Bee Jay Recording Studio former owner Eric T. Schabacker now owns Winterwood Studios in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. This photo was taken of him at his studios in Arkansas in November 2009.
Orlando’s Music History Has a Golden Past
Bee Jay Booking Agency and Recording Studios Set the Stage for Orlando’s Music Industry
Orlando’s music history has a golden past. With its diverse artists and variety of performance genres as its focal point, Orlando has encircled our planet with hit groups and gold albums which have become classics in their own right. Although Central Florida can now bask in its well deserved star studded glory, it didn’t come without cost and the hard work of those who were first on the scene.
One of the first known Central Florida hits came out of Winter Park. Ral Donnar’s “The Girl of My Best Friend” was a cover of an earlier Elvis Presley lesser known recording with the same name. Released on the “Gone” record label (New York) this Elvis sound alike ranked high on the national charts in 1961.
It was a year later when, in late 1962, a Rollins College freshman named Eric T. Schabacker started a band called The Starfires and, by so doing, unknowingly planted the roots for the Orlando music industry.* Like most young musicians, he had dreams of making hit records and traveling the world playing Rock ‘n’ Roll. Two and a half years later, in March of 1965, he created and incorporated Tener Enterprises which became the home of the Tener, Hype and Immunity record labels. Featuring recordings of both national and local artists, Tener Records soon needed a booking agency to coordinate the tour schedules of the labels’ artists. Later that year, under Schabacker’s direction and financing, Winter Park’s Bob Johnson was placed at the helm of the newly formed Bee Jay Booking Agency (aptly named with Bob’s initials). With their offices located in the New England Building in Winter Park, both companies continued their growth until 1966 when Johnson was drafted and sent to Vietnam. “It was a sad day for all of us to see such a dear friend and member of our musical team drafted…..it was both a personal loss and a disaster for both of the associated companies,” recalls Schabacker.
As the sky seemed to be falling in on his business dreams, Eric’s band was having problems of its own and disbanded that fall. “My band had reached their peak locally and it was time to move ahead with a new identity. I decided to downsize to a 3 piece group which would have the potential of making serious money. The name I came up with for the new band was ‘Little Willie And The Adolescents.’ It was a strange name since, in truth, there was nobody in the band called Willie until I later assumed the dubious honor.” Two charted records by the new group in the year that followed proved Schabacker’s decision to be wise.
Despite his previous success promoting The Starfires, Eric’s efforts to transform the Tener recording labels into something of substance proved to be an over ambitious dream which ended with a painful awakening. “It was a double whammy loosing Bob to the draft and watching the Tener dream fade at exactly the same time. The only real choice I had if I wanted to stay in the music business was to take over the booking agency and, with a little luck, turn the Tener Record labels into something other than what I previously had in mind,” said Schabacker.
By early 1967 Bee Jay Booking Agency had moved into a warehouse on Alden Road across the lake from the Orlando Youth Center. The new location included offices for the agency as well as a new 4 track recording studio which was designed to produce booking demos for Bee Jay’s roster of artists. In the years that followed, Bee Jay Booking Agency would become a domineering force in both Central Florida and throughout the state by virtually taking over the youth center, school and college markets. It was nothing, for example, for a single campus like the University of Florida to host upwards of a dozen Bee Jay bands after a football game.
As the agency grew, so did the facilities of Bee Jay Recording Studios which, in late 1967, became the first 8 track studio in Florida and, in so doing, beat out their chief rival in Miami, Criteria Studios. “Having a tool like this down the hall from our agency not only gave it the advantage it needed to succeed but also gave new life to Tener Records. “As local bands like The Barons, The Soul Tenders, Flower Power, Little Willie and The Adolescents and others came in to record their 45 rpm records, we needed a label to release them on. Tener and Hype Records was a no brainer,” Schabacker remembers.
