and I was just totally blown away, I mean I was like, "Wow, this guy ought to be recorded". And to think that 15 years later I was able to record Little Hatch is just amazing, and to think that I was the guy to be able to do it, it just feels really great. (Music: From Little Hatch’s Goin’ Back recording on APO).
Linda: Kassem comes from Cajun roots in Louisiana. He moved from there to Kansas. He wanted a different place to begin a new life.
Chad: I moved to Salina from Lafayette, Louisiana about 15 years ago, and I came here to get sober. And I don't know how much people know about Louisiana, but the Cajun's like to party and "pass a good time" as they say it. So I came to Kansas to get away from that and I was working for basically minimum wage as a cook and then I just started collecting records as a hobby, and it just grew from that.
Linda: Kassem created a mail order company for collectors of records and CD's. He began remastering old recordings to add to his mail order business, and when he heard that the old First Christian Church, located behind his mail order outfit was for sale, he bought it primarily for storage. But then, he discovered its natural sound and a studio, with a control room that could handle his other recording business made sense. But the blues is a labor of love. Kassem built an apartment out of the Sunday school rooms downstairs with a big TV and a circle of Lazy Boy's to keep his elderly artists comfortable. He brought a cousin from Louisiana to cook in the old church kitchen after recording sessions. There are big meals served downstairs on the long pine table that came with the church, but to insure that the old men would see the point of coming all the way out to Salina, Chad Kassem hired Jimmy D. Lane, who came from Chicago, to be music director for Blue Heaven Studios. He knows many of the old musicians through his father, the late blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers. Jimmy D. Lane plays an electric version of the blues but the old church is now equipped for that too.
John Brandt (BHS recording engineer): Check your vocal would ya?
Jimmy: 1-2, 1-2, check, check 1-2.
Jimmy: Let’s go through a few bars and make sure we’re tuned.
Jimmy: It's the greatest thing that I have had the experience to be involved with. Next to playing with my father. To see him bring in cats like Honey Boy Edwards, and Little Hatch, and Weepin’ Willie Robinson, to be a part of that, is a great thing.
Chad: As good as they are it's just hard to believe that nobody else heard what we heard and wanted to invest time and money in them and they are dying as we speak, it makes you realize the urgency of the whole thing and that's why we are spending everything we got, and it's made us really realize that we got to record as many people as we can.
Jimmy: The people deserve to hear, the musicians deserve to have a product like we have given them. This is blues what we’re giving to the public the way Chad has envisioned to record, the way this church sounds to record these people in, it's amazing and I have been around all kinds of music all of my life. Mainly blues, I have lived with it, breathed it and go to sleep with it and wake up in the morning with it. This is the way these guys deserve to be recorded and packaged. It's real. And the sound, it speaks for itself.
Linda: Jimmy D. Lane, the music director, and Chad Kassem, the owner of Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas.
This was a recording session at Blue Heaven Studios for 84-year-old Honey Boy Edwards from Chicago. This is called the West Memphis Blues. (Music by Honeyboy Edwards).
Visit npr.org (then go to All Things Considered and search on Blue Heaven Studios) to hear the interview, including the music from the featured APO albums.