In 1998, SugarHill Recording Studios sound engineer Dan Workman received a call from a man named Mathew Knowles asking to book studio time for a group called Destiny’s Child. “I didn’t know who they were,” Workman admitted. “They just had one album out. They had one song that was on the radio [“No, No, No”], but not any of the stations I was listening to. So I wasn’t starstruck at all.”
Knowles showed up at the studio in Houston’s Third Ward with his seventeen-year-old daughter, Beyoncé, who performed a karaoke session with Workman. Only after Beyoncé gave her approval did Mathew bring in the other two members of the group, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, to record tracks for the group’s sophomore album, The Writing’s on the Wall. Knowles, who was producing the group, wanted to make sure the studio would be a comfortable place for the three teenagers to record.
“There was just a real positive vibe there,” Knowles recalled. “The environment is very, very important when you’re recording. Small things can really set a recording session.”
Destiny’s Child would become the best-selling artists in the history of the storied recording studio, which celebrates its eightieth birthday this year. That’s no small achievement, given the all-star lineup of musical acts who have recorded there. Founded in 1941 as the Quinn Recording Company by amateur recording engineer Bill Quinn, the studio moved to its present location in 1950, changing its name to Gold Star. Over subsequent decades the studio would host Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby “Blue” Bland, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Smash Mouth, Travis Scott, and thousands of other artists in genres ranging from gospel to gangsta rap, alternative rock to zydeco. To walk through SugarHill’s windowless warren of recording studios, control rooms, and lounges is to journey back in time through Texas musical history.
“We’re very lucky,” said SugarHill co-owner Ryan Youngblood as he gave me a tour of the 10,000-square-foot studio on a quiet afternoon last month. Wearing a gray hoodie, jeans, and expensive-looking sneakers, the 37-year-old musician, producer, and engineer from Fort Worth sipped a Starbucks iced coffee as he casually reeled off the famous musicians he had hosted. Lil Wayne rented out the entire facility, all four studios, the previous week. 21 Savage had stepped behind the mic recently, as had J. Cole.
Although SugarHill operates 24 hours a day, with two shifts of around eight employees each, the busiest hours are 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., when the parking lot frequently fills with Rolls Royces and Lamborghinis watched by a team of private security guards. Housed in an unmarked building in a working-class neighborhood, the studio’s low profile is a big part of its appeal. “It’s really exclusive, and it’s extremely private,” Youngblood said. “I don’t have a big sign on the front door.”
Youngblood and two business partners bought SugarHill in 2017 from an ownership group that included Workman, engineer Andy Bradley (who, with journalist Roger Wood, wrote the definitive history of SugarHill, House of Hits), and college music professor Rodney Meyers. “In each stage of the business, the owners have imparted a certain character to the studio,” said Workman, who started at SugarHill in 1994. “Our period was probably the most egalitarian—we did almost every kind of music you could think of. The current owners serve more of the hip-hop community, while still retaining the diversity of musical acts. They’ve made some good investments and really made it their own.”
Houston rapper Slim Thug, a SugarHill habitué, recently visited to cut a song that will play during Houston Rockets games at the Toyota Center. “When you go over there into that mix, you’re going to run into other artists,” he told me. “You’re possibly going to do a collaboration.”
From its beginnings as Gold Star, the studio defied racial segregation. Black record-label owner and Fifth Ward native Don Robey (1903–1975), a major music impresario in mid-century Houston, booked many of his acts—including Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, and Johnny Otis—into Gold Star. The studio also recorded Mexican American music almost from its inception, including Los Dinos—the bilingual group led by Selena Quintanilla’s father, Abraham. “Like Houston itself, the Gold Star/SugarHill complex is a sprawling, seemingly unplanned and unrestricted, multicultural place,” write Bradley and Wood in House of Hits.
At first, white musicians mainly recorded country or Cajun music, while Black musicians recorded blues—known at the time as “race records.” In the sixties, though, the barriers began to come down. White singer Roy Head recorded his raucous hit single “Treat Her Right” for Don Robey at Gold Star in 1965 with an integrated group of white and Black musicians. It went to number two on the Billboard R&B chart. (The song was recently featured in the Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.) After a new ownership group briefly changed the studio’s name to International Artists in the late 1960s, it hosted one of the strangest collaborations in Texas history: blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins recorded a jam session with the psychedelic rock group the 13th Floor Elevators.
In 2017, country star Lee Ann Womack chose SugarHill for the sessions that led to her stripped-down, roots-inspired album The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone. She had recorded most of her previous albums in Nashville, and was looking for a more authentic sound. “I grew up in East Texas, and I just wanted to go back to Texas to record,” Womack told me. “I had heard about SugarHill for years, and I figured it probably had some funk in there. My husband Frank [who produces Womack’s records] does not like sterile environments. He hates studios that are real pristine.”
Also recording at SugarHill at the time were Christian bands, chamber-music ensembles, and a number of young hip-hop artists who would sometimes pop in to observe Womack’s sessions. “We saw the same people every day for a couple of weeks, but it was the rappers who we really connected with,” Womack remembered. “I think they were blown away by the musicianship of the guys we brought in [from Nashville]. They would come over to hear Glenn Worf play the bass, and just freak out.”
That SugarHill has survived at all is something of a miracle. It has weathered ownership changes, remodelings, rebrandings, Napster, and the rise of streaming music services—as well as a sordid rape-and-child-pornography scandal that sent the studio’s onetime owner, legendary producer Huey Meaux, to prison for over a decade. When the studio first opened, musicians recorded songs directly onto wax discs in single takes; today, producers use computers to assemble songs from dozens of instrumental and vocal tracks, samples of previously recorded music, and electronic beats conjured out of the ether. But no matter how high-tech the production process becomes, Womack said there’s no substitute for recording in a real studio with real musicians.
“There’s nothing like it,” she said. “Being able to react to them, and them reacting to me. That is when it gets really fun.”
Listen to a few of the biggest hits recorded at SugarHill:
“T Model Blues,” Lightnin’ Hopkins
“Why Baby Why,” George Jones
“Treat Her Right,” Roy Head
“She’s About a Mover,” Sir Douglas Quintet
“Survivor,” Destiny’s Child