Jim Katt, guitarist and singer / songwriter for the Orlando based “Barons” came on board at Bee Jay in the summer of 1967 after recording “Drawbridge” at the studio’s Alden Road facility. Shortly after, in late 1969, Katt was instrumental in organizing the moving of Bee Jay’s Studio and offices to their new location at 2500 Silver Star Road. There, both the studio and agency grew. On the recording side of things Bee Jay once again took a swipe at its competition when, in the latter part of 1973, it installed 16 track recording capabilities and began recording live concerts for broadcast on local radio station WORJ-FM. In the 18 months that followed, dozens of recordings by such talents as The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman, Tim Weisberg, Leo Kottke and Gary Wright were made before live audiences at Bee Jay. Soon, other radio stations in the Jacksonville, Gainesville and Tampa Bay markets jumped on the bandwagon by joining what had become known as The Southern Progressive Radio Network and airing the concert series. This was the spark which established Orlando as an up and coming force within the recording industry. As the network grew in terms of its popularity and number of member stations, Billboard Magazine and other industry news organizations were quick to pick up the story which, in turn, further catapulted Orlando and the studio into the national and, eventually, international spotlight.
While all the growth appeared to be happening in the studio, the agency was by no means spinning its wheels. With Senior Agent Sam Stack directing a crew of three additional agents and a couple of assistants, Bee Jay Booking Agency had grown to represent more than 125 groups from throughout Florida and the Southeastern United States. At one time, Bee Jay booked in excess of 78% of all the high school proms in the state for the year, assuming every high school had a prom band.
With practically every fraternity, sorority, college, junior college, university, high school and youth center in Florida buying talent from Bee Jay, the agency made an undeniable mark on the music and entertainment history of Florida and that of the nation. In fact, as early as 1969, Bee Jay Booking Agency tied California’s Theatrical Corporation of America by being the first known booking agency in the United States to use video as a sales tool for booking musical entertainment. At its 1969 gathering in Memphis, The National Entertainment Conference provided Bee Jay with an opportunity to present a homemade video of its bands to an audience of thousands talent sellers and buyers from throughout the country. While college entertainment directors lined up at the Bee Jay booth to watch the video, many of the largest talent agencies in the United States were turning red with embarrassment for having been left in the technological dust created by an agency from some unknown town in Florida. According to Schabacker, “This was all done at a time when there were no consumer video cameras or VCRs and it happened years before Disney had put Orlando on the map. We were definitely ahead of the curve.”
In August, 1977, Bee Jay Booking Agency was sold to John Bird, a friend of Eric’s and former member of “The Brewed” which Schabacker represented and had earlier signed to Atlantic Records. “There was really nowhere to go with the agency that I hadn’t already taken it. All I could do was keep repeating myself.” In the years that followed, the agency was moved to South Daytona Beach and renamed “J Bird Entertainment.” At the time of this writing it continued to thrive albeit its direction had shifted with the times. “It’s hard to believe that the agency has survived in one form or another for more than 40 years. It’s a real tribute to John’s abilities and the foundation that was built by the Orlando area bands,” adds Schabacker.
ABOVE: Following the reading of a Proclamation by Orlando City Commissioner Robert F. Stuart, declaring September 23, 2015 Bee Jay Recording Studios Day, founder Eric T. Schabacker and former Bee Jay staff members gathered for a photo. The setting includes a large mural showing the view from the control room into the large studio at Bee Jay’s. This and other artifacts are part of an exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center entitled: “Long Way to the Top: Hard Rock in Orlando, 1972-1985.” From Left to Right: Eric T. Schabacker, founder; George Atwell – Staff Producer (now Minister of Music and Arts at Orlando Presbyterian Church); James Katt – General Manager (now professor at UCF); Dana Cornock – Staff Engineer. Not present – audio engineer Andy de Ganahl and “Weird Beard” Bill Vermillion (deceased).
The sale of Bee Jay Booking Agency freed Schabacker to concentrate on the art of recording which had become his passion. Having recorded and marketed a number of albums by various groups while still in high school and having gained years of practical experience by working in the musical trenches of Central Florida, he had now positioned himself to build a world class recording facility. In late 1977 Bee Jay Recording Studios moved into their newly constructed multi studio complex on Eggleston Avenue, a quiet side street located off of Lee Road. Although Schabacker and Katt (now the studio’s VP and General Manager) had hoped for a low profile operation, Bee Jay quickly became known around the world as the United State’s first 32 track recording and automated mixing facility. With only two other studio complexes on the planet with similar capabilities, the idea of a “low profile operation” was forcibly abandoned.
