The seed was planted at WESC and the Huffman brothers set out looking for the tools to commit their guitar noodling to tape. It was not aspirational yet. They were hobbyists, pure and simple.
“(Bill) and Harold found somebody in Atlanta that had an Ampex recorder and two or three little items that made up basic recording,” Joe Huffman remembers. “We set it all up at Bill’s house, but we soon realized we would need somewhere to play where we wouldn’t disturb his family. We needed a place where we all had a key and we could go play anytime we wanted to.”
Henry Simpson, one of the owners of the Belk Simpson department store chain, held an interest in radio station WMRB. There was an empty building on a lot on Mayberry Street where the transmitter was located. Bill paid a visit to Belk-Simpson’s downtown offices.
“Seems like Harold had a connection with him, maybe through daddy,” waxes Joe.” Our dad was a taxi driver in downtown Greenville and somehow, we found out that building was for rent. And somebody knew Henry Simpson well enough to talk to him.”
“It’s the Mayberry Street building, by the old Meadowbrook ballpark,” Bill recalls.” The condition was we had to clean it out. But acoustically, it was already set up to be a radio station. I think he rented it to us for $100. So, the three of us worked out that we would each put up whatever a third of it is, not thinking that it would be an income producing thing. It was our hobby.”
On May 16, 1960, the studios of Spartanburg station WSPA had a fire. The station’s president, Walter Brown, estimated the damage at around a quarter of a million dollars.
Don Dudley had a production credit on a minor hit by another WESC staffer, Allen Riddle’s The Moon Is Crying and he had his engineering chops from radio that he could expand upon. Looking to get in on the Huffman brothers recording project, Dudley drew on his radio contacts to inquire about any equipment that might be salvaged from the WSPA fire.
“(Bill) was playing with Dudley when WSPA had the fire. Dudley said he knew some people over there and he thought he could get their Gates console, though it would have to have some restoration. And Dudley loved music, in his way, just like we did. So that’s how (Bill, Harold and Joe Huffman) came together with Dudley. So now, there’s four of us. So, sure enough, Dudley was able to get that recording console, I think it was for three hundred dollars.”
Bill corrects, “I thought it was a hundred and twenty,”
“It could be,” Joe allows. “It was not much. It was almost like it was meant to be.”
“A guy named Don Tompkins was an engineer at WESC. And he cleaned up all the contacts and restored that recording console for us. So now we got three musicians and a DJ and all this equipment and nobody knows where anything goes.”
In the early 60’s the recording industry was switching over from monaural to stereophonic recording. Anticipating the shift, Dudley and the Huffman’s came up with ingenious methods of using their ragtag equipment
“There was a left studio and a right studio that they used for the radio station and then (the building) had a little control room. They would switch back and forth between left and right studios so that, at the end of a thirty-minute program, the mics in one room would go dead and the mics in the other studio would go live. We never connected those two rooms, so we would just have the singers in one room and the musicians in the other and run them both through the control room so they could hear each other.”
“Dudley was a DJ, so he had worked the WESC console. He knew how the buttons worked, but he was also figuring it out as he went along.” recalls Joe. “But the first thing we did was re-wire the console because it was monaural, which means you only had one output. And we knew that stereo was on its way.”
“What we did, we took that radio console that had the left and the right for the two different studios and we made it so the feed would go from left to right. So, it would be on the left track or the right track on stereo. We used that as our direction for sending it out to the tape machine in stereo.”
The Huffman’s had a valuable mentor as they worked out all these technical bugs. Across the road from their brother Sam’s Carolina Plating Company facilities was a manufacturing concern owned by Robert Rigby. Rigby had worked as electrical engineer with Les Paul when Paul was developing his innovations in recording technology.
“Rigby gave us some advice that we hated to hear at the time, but found out later was right,” Bill says. “Because of Les Paul we kept trying to build gadgets and amplifiers and echo systems and things that would make us sound like Chet Atkins. But (Rigby) laid the cold, hard facts on us. He said, if you guys will practice your guitars you won’t have to do all that.” Both brothers laugh
The Huffman brothers also devised a way to turn a normal tape player into a device to create an echo effect for their recordings. By adjusting the interval of the echo, the space between sounds, they could play music back at slower speeds without losing the pitch of the recording. This way, they could listen to Hank Garland’s and Chet Atkins’ guitar solos note for note and learn their techniques.
“That allowed us to look inside of their playing,” explains Joe.
“We would sit into the middle of the night learning how to play one groove on the record, just to get that one lick right,” remembers Bill
Bill, Harold and Joe had a harrowing experience when they built a reverberation room in the new studio. Bill tells the story.
“We were listening to records and trying to figure out how they got that perfect sound. We decided that a good echo system was it. So, me and Harold and Joe went into the basement of that little radio station and we built our own echo chamber. It was sixteen feet long and three feet wide and we figure it out so all the angles were like they should be. We had that room air-tight. Anyway, me and stupid there got in there with that epoxy paint.”
The epoxy paint they were using emitted highly toxic fumes. In the air-tight echo chamber, the brothers could have easily lost consciousness or worse.
“And the more we painted the happier we got,” Joe interjects. “We could have died. We would have just gone on echoing in there with everything else. We often wonder who was looking out for us.”
At this point the studio was still a hobby for the Huffman brothers, but momentum was building and they started to think about giving their project a name.
“I don’t know why we thought we needed a name, but we had seen the new Lincoln Mark V and we liked that car. We didn’t want to put our name on there. And the Mark with the Roman numeral felt like quality.”
Brother Sam Huffman had built a very successful business in the Carolina Plating Company. He did not care a lick about his brothers’ musical aspirations, but he was willing to lend some start-up capital, with interest, of course.
“I think it was $1200,” Joe recalls.
Before the departure of Don Dudley, this investment made Sam Huffman the fifth owner. That and the Lincoln solidified the name, Mark V Studios.
Sam’s affiliation was short-lived, however. A close friend and musical partner of Joe’s, Michael Burnette, had become a regular fixture at the new studio. The other four could tell he wanted to get involved. When Sam Huffman asked for the return on his investment, the door opened for Burnette.
“Mike thought he could come up with the money to pay Sam back. So that brought him in. Now, we are five again,” said Joe Huffman.
The relationship was a meaningful one. Mike Burnette was a multi-instrumentalist, an architect and a gifted photographer and designer. A great many of the records from Mark V credit him as art director. He became a key component that the fledgling studio did not even know it would need.
Don Dudley withdrew from the studio, probably to pursue ambitions on the stage. But the personnel was in place with the inclusion of Michael Burnette, and the studio was set to document the sound of the South, as it was in the 1960’s.