Elvis has left the building, but you can still get good vibes from the King at recording studios in Memphis and Nashville, and the same is true for Prince at his Paisley Park creative complex in Minneapolis.
Studio tours of various types across the nation, some in major cities and some in tiny towns, provide insights into how the entertainment we all enjoy is created.
You can find studio experiences on the soundstages at major movie production companies in Los Angeles, in radio studios that are best known for being theaters and in recording studios that reveal the often-cramped quarters where million-selling songs are captured.
Sometimes you can catch a show in production, and in one little mountain town in Virginia, you can dance in the aisles while bluegrass music is beamed out over the radio airwaves.
Here are some of the country’s top destinations for studio tours.
Among the flashiest studio experiences are movie studio tours in Los Angeles. They are also among the priciest. The CVB Discover Los Angeles can help get you started if needed for major attractions such as the Universal Studios Hollywood Studio Tour, the Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood, the Paramount Pictures Studio Tour and the Sony Pictures Studio Tour.
These are big and diverse activities. Some are theme park experiences; others give closer looks at the creative process.
The Warner Bros tour, for instance, has both shuttle time through TV and movie backlots and walking time to view an interactive soundstage and learn how a script evolves into a finished show. At Sony Pictures, it’s a two-hour walking tour to see soundstages where movies such as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Men in Black” and “Spider-Man” were filmed.
Seeing a game show or a TV talk show in production can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible for groups. “Wheel of Fortune,” for instance, publishes a number for group inquiries: 818-772-6788. Everyone involved with audience generation is eager for post-pandemic activity to begin.
Los Angeles doesn’t have the market on glitz, glamour and pizazz cornered, and proof is in the middle of the country near Minneapolis, in Chanhassen, Minnesota, location of Paisley Park, the estate and production complex where Prince created, produced and performed.
There are three levels of tours, each delving deeper into the facility. The Paisley Experience, the basic tour, is loaded. It takes you on the main floor of Paisley Park that includes studios where Prince performed, produced and mixed some of his biggest hits. It also includes the massive soundstage and concert hall where he rehearsed and staged concerts.
All tours include access to special exhibitions. One called “The Beautiful Collection” in 2021 shows off more than 300 pairs of Prince’s custom-made shoes. This is an active production complex, so tour itineraries may vary day to day.
Staying in the Midwest, roll into Detroit to tour the Motown Museum, often called Hitsville, U.S.A. It is a collection of modest houses on West Grand Boulevard that are the core of an emerging $50 million complex, opening date to be announced.
They were the humble birthplaces of the music of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops and many others.
This is a return to the 1960s. Visitors see where Martha Reeves worked as a receptionist, peer into a kitchen that became a control room and note that the vending machine still has Baby Ruth candy bars where Stevie Wonder could find them, at the fourth lever from the right.
Groups of up to 30 tour with a lively guide who maintains a rapid patter. At the last stop, she encourages the group to join her singing “My Girl” and then winks as she invites everyone to the museum’s gift shop while singing the Miracles’ “Shop Around.”
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Way down south and just as humble looking are two recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with a similarly rich history. Fame Recording Studios and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio both welcome groups, and both are still working studios.
Fame opened in 1961, and Aretha Franklin recorded her first top-10 hit here. Others who recorded at Fame include Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman and Etta James.
Four musicians who became known as the Swampers opened the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (MSSS) in 1969 after working together at Fame. They were widely respected for their distinctive and funky rhythm and blues sound. Cher’s debut album was among their first projects.
The Swampers played on more than 200 albums with artists such as Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Bob Seger, the Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Leon Russell, Willie Nelson and even the Rolling Stones, who recorded “Brown Sugar” here.
Some of the soulful sounds at Fame and MSSS are rooted not far away in Memphis, home of Sun Studio. This is one of the places Elvis Presley recorded.
Sun Studio’s modest building, known as “the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll,” also delivered blues, gospel, country and rockabilly music to appreciative audiences. Tours tell you stories about B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.
You can stand were Elvis recorded his first song and hear the voices of musicians who worked here through outtakes of recording sessions. As Kevin Kern of Memphis Travel said, “It is a real time-capsule experience.”
Nearby Nashville, aka Music City, has more studio experiences than can fit in one itinerary. Just attending the city’s most famous show, the Grand Ole Opry, is a studio experience. That’s because the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House was built as a studio for the longest-running radio show in the world.
Daytime tours of the massive building take you backstage to see the green room; the dressing rooms; Studio A, a television facility; and the old-timey mailboxes where Opry members receive fan mail. What for years was Roy Acuff’s dressing room still has a small sign with a saying Acuff loved: “Ain’t nothin gonna come up today that me and the Lord can’t handle.”
Very special tours are available Saturday nights in the immediate aftermath of the Opry performance. Groups of 30 are escorted backstage as radio and television crews wrap up their work and as artists slip out the backdoor. It’s an only-in-Nashville experience.
Elsewhere in town are more studio options. Perhaps the most famous is RCA Studio B on Music Row. Access is through the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and tours offer history lessons in the hits of stars such as Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride and, yes, Elvis Presley, who recorded “It’s Now or Never,” “Devil in Disguise” and many others here.
Other studio glimpses come through the Nashville Studio Experience, which lets your group lay down some recording tracks, and Imagine Recordings, which gives a thorough explanation of the recording process with an actual session. Imagine Recordings works in the Sound Stage Studio, where Randy Travis recorded “On the Other Hand” and George Strait recorded “The Chair.”
One more unusual studio experience awaits you in the mountains of Southwest Virginia at Galax, and it may be the most participatory you’ll find.
Galax is proud of its Appalachian music heritage, and the city organizes the Blue Ridge Backroads Show every Friday night for a live broadcast beamed out on the 100,000-watt signal of WBRF-FM. The studio is a classic small-town venue, the 330-seat Rex Theater.
What’s special is that seats were removed at the edge of the stage to create a space for audience members to step right up and show off their clogging, buck dancing or flatfooting skills.
Emily Brown in the town’s tourism office said she regularly works with motorcoach groups on tours of the area that conclude with a musical performance at the Rex and flatfooting lessons, regardless of the day of the week. That’s a studio experience your guests will talk about forever.