RIP Kearney Barton – Legendary NW Recording Engineer & Studio/Label Owner

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Kearney Barton - early 70s - Courtesy of Kearney Barton

Last night we got an email from Kearney Barton’s niece Patti, telling us the incredibly sad news that Kearney passed away peacefully at 8 PM.  He was 81-years old.  Over the last couple years, Kearney’s health had been deteriorating, but he was still sharp as a nail, hanging on and cracking jokes when we last saw him over the holidays.  To say Kearney was a pioneer of the Northwest sound would be a massive understatement.  Maybe he was the inventor?  Whatever the tag, we miss the man.  He taught us about the Frantics, the Sonics, Little Bill, Don & The Good Times, and so many more, but the one that really blew our minds was Black On White Affair’s “Bold Soul Sister, Bold Soul Brother,” recorded by Kearney in February ’70 and released on his Topaz label.  It’s the tune that led me to Kearney’s doorstep in 2003, hoping to convince the wizard to let us license the single for inclusion on a comp of Seattle soul from back in the day.  I quickly discovered the man had a heart of gold and a sense of humor that would make your grandfather proud.  He was a genuine sweetheart who loved to work and record and record some more, making his famous cookies for guests, and watching a hydroplane race now and then.  I remember him saying he’d had a bunch of calls from overseas reissue labels wanting to license the single, but he felt reluctant.  Kearney liked the idea of working with a local label.  Bless his soul.

The one thing that I could never wrap my head around was the wealth of material Kearney recorded since entering the business in the 1950s.  It didn’t seem humanly possible.  There were few, if any, bands who didn’t record at least one tune after walking through the doors of his Audio Recording Studios.  And if it made a sound, he’d record it.

Kearney's "headphone tree," now proudly displayed in our Seattle office. Photo by Chris Gergley

Digging through Kearney’s archive years later, this becomes all the more evident to our eyes and ears.  We discover analog reels of operas, country western, big bands, psych, advertising jingles, downer songwriters, soul, high school jazz bands, crooners, funk, classical, folk, modern rock, radio shows… and whatever else I’m forgetting he probably recorded that too.

It’s a rare thing to master your craft at any point in your life.  To do it in your thirties and stick with it for another 45 years, up until almost the day you die, is a beautiful thing.  RIP Kearney.  We’ll miss you.

- Matt Sullivan & the Light In The Attic crew

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12 Responses to “RIP Kearney Barton – Legendary NW Recording Engineer & Studio/Label Owner”

  1. Jason Lackie says:

    A sad day for NW music. Rest in peace Kearney, you will be missed!

  2. Paul says:

    It’s not only a sad day for north west music, it’s a sad day for real music lovers all around the world. What that man did up there in Seattle truly had an impact across the globe. Farewell from London, England.

  3. Lori Campion says:

    We are so sad to hear this news of Kearney’s passing. We recorded with him in 2005 and it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. Such a sweet man, great sense of humor and awesome stories. He will be truly missed by so many. Love to his family.
    Lori & The Hot Rolles

  4. Abe says:

    a sad day. I only recently found out about this man through a great interview in Tape Op, but as a fan of the fantastic bands he brought us, he will definitely be missed. he seemed like a really genuine, great guy, that was in this business for all the right reasons.

  5. chris says:

    Kearney was a mentor to me and a dear friend. I’m extremely saddened by his passing and will miss him.

    When I was 17, I enrolled in Kearney’s audio recording class. As a musician with some prior experience doing DIY home recordings, his teaching of the basics of audio recording was a transcendence for me, marrying my love of playing music with my love of recording. What made Kearney such a HUGE talent and influence on the history of Northwest Rock and Roll, was his simplistic approach to recording. Up until the very end, his recording medium of choice would be the ampex 351 two track stereo 1/4″ reel to reel at 30ips, baby! Mix it live, very little processing in the way of the musician and the instrument they weild.

    Kearney could edit 1/4″ tape and splice together 3 different takes of the same song into one great track faster than I can edit those same 3 digital versions on my computer using soundforge or some other high end audio editing software. His skilled ear was amazing. When recording with Kearney, if you sounded like crap in the studio, there is nothing that can be done for you. But if you sounded GREAT in his studio, you got a recording that puts the listener in that same room during that recording. Pure analog, tube, Neuman’s and Ampex’s and Skully’s and even an Acetate Vinyl machine!

    His studio was magic. The purest sound, an exact replica of your soul poured out through your instrument, sweetened by vacuum tubes and the heart of magnetic tape……. I can still feel the warmth and the smell of all those tubes being pushed, glowing hot, giving “something” to the sound of my electric guitar, the drums, bass…. and vocals were amazing (if you were an amazing singer!) in his studio because of his world class Neuman’s and his LACK of other electronics to get in the way….

    Kearney could record any style of music. He frequently had opera singers coming in from all over the world to record in his studio. Famous folk musicians, jazz musicians, and rockers alike all herald his studio as creating a pure replica of their craft.

    His first studio was in downtown Seattle, I believe was opened in 1959? He was a pioneer in the use of echo, dedicating an entire portion of his studio to an “echo chamber”, with a voice of the theater speaker blasting out the music at one end of the room, and a microphone at various locations in the room depending on the size of the reverb needed. He was also a pioneer of SATURATION on tape – where most engineers would dial it down, Kearney turned it up and let the recording medium, married with vacuum tubes, create a sound unlike anything put on tape before or since. Listen to The Sonics “The Witch” if you need to know what I’m talking about. I really think that Kearney has a place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame for his contributions and innovations to the art of recording and it’s influence on rock music, specifically but not limited to Northwest rock music. His influence on generations of music is something, I hope, will be recognized.

