Fred Foster, Roy Orbison, and a Coat Rack

Feb 15, 2017

RCA Victor opened a studio in 1957 as a recording home for the company’s Nashville artists, but from day one it also was rented out to producers and artists from other record companies. Fred Foster, a young, ambitious producer, launched Monument records in 1958 and began booking sessions at RCA Studio B for Monument artists including Billy Grammer and Jerry Byrd.

Roy Orbison, a soft-voiced rockabilly singer from Wink, Texas, had made records for Sam Phillips’s Sun label in Memphis and for Chet Atkins at RCA Victor in Nashville, where he recorded at Studio B, but the songs were not successful. In 1959 Foster signed Orbison to Monument and booked a session for June 3 at RCA Studio B. They re-recorded the last two songs Orbison had cut for RCA, but the Monument versions of “Paper Boy” and “With the Bug” also failed to chart.

At Orbison’s second Monument session, on September 18, 1959, something happened that would change the way Foster recorded Orbison in the future. The layout at Studio B had the band and singers playing live, together in the same room at the same time. Some of Nashville’s A-team musicians and background singers were on hand for the session, and a string section was added to the band. The song being recorded was an up-tempo number, “Up Town.” As Orbison and the musicians began running down the song, Foster noted that the larger band was drowning out Orbison’s lead vocal. Foster and engineer Bill Porter looked for a way to fix the problem.

Interviewed later by his granddaughter Rachel DiGregorio, Foster recalled, “I saw this coat rack over in the corner and I said, ‘What if we pull that coat rack out and put it crossways in the corner and put Roy behind that, then cover it up with coats and stuff?’” The idea worked, and “Up Town” made it to #72 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

To replicate the effect of the coat rack, Foster and Porter created walls made of 2×4s or 2×6s, stuffed with insulation, and covered in burlap. The walls were on wheels that could be moved around the studio to create an isolation booth.

Orbison’s next Studio B session on March 26, 1960, included the hit single “Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel),” which would rise to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and begin a string of classic recordings that included “Blue Angel,” “I’m Hurtin’,” “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream),” and “In Dreams.” All were recorded at RCA Studio B using the rolling isolation booth, and all were produced by Foster.

In 1964, Foster opened his own studio, Fred Foster Sound Studios, and no longer needed to book time at RCA Studio B. On August 1, 1964, Orbison recorded his biggest hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” at Fred Foster Sound Studios. In 1965, Orbison left Foster and Monument Records for MGM and a new producer.

—Michael Manning

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