Electric Lady general manager worked hard to resurrect the iconic studio | ParkRecord.com

Electric Lady general manager worked hard to resurrect the iconic studio

Lee Foster used to sleep under a piano during his leaner years

The Park City Song Summit ran from Sept. 7-10. For information, visit parkcitysongsummit.com.
Anthony Mason, known for his work with CBS, talks with Lee Foster, co-owner and general manager of Electric Lady Studios, during a Park City Song Summit lab on Saturday. Lee talked about his chore of turning the Greenwich Village-based studio, which was once owned by Jimi Hendrix, back into a thriving creative hub from disuse and disarray.
Photo © Jay Blakesberg

Lee Foster remembers when he first walked into the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York City’s Greenwich Village more than 20 years ago.

“One of the first things I noticed, or at least that I remember seeing, was that there was a white ceiling tile that had probably a pipe burst above it or something and so it ended all melted and fallen through,” he said during a Park City Song Summit lab panel discussion on Saturday moderated by former “CBS This Morning” co-host Anthony Mason. “And instead of replacing it properly and repairing it properly, they shoved a white pizza box in this place.”

This was not what Foster expected, especially a place once owned by Jimi Hendrix and used by bands and artists including Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie.

“I’m coming from rural Tennessee, near Nashville, and I’m thinking that I’m going to walk into Shangri La,” Foster said. “This is a big deal. This is Hendrix’s studio. But it was just also ridiculous. It didn’t meet my expectations and what should be.”

Instead of replacing it properly and repairing it properly, they shoved a white pizza box in this place…” Lee Foster, Electric Lady Studios general manager and co-owner

At that time, Foster was hired as an intern, and the pizza box was a sign of the times.

“It was very disappointing to see that the people running it at the time were doing such a poor job of it,” he said. “I mean it was just a job with them, and they just weren’t interested.”

After fulfilling his time as an intern, Foster worked at the studio as a janitor. After what he calls a “ridiculous series of events,” he ended up running the studio when he was 26 years old.

“I did an internship for four months, and I went back home to Tennessee, thinking, I just did the New York internship, so I’m gonna get any job I want,” he said. “That didn’t happen back on the farm with cows and all that stuff. So I went back.”

Foster had set up a place to live, but that fell through, so he decided to live at the studio.

“I went to the studio late at night when management wasn’t looking, and I just slept, you know, under a piano,” he said. “I thought it’ll just be for a couple days, and it went on for about nine months.”

Meanwhile, the studio’s owners decided to ask Foster if he wanted to run the studio.

I think I was 26 or 27 years old, and it was literally in a moment of frustration when (they) said to me, ‘Can you make this work? If not, we’re going to close the doors,’” he said. “I said yes, and I was absolutely terrified.”

Still, running Electric Lady was a dream come true for Foster.

“So there was this moment of like, wow, this is actually coming true, but then there was the ‘Oh, (crap), can I do this?’”

One of the first things Foster did was fix the ceiling.

“There were all these hours where there was just not a lot going on,” he said. “My dad had a construction company, and I had a little bit of experience, you know, doing just enough to make it look better. I took out the pizza box, got a box of tiles, and we started putting those in.”

Foster also repainted the walls, ripped out the carpet and bought new couches when he could afford them.

“It was just one step at a time, and we’re still doing that,” he said. “I mean, we reinvest into that place every day.”

While refurbishing the studio, Foster also began reaching out to artists emerging from New York at the time.

“It so happened that the Strokes were there,” he said. “Ryan Adams was there. Interpol was there. Secret Machines were there. There was a really big scene of bands happening in the East Village, which is just east of the studio. So I could sleep at the studio, wash my hair in the sink and go across town to a club or to a bar.”

Foster would meet the band’s guitar techs and then work his way up the chain of command.

“I was about the same age as all those guys and sort of became friendly with them,” he said. “And I just started saying, ‘You know, I’m cleaning this place up, why don’t you come over and record for free?’ (and) ‘Let’s make some records, and make this place relevant again.’ Luckily, they showed up and started making records.”

Singer-songwriter Adams was one of the artists who took a while to come around.

“I had been chasing him at the time, and I wasn’t getting anything back,” Foster said. “Then one morning, my phone rang. I think it was for more than five in the morning, and it’s Ryan.”

Adams told Foster who he was, and said he would like to do some recordings.

“I said, ‘OK, man. Yeah, like, why don’t you give me a call tomorrow?’” Foster said. “And then he goes, ‘No, no. I’m here now. But the doors are locked.’”

Foster decided it was then or never. So he got dressed and went to let Adams in. That day, the two began work on Adams’ ninth album, “Easy Tiger,” which debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 upon its release in 2007.

“And that’s how we started,” Foster said about getting Electric Lady back on its feet.

To continue the momentum, Foster started booking album release parties.

“That’s not what I wanted to do because I wanted to make records at the studio,” he said. “But I took advantage of it for a little while to sort of introduce those artists to the studio.”

Foster’s mindset changed when he would read about the release parties.

“The first thing I noticed was that Rolling Stone magazine would announce the album, and the first sentence would say ‘We’re at Electric Lady listening to the new Black Crowes album,’ or something,” he said. “And I thought, oh, that’s free press. And not only that, they didn’t say the album wasn’t recorded at Electric Lady. So the assumption became that all these records were being made at Electric Lady, and I ran with that. We were throwing parties like three times a week. And all the press was saying ‘Electric Lady,’ ‘Electric Lady,’ ‘Electric Lady.’”

Sometimes artists would help with the exposure.

One of those artists was Lady Gaga, according to Foster.

“She came along and things were going really well, but I’m always wanting to go to the next thing,” he said. 

Gaga had noticed how much work Foster was putting into the studio’s promotion, and decided to record her music there.

“She would come into the studio in jogging pants or whatever, and she would work for about eight hours to 10 hours a day,” he said. “Then she would go into the restroom.”

A few minutes later, the singer would emerge all decked out for the evening.

“She’d be wearing some amazing gown, and she would have done her hair and makeup,” Foster said. “It was like Superman. And then, I’m pretty sure that she would call the press and go, ‘I’m gonna be walking out Electric Lady,’ so all these people would show up outside of the studio with their cameras. I’m talking like 100 people. It was incredible what she did for us.” 

While artists like Lady Gaga are free to tell the press and the public that they are at the studio, it’s not OK for Foster to do so.

“With social media these days, you could say, Led Zeppelin is making an album in the studio to your friend, and then they’ll post it, and then that gets picked up,” he said. “So, I’m good at keeping secrets.”

Because of his secret-keeping, Foster has made some meaningful connections with many artists, including Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

“One day I had a cigarette hanging out of my mouth, and I’m signing something,” he said. “All of a sudden this hand with a lighter reaches over and I just see the flame and I get the light.”

Foster looked over and saw it was Richards.

“Then he goes, ‘I left you something upstairs,’ and he walks out the door,” Foster said. “I play it cool until he leaves, and then I just run upstairs.”

Foster bursts into his office and looks around but can’t find anything.

“I’m sitting there for a long time, and then I look over at my own Fender Telecaster corner,” he said. “It says ‘To Lee, Love, Keith Richards.’ I decided I’m never gonna play it again. Now, it’s framed on my office wall under glass.”

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