James A. (Jim) Beck, legendary recording engineer who almost singlehandedly allowed Dallas to rival Nashville as the center of the country music recording industry in the 1950s, was born in Marshall, Texas, on August 11, 1916, but moved with his family to Fort Worth before he was twelve. Beck evinced an early interest in electronics, allegedly building a working radio station in his bedroom at the age of fourteen. He worked as a radio announcer in his late teens, and by the age of twenty-five had worked at stations in Weslaco and Paris, Texas. During World War II he served as a radio engineer in the United States Army and gained more experience in broadcasting and recording, even setting up a military radio network based in Wichita Falls, but he broke both legs in a truck accident in California and was discharged in 1945.
Beck returned to Texas and built his first recording studio on Main Street in Dallas. He did work for the military, recording public service spots for the army until that regional work was consolidated in San Antonio. Beck was forced to shut down his studio but continued to record out of his house. He worked as an announcer at Dallas radio stations KRLD, home of the Big D Jamboree, and KEKY to supplement his income. It was while working at KRLD that Beck, whose own musical tastes ran more to classical and Broadway, began to develop an interest in country music. He borrowed money to build another studio on Ross Avenue and specialized in radio work, advertisements, and demo recordings. Legendary Texas sports announcer Gordon McLendon recorded his “live” broadcasts (actually staged reenactments, with Beck handling sound effects) of baseball games at Beck’s studio.
By 1950, however, the sound quality of the demo recordings made at Beck’s studio had begun to attract the attention of the major record labels. Columbia executive Don Law eventually brought artists from as far away as Shreveport, Nashville, and Los Angeles to record at Beck’s studio in Dallas. Country music historian Charles K. Wolfe wrote that Beck’s facility, while smaller than those in New York and Los Angeles, was “the studio that produced the most distinctive sound of all, the one that produced the most influential recordings, and the one that came within a hairbreadth of changing the whole direction of the music’s development.” Indeed, only Beck’s untimely death kept Columbia and Decca from moving their country recording operations to Dallas, a shift that might have resulted in “Big D,” not Nashville, becoming known as America’s “Music City.” Beck also did engineering for the Imperial, Bullet, and King labels.
Beck prided himself on his command of the technical aspects of recording technology and built his own sophisticated equipment to incorporate the latest advances. He took regular trips to New York to review the latest developments in sound recording technology and often improved upon them back in Dallas. He also assembled a crack band of studio musicians, including the fiddler Johnny Gimble, pianists Madge Suttee and Harold Cormack, and guitarists Jimmy Rollins and Joe Knight.
Beck’s reputation grew considerably thanks to his role in the early successes of country music legends Ray Price and Lefty Frizzell. In 1949 a songwriter friend convinced Price to record some demos at Beck’s studio; Beck liked the singer more than the songs and signed Price to a contract. Beck then sold the recordings to an independent label in Nashville, which released them as Price’s first single in 1950.
Beck also gave Frizzell his start, having heard the singer performing at the local Ace of Clubs. Frizzell went into Beck’s studio in April 1950 to record demos of two songs, “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” and “I Love You a Thousand Ways.” Beck took the demos to Nashville and tried to interest the Columbia recording star Little Jimmy Dickens in the songs. Dickens turned them down, but Law heard them, liked Frizzell’s voice, and arranged a full session in July 1950 at Beck’s studio. “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” was released in September and was an immediate hit.
In subsequent years, Beck worked with such country artists as Jim Reeves, Leon McAuliffe, Roy Orbison, the Light Crust Doughboys, Marty Robbins, Billy Walker, Floyd Tillman, Carl Smith, and Sonny James, and with artists from other genres, including Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and even classical pianist Gregor Sandor. Norman Petty, later Holly’s engineer and producer, got his start as a part-time recording engineer at Beck’s studio. In 1953 Beck built a new studio on Forrest Avenue.
In the spring of 1956, however, Beck was hospitalized after forgetting to open a ventilator or window while cleaning the heads of his recording machine with the toxic chemical carbon tetrachloride. He died a few weeks later, on May 3, 1956, and was buried in Hillcrest Cemetery in North Dallas. He was survived by his wife Mary Elizabeth, their son and two daughters, and his mother Lorine Beck. After Beck’s death, his former assistant Rollins briefly took over the studio, but, as Mary Elizabeth Beck said, “he had built it all himself, and nobody knew how to run it.” Notable reissues of Beck’s work include early recordings of Marty Robbins (in a Time-Life three-volume set) and Lefty Frizzell (on the Bear Family label).