Mike Clark: Making Tracks

Studio whiz leaves lasting legacy

Inside the nondescript Southern Tracks Recording building on Clermont Road, gold and platinum records line every available wall space in the state-of-the-art music studio. The busy facility hums with a palpable sense of urgency as employees scurry around and the office phone rings constantly. This studio has been the workshop of many top artists, producers and engineers. But today, one key element is missing.

“In this business, you either make it or you don’t. Mike Clark kept this whole place on track,” says night manager and musician Jeff Calder. Clark, co-owner and manager of Southern Tracks, died on Thursday, Feb. 1, following a painful eight-month fight with cancer. With his guidance, the studio became one of the most successful recording complexes in Atlanta’s rich music history, and the site of 12 No. 1-charting albums and countless other audio projects — including two albums from Bruce Springsteen.

“Mike and I had tremendous fun all the time,” Calder continues as he shows his visitor around the facility. “Every day with him was an adventure.”

Charles Michael Clark was born Dec. 13, 1943, in Atlanta, and began playing drums in the fifth grade. In the late ’50s, he played drums in a high school band called Tommy Roe and the Satins. Its first single was taped at music publisher Bill Lowery’s studio, an old schoolhouse building featuring a primitive two-track tape machine. The modest project ignited Clark’s work with music mogul Lowery — one of the biggest names in the local pop scene. Their bond lasted until Lowery’s death in 2004.

As Roe and Lowery helped cultivate the Atlanta sound in the ’60s, Clark found work as a tour and session drummer and began working with Lowery full-time in 1966, promoting the same records he played on, including Classics IV’s “Traces” and Billy Joe Royal’s “Cherry Hill Park.” In the ’70s, he began producing records as his work with Lowery’s thriving empire continued, working with such diverse acts as Starbuck and the Atlanta Pops Orchestra.

By 1984, the Lowery stable had moved to Clermont Road and Clark’s reign solidified as he filled the studio with the best gear he could find, such as the impossibly rare RCA and Neumann tube microphones that remain intact today. Producer Brendan O’Brien began to bring many of his best-known clients to the location. By the ’90s, the studio was a world-class production force, bristling with a comfortable vibe, thanks to Clark and his easygoing sense of humor.

Producer and engineer Greg “Fern” Quesnel began managing the facility last summer after Clark could no longer handle the daily routine. “Mike set a very high standard,” Calder says. “So we just do things the way he did them and the whole show has been running very smoothly. We have a number of important sessions coming up, and things will move forward.”

Joe Neal of Atlanta’s Doppler Studios echoes the feelings of most of Clark’s friends and associates when he says simply, “He’ll be missed. ... We’d go back and forth,” he continues, musing on Clark’s old-fashioned business acumen. “We’d lend him stuff; he’d lend us stuff. Nobody ever kept track of it. He was just an incredible man.”

Clark was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1999 and the honors will surely continue as his spirit remains a force in the building and in the music world in general. He is survived by his wife, Melissa, and children, Courtney, Chris, Payton, Robyn and Travis.

“His presence, his vibrancy, is so much a part of [this] place, quite often it doesn’t seem like he’s gone,” Calder says. “Southern Tracks isn’t just a recording studio, it was Mike Clark’s work of art, a lifetime achievement. So, as long as it exists, the presence of its creator will continue to resonate within the structure.”