During the following 7 years talents such as Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot, Judas Priest, Gladys Knight, Cameo, Michael Jackson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pat Travers, Krokus, The Outlaws, Menudo and many others recorded their albums at Bee Jay. Meanwhile, as the hits were coming out the door as quickly as the groups were going in, John Phelps, a client of the studio, was formulating his plans for Full Sail University. With the help of the Bee Jay staff consisting of Eric, Jim Katt, Bill Vermillion (formerly of WLOF), Andy DeGanahl and Dana Cornock, Full Sail’s curriculum was quickly developed. For the first two years of its operation, Full Sail was taught at Bee Jay by its staff.
1985 saw the sale of Bee Jay Recording Studios to Century III Teleproductions of Boston. “I had achieved my goal of building and running the day to day operations of a world class studio,” said Schabacker. “I had been blessed with hanging up so many Gold and Platinum records that I ran out of wall space. Finally, one day in late 1984, I remembered my Daddy telling me that “the best time to walk away from something is when you still have your shoes on.’ “I took his advice.”
Referred to as the “Grandfather and founder of the Central Florida’s music industry,” Eric Tener Schabacker paved the way for Orlando’s Backstreet Boys and others when, back in the eighties, Bee Jay recorded what most music historians agree was the first boy band, Menudo, featuring Ricky Martin. Today, many of his former employees are still hard at work in Orlando’s music scene. As for Eric, he moved out to the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas where he resides with his wife, Sativa, and two year old son, Tener. His older son, Christian, is in the music industry in Orlando, while his daughter, Tonya, lives in New York City where she works for a video post production house when she isn’t running her own photo studio.***
The music provided on this site was recorded by Eric T. Schabacker, Jim Katt, Bill Vermillion or other valuable Bee Jay Recording Studio employees. Each song has been abbreviated and lasts approximately 60 seconds. Most performances are limited to Orlando and Central Florida bands from the mid sixties to the early seventies and were recorded for the purpose of securing gigs on their behalf by Bee Jay Booking Agency. They were never intended for public release or sale unless otherwise noted. Artist from outside the Central Florida area are not included on this site nor are there recordings by any of the chart busting groups that Bee Jay Studios recorded. Although there are a few notes given with some of the recordings, there is no effort made to list the names of the individual musicians or the group’s history. Most recordings are mono, however, some are stereo. The recordings are what they are and what they were. There was no attempt made to enhance or otherwise “clean them up.” They are a time capsule containing a glimpse into Central Florida’s musical heritage. Please appreciate and give credence to the hearts and souls of the young musicians who proudly stepped up to the microphone and unknowingly carved the path for others to follow. Thanks to their efforts, Orlando has grown into its own! It is truly a golden city built in harmony by those who loved playing music and making Orlando sing.
Listen to short audio clips from the demo album entitled 12 Groovy Hits-12 Florida Bands.
See photos from Bee Recording Studios Day, September 23, 2015.
Schabacker’s band, The Starfires, should not be confused with Ral Donnar’s band Or Ron Whitney group both of which were also called the Starfires.
Other notables that recorded at Bee Jay Studios during its infancy included Jimmy Page. Created 12/18/09 by Eric Schabacker
Eric T. Schabacker can be found at any of the following sites:
Audio cuts from 12 Groovy Hits, 12 Florida Bands.Read more about the bands on 12 Groovy Hits-12 Florida Bands.
Side 1, Cut 1 – The Starfires performing “Stop It”
Side 1, Cut 2 – The Swinging Temptations performing “I Feel Good”
Side 1, Cut 3 – The Mysteries performing “My True Love”
Side 1, Cut 4 – The Moonrakers performing “Out of Sight”
Side 1, Cut 5 – The Soul Tenders performing “Walkin’ The Dog”
Side 1, Cut 6 – The Maleman performing “Norwegian Wood”
Side 2, Cut 1 – The New Englanders performing “Silence is Golden”
Side 2, Cut 2 – The Nooney Rickett IV performing “She’s Not There”
Side 2, Cut 3 – The Fabulous Thunder performing “So Hold Me Tight”
Side 2, Cut 4 – The Wrong Numbers performing “The Way I Feel”
Side 2, Cut 5 – The Pratts Bottom performing “Woman”
Side 2, Cut 6 – The Nation Rocking Shadows performing “Time”