“So I was in the shower with John Denver, who’s naked and freaking out, but that wasn’t as good as the time Slash [from Guns N’ Roses] knocked me out cold and dislocated my nose.”
This is what it’s like to hang out with Jim Billingsly, who’s brimming over with larger-than-life stories from his work during one of the most tawdry eras in music history. He can drop names like Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson without missing a beat.
“It’s at least twice as bad as you’re picturing,” he says with a smile when asked about the drug-addled backstage antics he witnessed when he worked for Dallas’ Showco, one of the largest concert production companies in the world. While some of his stories may seem too good to be true, there’s no way to say what really happened backstage with the vinyl icons of the ’70s and ‘80s, so we’ll tell them like we hear them.
A lifelong musician who won two talent shows while attending Reinhardt Elementary School, Billingsly paid the bills by building cabinets as a young adult in the late 1970s. Someone at Showco decided if he could build cabinets, he could build speakers and offered him a job.
It was the birth of stadium rock with high production values, and demand for Showco went through the roof with everyone from AC/DC to Bob Dylan clamoring for its services.
“To be honest, the star-struck part fades pretty quickly,” he says. “It becomes just a job.”
But a job that birthed 1,000 too-good-to-be-true tales, like the time John Denver panicked when his shower malfunctioned, which required Billingsly to burst in on the naked rocker to turn off the water.
Then there was the time Guns N’ Roses came to town when band members Axl Rose and Slash were famously feuding. Showco’s crew was told to keep the two musicians apart before the show, but Billingsly says that didn’t stop Slash from throwing a typical rock star tantrum, destroying his dressing room in the process. When Billingsly went in to try to calm the chaos, Slash punched him in the nose.
“He apologized later,” Billingsly laughs. “That’s just how those things went.”
Soon, however, Billingsly was over the rock star drama. He wanted to work for himself, and decided to take over a space in a strip mall on Garland Road with plans to build custom speakers. He eventually expanded the business by opening Diamond Night Recording Studios with partners George Geurin and Mary Lou Truelove.
“They had all the equipment, I built the studio,” Billingsly says.
When designing the space, Billingsly consulted studio legend Glenn Phoenix, who built Westlake Studios in Los Angeles, to ensure the acoustics of the space were on point.
The owners leveraged their myriad musical connections to bring big names to the little studio. Robert Lee Cobb and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones spent time behind the mic, and Edie Brickell with her band the New Bohemians made the studio their de facto headquarters.
“She was like a little sister to me,” Billingsly says.
With the advent of MTV, the studio expanded to include music video productions.
Throughout the ’80s, the quintessential rock star life continued on Garland Road. Recording sessions went late into the night fueled on alcohol and cocaine. “We had a hot tub out back with a grill where we drank a lot of Heineken,” Billingsly recalls with a smile. “When people threw up in the grand piano, it cost them $900 to clean it.”
As the decade drew to a close, analogue music equipment had been replaced by digital and the business was no longer on the cutting edge. Billingsly closed up shop, passing his keys along to local musician Rick Babb, who kept the space as his primary residence that doubled as a place to jam.
“I was always really, really annoyed because there were always people playing music in my house, which bugged me as a kid,” remembers his son Josh Babb, who was an eighth-grader when his dad moved him into what then became White Rock Studio. “Normally Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians were practicing there two or three days a week. That stuff all really happened.”
For much of the 1990s, the studio lay silent, but it wouldn’t be long before music would return to Garland Road.
A new era
Some know him as the “Godfather of rap in Dallas,” but it’s not a title he ever intentionally sought. In fact, almost nothing John “J.P.” Painter has accomplished seems to have been intentional. But somehow, he’s found himself at the helm at one of the most successful recording studios in the city, which has played host to local legends like Pimp C along with international superstars like Erykah Badu, Andre 3000 and Wiz Khalifa.
“It’s all just word of mouth,” he smiles, swaying slightly in his chair behind the mixing board at East Dallas’ Kitchen Studios on Garland Road. “That’s how it’s always been for us. One guy likes what we do, he tells his friends and the business keeps coming in.”
Much of that good “word of mouth” came from East Dallas Grammy-winner Erykah Badu, who came calling one day to check out the local studio. She liked what she saw and began recording there occasionally, bringing her high-profile friends along.
“She helped me a lot in terms of getting those big names in here,” Painter says. He adds that her support landed him on the studio vendor list for Universal Music Group that represents everyone from Katy Perry to Keith Urban. He’s since recorded singles for Common, George Clinton, Roy Ayers and Betty Wright.
“Erykah is responsible for a lot of that,” he reiterates.
Born and reared in Dallas, music has always been prominent in Painter’s life. Like many who have worked the garage band circuit, Painter first picked up the guitar as a child, but quickly realized there were more options if he played the bass.
“Every band is looking for a bassist,” he smiles.
Later in his teen years, he became a fixture in the local punk rock scene, when he began to record his own tracks. He fashioned a makeshift studio in a tiny room off his kitchen that quickly became a local legend.
“Everyone sort of knew about it,” he says of the Dallas music scene. “People would come to me and say, ‘Let’s go to the kitchen to record.’”
And thus, the name Kitchen Studios was born. After five years and dozens of songs, it became clear that there was a local demand for a proper studio. It was the mid-1990s and Deep Ellum still had a rough reputation, but the music scene was explosive, so Painter opened up shop. Rap had just gone mainstream, and artists were clamoring for time in Kitchen Studios with Painter behind the board.
“It really was a different time. There was so much money to be made back then,” he recalls.
He’s not one for spilling secrets, but said it was common to see a rapper’s entourage complete with “security guards” packing heat alongside a harem of scantily clad women. He learned to keep his head down and focus on the music, not the antics.
“That’s all you could do,” he says. “There were machine guns being pulled out and people coming and going in limos. It was exactly like the movies.”
It got old quickly, and Painter relocated to the more mellow Lakewood area in 2000, where he opened Kitchen Studio’s current location on Garland Road. It was an insurance office when he took it over; only later did he learn about the site’s lofty musical history under Billingsly.
“I heard all the stories of rock stars and the decadence,” he laughs.
With the digital age, the bottom fell out of the music industry, but Painter prefers the direction the business is heading.
“People are much more about the music these days,” he says.
The studio later expanded to include a video production studio, just like it’s former iteration, Diamond Night. It’s a history he’s proud to carry on, albeit a little bit more subdued.
“Unlike the old studio we close at 10 p.m., we don’t work all night,” he laughs. “We have families.”
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