SugarHill Recording Studios was established by producer Bill Quinn in October 1941 in Houston. Originally Quinn called the facility Quinn Recording, but by 1950 he had rechristened it Gold Star Studios and was recording a diverse array of musicians and styles. During the 1970s the studio changed ownership and was renamed SugarHill Recording Studios.
Quinn’s first big success came in 1946 when Texas-based cajun fiddler Harry Choates recorded the old Cajun song “Jole Blon” for Quinn’s Gold Star label, which was a separate enterprise from the facility and company later called Gold Star Studios. The tune became a regional hit by 1947, and Choates and his band, the Melody Boys, went on to record over two dozen more songs for Gold Star, including “Basile Waltz,” “Allons a Lafayette,” “Lawtell Waltz,” “Bayou Pon Pon,” and “Poor Hobo.”
In 1948 Melvin Jackson, better known as “Lil’ Son” Jackson, became one of many blues singers to record for Gold Star. In addition to L. C. Williams, Wilson “Thunder” Smith, Leroy Ervin, and Perry Cain, perhaps the most famous of the Gold Star blues artists was Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins. Between 1947 and 1950, Hopkins recorded at least thirty-six songs for Quinn, including “Short Haired Woman,” “Going Home Blues,” “T-Model Blues,” “Loretta Blues,” and “Tim Moore’s Farm.”
Quinn changed the facility’s name to Gold Star Studios in 1950 and soon began working with a new group of country artists who would enjoy even greater commercial success. George Jones recorded “Why Baby Why,” Benny Barnes waxed “Poor Man’s Riches,” while J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson had a huge hit with “Chantilly Lace.” Johnny Preston had a Number 1 pop hit with one of Richardson’s originals, “Running Bear,” and James O’Gwynn charted with “Talk to Me, Lonesome Heart.” Future country superstar Willie Nelson made some of his earliest recordings at the Gold Star Studios in 1959, including his original version of “Night Life,” later recorded by Ray Price in 1960.
From 1963 through 1973, the blues, gospel, and R&B mogul Don Robey utilized Quinn’s engineering services and studio to record numerous tracks for release on his Back Beat, Duke, Peacock, or Sure-Shot record labels. Robey-affiliated artists who recorded at Gold Star Studio during this era include Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, O. V. Wright, Joe Hinton, Roy Head and the Traits, Ernie K-Doe, Buddy Ace, Clarence Green & the Rhythmaires, Al “TNT” Braggs, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers, and many others.
In 1964 at Gold Star, the California-based producer Chris Strachwitz made his first recordings of Clifton Chenier for the Arhoolie Records label. Strachwitz continued to record Chenier at Gold Star through 1969 and made the key recordings (such as “Louisiana Blues” and “Zydeco Sont Pas Salé”) that established Chenier as “The King of Zydeco.”
In January 1968 International Artists Records first leased the studio and then later that year purchased it in a questionable transaction involving J. L. Patterson, who was apparently only leasing the facility himself from the retired Bill Quinn. (In a separate matter, Patterson was later convicted of fraud and other crimes and sentenced to prison.) For a brief period in 1969 and 1970 the facility was known as International Artists Studios. During this era the facility was instrumental in the development and release of songs of the psychedelic rock genre by such bands as the 13th Floor Elevators, Bubble Puppy, Red Krayola, Zakary Thaks, and the Moving Sidewalks. During this time B. J. Thomas also recorded part of his first commercially-successful album at Gold Star.
In late 1971 Meaux purchased Gold Star Studios and renamed it SugarHill Recording Studios. During Meaux’s tenure, artists such as Sir Douglas Quintet, Asleep at the Wheel, Kinky Friedman, Ricky Nelson, James Burton, Todd Rundgren, and Little Joe y La Familia recorded albums there. Freddy Fender, another of Meaux’s more successful artists, recorded such hits as “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “Secret Love,” “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” and “Living it Down.” In 1986 Modern Music Ventures, Inc., bought SugarHill Recording Studios from Huey Meaux. The facility soon became popular among many Tejano recording artists, including Emilio Navaira, La Fiebre, Excellencia, Elsa Garcia, and The Hometown Boys. A number of jazz releases were produced in the early 1990s through Justice Records and Heart Music.
In 1996 RAD Audio, composed of Rodney Meyers, Andy Bradley, and Dan Workman, bought the studio. With such artists as Destiny’s Child and solo work by that group’s various members including the artist known as Beyoncé, Robert Minot, Brian McKnight, Twista, Smash Mouth, and Clay Walker, SugarHill continued to play a vital role in the Texas music scene. In early 2006 SugarHill partnered with Pacifica Radio Network and launched a new radio show on Houston’s Pacifica affiliate, 90.1 FM KPFT. On October 8, 2011, SugarHill Recording Studios celebrated its seventieth anniversary, making it the oldest continuously operating recording facility in Texas.