Record company building damaged in Jackson tornado

Published 3:43 am Sunday, April 24, 2011

Malaco Records’ flamingo-pink main office was one of the few buildings in the area when it opened in 1967 on the west end of Jackson’s Northside Drive.

“We were practically out in the country,” recalled Wolf Stephenson, vice president and chief engineer. “I can remember all of us sitting out in the parking lot in the wee hours of the morning, eating watermelon and listening full blast to the song mixes we were working on at the time. We wanted to see how they sounded away from the speakers. And there was nobody else around, so we weren’t bothering anybody.”

Stephenson, 67, managed to chuckle at the memory this week, a few seconds of escape from the grim reality brought on by the April 15 tornado that ravaged parts of Clinton and northwest Jackson, injuring seven and causing major damage to numerous homes and businesses.

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The twister didn’t spare Malaco, which has produced its share of music history. It destroyed the accounting building. The shipping warehouse suffered roof and some structural damage. The main building, which housed executive offices and the legendary recording studio, was pummeled.

President and co-founder Tommy Couch Sr. said there were some bits of good news: about 20 employees who were at work when the storm struck escaped injury. Couch and Stephenson said they plan to rebuild bigger and better than ever. Malaco’s thousands of precious master tapes weathered the storm in a vault-type building made of concrete blocks and supported by reinforced steel.

“A few of them got wet,” Couch said, “but they’re all OK.”

A grand piano and a Hammond B3 organ were barely visible, buried in debris. The sound of music was replaced by the flapping of a blue tarp, serving as a temporary roof. Pieces of the wood tile floor — upon which music legends have walked — were scattered about. Amplifiers and microphones looked soulless and lonely.

Hits were born in this room. Among them: Jean Knight’s 1971 No. 1 single, “Mr. Big Stuff;” King Floyd’s “Groove Me,” which went to No. 1 on the R&B chart the same year; and Dorothy Moore’s 1976 classic, “Misty Blue.”

Paul Simon recorded “Learn How to Fall” here. It appeared on his 1973 album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” which earned two Grammy nominations and was rated No. 267 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Malaco Records was the brainchild of Couch and Mitchell Malouf.

“I was in pharmacy school at Ole Miss in the early 1960s, and I started booking bands,” Couch said. “When I got out of school (fall 1965), I got a job at a Rexall drug store in Jackson. I was still booking bands, and I was really loving the music scene.” Couch and Malouf opened Malaco — the name including part of both their last names — in hopes of getting a few local acts to record there.

Stephenson met Couch while also in pharmacy school at Ole Miss and also landed a job at a drug store in Jackson following his graduation in the spring of 1966.

“After they opened Malaco, I spent just about every spare minute over here helping them out,” Stephenson said. “I didn’t know much about recording. None of us did, really. But we read books and did a lot of stuff by trial and error.”

Malaco’s major break occurred when producer/arranger Wardell Quezergne had a falling out with a studio in New Orleans and brought two acts to record at Malaco — King Floyd and Jean Knight.

“After those songs went to No. 1, word started spreading in the music world about us,” Stephenson said. “Then in the 1980s, a lot of labels started letting go of their soul acts. Pop groups were selling millions of records and publishers didn’t want to fool with acts who were selling 150,000 or 200,000 copies of their albums.”

So Malaco welcomed performers such as Johnny Taylor, Denise LaSalle, Little Milton and Bobby Blue Bland.

“No matter how you look at it, 150,000 records sold is a lot,” Stephenson said.

Malaco’s spot in the music industry was sealed.

Couch and Stephenson both say the tornado’s wrath hasn’t fully hit them yet.

“They’ve been too busy, I think, to really let it all soak in,” said office manager Jane Hart. “But it’s coming.”

“It almost happened for me (Monday), when my wife came down here and saw it for the first time,” Stephenson said. “My whole life is invested in this place. Whenever a loved one comes by and breaks down, you sorta get a frog in your throat. But I’m trying to hold it together. There is lots to be done. And, in a lot of ways, lots to look forward to.”