    His list of artist’s and producers worked with is extensive and world reaching. He will be greatly missed. A legend to those who’ve worked with or had the pleasure of knowing and a dear friend to those who were so lucky to have been a friend, Kearney would pretty much do anything he could to help someone out.

    I will miss you. RIP my friend.


  6. Chris Gergley says:

    Very sad news

    I am lucky to have had the pleasure of meeting Kearney, and truly honored to have been able to sit in his studio and listen to just a few of his amazing recordings, not to mention while eating a batch of his famous cookies.

    May you rest in peace.

    Chris G

  7. Presley Cheshire says:

    Just got the sad news. This gentle, kind, messy, genius of a man was with out doubt one of the icons of not just Northwest music, but Rock & Roll around the world. I had the honor of working with Kearney on a couple of projects including the Beatles Seattle Press Conference from August 21st 1964. Kearney recorded the press conference for KJR as it went out live on the 21st. He held on to the recording until we found it in a stack of tape boxes in his basement. As we played it, we discovered that it had deteriorated so badly as to be unintelligible in much of the recording. It was then I witnessed the genius of Mr. Barton. Through a series of brilliant recovery steps we recovered the entire recording. Kearney and I felt that the recording was a piece of Seattle history and with the help of my friend Bob Adamonis he allowed us to press and release 2000 numbered limited edition copies. These were released through “The John Lennon Memorial Society of Oregon” as Topaz T-1353. All the proceeds went to feed the hungry in Portland, Oregon. I will always remember my time working and hanging out in the studio. I learned so much and had an amazing time listening to the old stories and watching the master at work. You will be so missed by all who knew you and all of the ones who didn’t. And for the folks who have no idea who he was put on any piece of early Northwest rock & roll, and listen, that is Mr. Kearney Barton.

    Peace and Love Always, Presley

  8. Debbie Hensley says:

    I first met Kearney in 3/1986 when the steel band group I managed, Caribbean Super Stars Steel Band, first went to his studio to record our very first cassette tape. What followed was another recording in 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1994. We also picked up CD’s in addition to the cassettes for our ’89 ’91 and ’94 recordings. Our group was very much a part of Kearney’s ongoing audio recording class…after all how many had ever been around a steel band in person let alone had a chance to record these very unique instruments? Over the many years our band was in existence, Kearney was not only a business contact but a cherished friend and cheerleader. He supplied us with huge amounts of recordings for retail on many, many roadtrips at a few days’ notice so many times I cannot even count. It was always a gamble on how many recordings would be needed to leave on a roadtrip through Oregon, California, Utah and Arizona and return, let alone how many might be needed while on the road. I sometimes believed Kearney never slept because he was available literally day and night. In addition to supplying orders he also lent his pick-up truck one 2 month period when we were travelling and our van imploded in Northern California on I-5 Southbound. We could not rent a vehicle that had a trailer hitch for our Wells Cargo trailer and I called Kearney and he said “yes”! We got back to Washington in a rental car leaving the trailer at the tow-truck driver’s home and borrowed Kearney’s truck and returned to Northern California to retrieve the trailer. This was a roadtrip my Dad became a ‘roadie’, I stayed in Seattle and they continued the scheduled college events, parties and swapmeets in various cities. I met up with the band on weekends and at last in southern Oregon at a college event. Without Kearney’s generosity we would have had to cancel the entire roadtrip before we even reached the Bay area. He asked for no rental fee and just wished us well. Not many would have been willing to go “out on a limb” for a music group but Kearney was fearless and only wanted us to succeed. Several years later we met up with Kearney “outside the studio” at the Hydro Pits. Hhe was working/volunteerig with the American Dream Team and we were entertaining those lucky enough to be involved inside roped off area of the elite grandstands. I have not seen Kearney since 2001 when our Band shut down because my business partner and Band Arranger, Albert Chiddick passed. These two talents had great magical power together with such a sense of music in general and admiration for what each brought to the ‘music table’. I know Kearney still maintained each reel-to-reel Caribbean Super Stars ever recorded i.e. the masters as well as each of those audio recording classes and anything else we had ever recorded at his studio. What a spectacular man, talent, friend and a huge loss to everyone he ever met. I know he has probably already set up his heavenly studio…RIP my dear friend.

  9. chris says:

    Debby, I was one of the students lucky enough to record you guys! :)

    He was truly an amazing person and a great friend. He helped me out so many times when I was young. Employed me for ton’s of gigs and trusted me to work in his studio with my own musical projects. Amazing person. Still so hard to even write about him without tearing up.


  10. Micah says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s sometimes a challenge to find basic info in our virtual world.

  11. I rarely leave a response, however i did some searching and
    wound up here RIP Kearney Barton – Legendary NW Recording Engineer & Studio/Label Owner

  12. I was at Kearney”s Home the Day L.I.T.A picked up the Ampex and Scully 8 Tracks and loaded all of his tapes into the truck.I was also one of his students who he certified.And also did some of his remote recordings for and who also Listed & Cato logged most of his tapes for him. .Including Dr Dixie Ray’s speaches on Nuclear Energy. Have you also Located the tape on the Interview with the Fab Four at the Edge Water Inn ? When I was at Kearney’s that day I was informed That you were working with the P.H.D,S @ The Pile Higher and Deeper school of higher learning.To Re-Record everything he had into Digital media for posterity sake? Has that task been completed ? And if so can you also provide a list of the tapes that have been converted ? Thank you.

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