Comfortably slouched facing a nine-and-a-half-foot Bösendorfer Imperial Grand piano, Robin Hood Brians Jr. lifts a black lid covering nine extra keys on the bass end and performs a Ray Charles classic, “Georgia on my Mind.”
The 97-key piano is merely one element among the $10,000 tube microphones and instrument cases in Brians’ nearly 50-year-old recording studio, Robin Hood Studios in Tyler.
Musicians came to him in the 1960s because he was “the only (person) cutting hits in Texas,” he said.
Platinum records and celebrity photos lining the studio walls attest to a half-century of Brians’ success.
ZZ Top, John Fred & His Playboy Band, The Five Americans, James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner, Tony Douglas, Bill Mack and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan all cut hits at his studio
“We liked the idea of doing it tucked away so we could get a handle on how to nail things down without too much outside pressure,” Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top said in an e-mail interview.
Today, musicians of all ages come for different reasons.
One is the high quality and natural feel, Brians said. The other is to avoid tracking – recording the drums, then bass, then guitar – which “denies the musicians the ability to interact,” he said.
“I believe a recording session should be relaxed. It should be fun,” he said. “People can tell by listening to the music whether you were relaxed and enjoying it or uptight and nervous.”
His daughter, Michelle Brians, an orchestra director at Guyer High School in Denton, said her father’s strong personality and high expectations brought him success.
“From his studio, production and recording and all the stuff he’s ever done, all of those things translated to him as a dad,” she said.
Brians, a musical prodigy and self-proclaimed “human jukebox,” started playing music when he was 5 years old, shortly before he moved to Tyler.
Show bills listed him as “the little man with a big voice,” he said, speaking in his late-night radio jockey tone.
When Brians was 18, after recording “Dis-A-Itty-Bit,” a rockabilly tune released on Fraternity Records in 1958, he got an itch to continue recording.
“When I saw that studio, I said, ‘This is what I want to do,’” he said.
Robin Hood Studios on Sunnybrook Drive could be called his second home. Though no one lives there now, it is the house he grew up in.
After recording “Dis-A-Itty-Bit,” his parents let him make a studio in the living room.
Tired of late nights and loud jams, they soon decided to build a studio on the back of the house and return the living room to its intended use.
His sister, an architect, drew the design and Brians and his parents built it all, “except for the haydite blocks,” he said.
Since the first note, Robin Hood Studios has been a family affair. After his father’s death, his mother, Mrs. B, became an integral part of the studio. She booked sessions, wrote checks and kept the coffee pot full.
On the studio’s back wall, Brians plays the upright piano that one night, on a whim, Mrs. B decided to paint orange.
“She was the life of the party,” Brians said. “She was a total live wire.”
Brians married Suzanne, a bass player in the mid-1970s and the woman he fell in love with when she came to the studio to record an album. Their two children, Michelle and Christopher, share the same passion for music.
“My brother and I always used to go to the studio and hear the music playing,” Ms. Brians said. “We always had musicians around.”
When recording ZZ Top, Brians tricked Bill Hamm, their manager, into driving to Kilgore to bring back Country Tavern barbecue, so he could record the band the way he wanted.
When Hamm came back and heard the recordings, which included overdubbing, something Hamm was extremely opposed to, Brians promised the sound could still be pulled off live.
“The studio was in Robin’s house where we’d write these songs every night and record them and we’d take a break and go in the other room and there’d be Robin’s mom, who had a local television show about raising flowers,” Gibbons said.
He said it was all part of the package.
“We’d go from this world of intensely smokin’ rock and roll to grandma’s living room and have a cookie,” Gibbons said. “ Robin’s grandma cooked some great meals for us, so we always looked forward to breaks in the sessions, which could last 20 hours at a stretch. It was a very down-home, very comfortable maiden voyage for us.”
Brians’ favorite musicians include Ray Charles, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Beatles and George Handel, a classical composer.
“Whether it was a jingle he was working on that day or a ‘Hey, come listen to this,’” Ms. Brians said her father was always making music.
“He’d say, ‘Oh, this is the best chord progression ever written,’ and play ‘Whiter Shade of Pale,’” she said.
Brians has no qualms about keeping up with the latest technology.
In 1963, he recorded mono. Keeping up with technology, he updated to two tracks, then four, then eight, 16, 24 and eventually went digital.
Where the majority of his time used to be spent recording, “because what was on the tape was what you got,” now he focuses on editing and processing, he said. If he hires a room full of musicians, technology allows him to get as many songs as possible and then edit the tracks when paid musicians are not on the clock.
He pulls up a recent recording project on one of the computer monitors and scrolls through the instrument listings. He came up with his organization system a few years ago.
Because guitars play the blues, that instrument is colored blue. Bass guitars play deep tones, so they are dark blue. The inside of the mouth is pink, so vocals are pink. Because drums add the “sparkle,” they are yellow. And for no particular reason, the piano is simply magenta.
He compared the technology with using a word processor.
“We can correct pitches, mess with the timing so it feels better,” he said. “If a guitar player does a fabulous fill in the first verse, but we want it in the last verse, we can highlight it and move it down to the last verse.”
While enrolled at Tyler Junior College, he wrote songs for commercials, eventually leading to a big decision: stay in school or write music.
He chose the latter.
He sings his own praises – he’s done commercials for Bruno’s Pizza and Swann’s Furniture – and belts out a line of the original Chili’s baby back ribs song he wrote.
When asked about how he felt about the portly Scotsman character singing it in an “Austin Powers” movie, Brians called it “awesome.”
Often working on short deadlines, he could churn out commercial songs in a day.
Writing commercial songs in those days was like “washing dishes, like selling out,” he said.
Now, Brians spends less time writing for commercials and more time on his own creative projects.
In October, Brian’s writing partner, Jud Chapin, called about getting together to write some tunes.
They just finished recording their first 12 demos.
Brians plans to start marketing the songs soon and this summer will update his website so visitors can purchase and download songs online.
Along with the website project, he recently has helped his daughter record an album.
A few of the tracks are some of Brians’ originals; another track on the album the two co-wrote.
He wrote the music and she wrote the lyrics.
“I can’t tell you how special it is to play a song with your dad like that,” she said.