The legendary status of Ardent Studios in Memphis has continued to grow year-by-year, as dedicated fans of power pop cult heroes Big Star have sought out more information about the organization that originally released their albums.
This past year saw the release of a stunning double-CD set by Big Beat/Ace in the UK, Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story, which in addition to a ton of previously unreleased Big Star material also covered two earlier incarnations of the studio's entrance into the record business. Among the compilation's songs is one that a casual listener could mistake as a discarded early direction for Big Star: "Feel Alright" by a band called Cargoe.
Cargoe was actually the first band to release records on the '70s incarnation of the Ardent label, just before Big Star's initial discs. The group originally hailed from Oklahoma, but relocated to the Memphis area to record their self-titled debut album at songwriter/producer Dan Penn's studio. Unable to secure a deal with a label for the album, Penn and the band self-released a single of "Feel Alright," managing to get the song on the radio and sell the records... but when the first batch ran out, there was no more money to press any more copies. (For the full story, check out Pop Culture Press' excellent history of the band).
The group eventually ended up re-recording the entire album at Ardent Studios due to a technical problem with the tapes from Penn's studio, and it was finally released in early 1972. Ardent has remained to this day ahead of the curve technically, and that tip-top sound quality comes through as always on Cargoe's lone album. It doesn't matter how good a recording sounds if the songs aren't there, and Cargoe more than delivers the goods on that count.
Even though it was released on the Anglo pop-obsessed Ardent label, this isn't a power pop album, it's really more a hybrid of Southern rock and progressive rock. However, the group's songs are very tightly constructed, and stay away from the jammy nature of many of their contemporaries. Along with "Feel Alright," there are a few more real barnburners on the album, including "Time" and "Thousand Peoples Song." But the group also created some great mellower material, including the beautiful "I Love You Anyway," which was released as their second Ardent single in late 1972.
The story of Cargoe's records commercially is much the same as what befell Big Star. The label worked hard to promote the album, and the second single release of "Feel Alright" again gained some radio action. But the distribution problems of Stax (which handled Ardent releases) made the records hard to find for those who wanted to buy them. It's often estimated that only a few thousand of each of Big Star's albums made it out the door, and these days Cargoe's album seems to be even less common than those are. After a brief tour for the album's release, the band returned to Memphis and broke up shortly after.
While Big Star has enjoyed a remarkable second act years after the original band's breakup, their equally worthy labelmate unfortunately hasn't been as lucky. Cargoe was available briefly as a Japanese import CD, and the only domestic re-release of their music was an excellent live CD released by producer Terry Manning's Lucky Seven label. It appears that disc, too, has already been discontinued... so track one down while you can!