Updated Thu, May 16, 2013 4:30 pm
These days, anyone can make an album. With a laptop, a few good microphones and a bit of know-how, today's musician can record an album in his or her home, then upload it to online stores, such as iTunes, Amazon or Bandcamp.
In the late 1970s, it was a different story. Recording gear, which included reel-to-reel tape decks and analog mixing desks, was expensive. No online tutorials, no ProTools software, no "plug-ins" to speed things along--just your own wits and a large supply of splicing tape.
In 1979, Louie Stevens, aka "Louie the Bagel Man," (more on that later) decided to take the plunge and set up LRS Recording Studio, Athens, Ohio's first professional recording studio, located in his garage at 107 Elmwood Place.
After six months, Stevens recruited a number of local musicians to contribute songs to the Athens Hometown Album. Although the LP has been out of print for decades, Stevens--now located in San Diego--has recently made the songs available online.
WOUB's Bryan Gibson caught up with Stevens to discuss his former studio, life in Athens during the 1970s, and the late, great Bagel Buggy.
BG: Tell me a bit about your connection with Athens. How and when did you end up here?
LS: I grew up in Euclid, Ohio, a city about 15 miles east of Cleveland. I was working towards being a music major at OU, with a focus on applied piano and music theory and composition. Part of the application process is to audition, and my audition was scheduled for Friday, May 4, 1970--the very day of the Kent State shootings. I had never been to Athens, and boy, what a shock when I arrived for my audition to see National Guardsmen with loaded rifles stationed at every parking meter! But I auditioned, was accepted and moved to Athens in September of 1970. I stayed there year 'round until June of 1984.
BG: Thousands of OU alumni know you as "Louie the Bagel Man" from your time at The Bagel Buggy. Actually, there are still a lot of folks here in Athens who remember you and miss those bagels. How did you get involved with the buggy business?
LS: I was a pizza driver at Little Caesars in the winter of 1973. I met Ross London, who was the morning prep cook. He, being from New York, started telling me about vendors in New York City and how he thought Athens would be a great place to start a vending unit, perhaps selling bagels. Ross had worked at an Athens bakery before Little Caesars and thought they would be able to make bagels. I liked him and liked the idea, so we teamed up and created The Bagel Buggy.
Louie Stevens at The Bagel Buggy, Halloween 1976
We designed the buggy together and I built it, having previous carpentry and construction experience. We rolled it out to the corner of Court and Union sometime in March 1973, and it was an instant hit...lines around the corner, 10 hours a day. Ross was only in Athens for one year. He moved there to be with his girlfriend for her last year of school, then went back to Rutgers to finish his law degree. I continued on with The Bagel Buggy for seven more years until I sold it in 1980 and started my first professional recording studio, LRS Recording Studio. Side note: Ross went on to be a very successful lawyer, and then a judge. He's retired now, and we recently reconnected after 35 years!
BG: Small-town recording studios were pretty rare back then. Did you have a background in recording before you started LRS?
LS: I had been recording myself a lot since the late 1950s. Around 1978 or so, I purchased a TEAC four-track 1/2" recorder and a mixer, primarily for recording myself. Still owning and operating The Bagel Buggy at this time, I was casually talking about this new equipment with bagel customers, and this one fellow stood out during those conversations: Daryl Kunesh. He kept coming back to the Buggy and we talked a lot about my new recording equipment. Daryl was a music major and I found him to be a great guy to talk with about audio recording and related topics. Turned out he played drums in a local Athens band and needed to record a three-song demo to get more gigs. He asked me if I would record them and I agreed. He even paid me!
Daryl loved the way the tracks turned out, and I loved recording someone other than myself, so in 1979, I built Athens' first professional recording studio, called LRS Recording Studio. I purchased a lot of new equipment, including a new eight-track multitrack recorder, a mixer and some very expensive mics. Daryl became my studio drummer. In fact, all the drums and percussion on the Athens Hometown Album is him, and he played all the drums and percussion on all the 80-plus jingles I wrote and produced. Daryl and I became great friends and I was honored to be his best man at his wedding.
BG: How did the Athens Hometown Album come about?
LS: About six months after opening the studio, J.D. Jewell, along with his musician partner, Terry McCauley, began recording all his songs with me. Terry and I became good friends, and I then decided to produce the album. I chose a cross-section of Athens bands and solo talent to best-represent the music heard there at that time.
BG: I'm guessing this was a "DIY" affair from beginning to end. How did you manufacture the LPs and sell them?
LS: I pressed the album in Nashville, and if I remember correctly, both Terry and I drove there to get the LPs when they were ready. I think there were about 1200 pressed. A lot of the stores around Athens put up displays to sell the album and it sold out pretty quickly. There was a lot of press in all the papers and radio about its release. I really didn't profit much from the album, but it did accomplish my goal of getting my studio's name out there. Also, one of J.D. Jewell's three songs, "Athens County, My Home Close to Heaven," became the official Athens County theme song, and deservedly so. I loved recording all the groups and solo artists--they all were generous in allowing me to produce their music and play piano on some of their tracks.
BG: Let's skip ahead to the present day. You're making these songs available digitally--what went into that and where can people pick up the album?
LS: Around 1995 or so I transferred the two-track tape master to a DAT (digital) copy to preserve its quality. Then around 2002, I imported the tracks into the ProTools audio editing software, cleaned them up a bit and made them into a CD. A couple of years ago I put the songs on iTunes and Amazon.com for mp3 download. Some did sell, but not enough to warrant paying the yearly fee to keep them downloadable, so earlier this year I discontinued the downloads. The CD itself can now be ordered directly on my website.
BG: The album is a nice time capsule of the early '80s local music scene. Looking back, what are your fondest memories of Athens?
LS: I loved the small-town atmosphere, everyone knowing everyone. Being known as The Bagel Man for seven of my 14 years in Athens was an experience! I raced motorcross and enduro almost every Sunday for a few years staring in 1976...made great friends, cost a lot of money, had a lot of fun. Not too good at racing, but not too bad, either. I started long-distance running while there. I also met my first wife in Athens in 1978, an Athens gal! We were married for about three years.
I loved being part of the music department at OU. I became close friends with Richard Syracuse, an amazing pianist and instructor. Appreciated all I learned about music while there, and carried that onto all the compositions I created later: over 80 jingles and four youth-at-risk musicals, now seen by more than 10 million schoolchildren. I've written, produced, directed, edited and mixed sound for more than 100 videos in the past 10 years. All this started in Athens.
Songs featured in the Athens Hometown Album sampler (audio above):
1. J.D. Jewell - "Athens County, My Home Close to Heaven"
2. The Expanding Band - "Hobo Joe"
3. A Touch of Grass - "It's Just No Good Anymore"
4. J.D. Jewell - "Darling of the Hippies"