John King, a co-founder of Memphis’ Ardent Records, a veteran music promoter and radio historian, has died.
King’s family confirmed he died Monday morning. He was 78.
A charming and indefatigable promo man from the golden years of the Memphis music business, King was perhaps best known for his efforts on behalf of ’70s Memphis pop band Big Star — whose debut album, “#1 Record,” was released 50 years ago . “If it wasn’t for John, no one would’ve known Big Star,” said band co-founder Jody Stephens. “He was such a creative and enthusiastic guy.”
King famously helped revive the band after it split briefly in 1973, by making them the centerpiece of a legendary one-off event in Memphis, known as the National Association of Rock Writers Convention. “John had that independent spirit, that Memphis spirit, to think outside the box,” said Robert Gordon, author of the Bluff Music history “It Came From Memphis.”
“He wasn’t intimidated by the fact that no one had ever wooed and gathered the [country’s] leading rock writers together. John knew the value of flying them to Memphis — the good press that Ardent would see in return,” Gordon said. “It’s a legendary event, even still. In no small part because it resurrected Big Star, yielding their second album, ‘Radio City.’”
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King was also a record collector of note, and the gift of his archive — 30,000 45 rpm singles, 10,000 LPs, 20,000 CDs and more than 1,000 other pieces of musical ephemera — would form the foundation of the Memphis Listening Lab audio library which opened at the Crosstown Concourse in 2021.
“It’s the greatest collection I’ve ever seen,” said Shangri-La Records founder Sherman Willmott, who helped launch the Memphis Listening Lab. “John always hoped his collection would end up in a place where it could be enjoyed. The fact that we were able to make it happen in Memphis was a fulfillment of John’s dreams of him.
“It’s an incredible amenity for Memphis and music fans who come to Memphis from all around the world. And it’s an amazing legacy for John to leave behind.”
The collection kept growing
Born to an affluent family and raised in East Memphis, King hit adolescence just as rock ‘n’ roll was exploding, with the Bluff City serving as the music’s ground zero. “At 12 or 13, is when I started collecting records,” King recalled in a 2021 interview with The Commercial Appeal. “Once I get my teeth my into something I can’t let go. So that’s how the collection started… and why it just kept growing.”
As much as he loved the music, King loved the medium of radio as well. In 1950s Memphis, radio was a dominant cultural force, with legendary stations like WHBQ and WDIA at their peaks, while DJs like Dewey Phillips were as many stars as the artists they spun.
“I really loved radio and that whole world. From the time I was a kid I would subscribe to [music industry trade magazine] Billboard and read it from cover to cover,” remembered King, who attended Memphis University School.
With record label contacts gleaned from Billboard, King — a naturally enterprising sort — actually started his own radio station, after a fashion. “My friend [and MUS classmate] John Fry I had a phony radio station, WHJR, and we’d send out these requests to the addresses we found in Billboard asking for records,” recalled King. In the early-’60s, King and Fry actually got hooked up with a real station, tiny KCAT in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and worked there for a time.
In 1961, while still teenagers, King, Fry and another friend (and future FedEx founder) Fred Smith formed Ardent Records — following in the tradition of entrepreneurial Memphis labels like Sun, Hi and Stax. The early acts on Ardent included frat rockers like the Ole Miss Downbeats, and King took the lead in promoting the records.
After “failing out” of MUS, King was sent to a private school in New Jersey. “I loved it ’cause I would go to Atlantic City on the weekends, and these Philly girls would come in town, they were exotic to me,” recalled King. “But what I really loved was radio — especially in those days, where radio really was a regional phenomenon. When I was back east, I’d go and bug all Philadelphia radio people, just trying to learn and be around the business.”
After graduating high school, King attended the University of the South at Sewanee. He eventually joined the Air Force where he managed to get his hands on some equipment — an IBM Selectric and a Gestetner mimeograph machine — and began writing and publishing his own radio tip sheet, where he would pick the next hit records for program directors. “I managed to not make money at it, but I enjoyed doing it,” King said.
back to memphis
Moving back to Memphis in the late-’60s, King continued running his tip sheet, working out of the Ardent Studios location on National where his old school pal John Fry had built a renowned recording facility.
The studio eventually moved to its current location on Madison in Midtown, where King also became part owner of the neighboring Trader Dick’s bar, a well-known watering hole for musicians during the era.
As Ardent — both the studio and its affiliated label — grew into the early 1970s thanks to a partnership with Stax Records, King became the company’s head of marketing and PR.
Most famously, King came up with the brainstorm to hold the first (and only) National Association of Rock Writers Convention in 1973. A multi-day gathering of over 100 rock writers from across the country, the conference would help define the career of critically beloved Memphis pop band Big Star, who reformed to play the event to much acclaim.
Even after Stax folded in 1976, and Ardent shifted back into the studio business, King would continue to work in radio promotion and kept adding to his collection of records. “I was a member of NARAS, and as a member they would send out these monthly reports, where you could check off which albums you wanted,” King said. “That’s how I continued to collect without going broke.”
By the early 2000s, King decided to use that collection to indulge his lifelong passion for broadcasting in a more modern way, launching an internet radio station called Tiger Radio, and producing his own original radio shows in tribute to the DJs he’d listened to. growing up.
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A lab for listening pleasure
In 2018, King — by then retired and dealing with some heath issues — began to think about doing something with his massive record collection, which he was housing in a rented office space on Poplar.
The following year, Willmott was tasked by a group of anonymous Memphis philanthropists and organizers with Crosstown Arts to find a way to turn King’s massive private collection into a public amenity inside Crosstown Concourse. The idea of a listening library, or listening lab, was born.
In April 2019, King’s collection was moved into a storage facility in Crosstown as construction began on transforming the second story space — the site of the kitchen of the old Sears building — into a well-appointed archive and library for study, for research, and , most importantly to King, for listening pleasure.
When he toured the completed Memphis Listening Lab in the summer of 2021, King seemed deeply moved that his life’s work would live on. “I am so blessed that they were able to do this,” King said. “They keep saying how lucky they are to have all my stuff, but I think I’m lucky as hell too.”
A private family service for King is planned, but a public memorial at the Memphis Listening Lab will take place at a later date. King’s family requests that any memorial contributions be made directly to the Memphis Listening Lab.