Fit for a King

John Hartley Fox's new book looks at the history of King Records

Oct 20, 2009 at 2:06 pm

As Jon Hartley Fox made his scheduled appearance at a Books by the Banks event at the Duke Energy Center Oct. 17, the many years the Dayton native had spent writing the just-published King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records had finally paid off.

Just the day before, in a major coup, he had been on NPR’s Fresh Air talking with Terry Gross about the Cincinnati-based record company, founded by the colorful Syd Nathan, that had been one of the nation’s biggest and most influential independents from the 1940s through the mid-1960s. (Check out the Fresh Air segment here.)

On Oct. 18, he would be doing a signing at Shake It Records in Northside. And after his panel discussion at Books by the Banks with Randy McNutt — author of a recent photo-oriented book on King — he would be appearing on Mr. Rhythm Man’s popular show on WNKU (89.7 FM).

It’s been a long time coming for Fox, 56, a Sacramento-based freelance writer and music aficionado who has long followed King and even produced public-radio documentaries about its history. This book was a daunting task.

“Part of what made King great was the staggering diversity of the things they did,” Fox says. “But there aren’t many people who like all the different kinds of music on King. That’s part of why nobody did a book earlier. I liked all the genres on King, and it took that mindset to tackle that project.”

King had Country, R&B, Bluegrass and Gospel records; its biggest act was James Brown. A two-volume discography, published in 1985, ran more than 1,100 pages and was incomplete.

Honoring the defunct label and raising its local and national profile has become a cause celebre in Cincinnati in recent years. There are economic reasons for this — other cities with historic “roots” labels have been able to build museums, sponsor large music festivals and attract cultural tourism because of their heritage. Examples are Memphis (Stax and Sun), Chicago (Chess), Detroit (Motown), New Orleans and Nashville.

King was bigger than many of the other post-war indie labels, but it's had far more trouble winning recognition. Fox has some thoughts on that. One reason is that after Nathan died in 1968 King’s assets wound up in the hands of a Nashville company — the Cincinnati connection was cut. But also there was no recognizable King sound; the company never became a recognizable brand.

“Syd Nathan let his artists do what they wanted to do,” Fox says. “He was working with artists who had a sound and were out playing gigs and road-testing songs, while Motown and some of the others were working with younger, untested talent who were being plugged into a formula.

“Each artist had a sound more or less consistent throughout their time on King. But if you listen, say, to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and Billy Ward and His Dominoes, both vocal groups of young black men, they sounded completely different.”

Fox is glad to be done with his writing.

“While I was working on this over the years, I heard of 15 to 20 purported books on King coming out,” he says. “I think as people started digging into its history, they realized what a huge story it is. I imagine a lot of people just got discouraged by the size of it all. I can’t say I did it as well as I wanted — the economics of publishing dictated the length of the book. The manuscript I turned in was probably twice as long as the book, but University of Illinois Press just didn’t want to charge $60 for a book. (His 240-page book retails for $29.95.)

“The good thing is there’s still room for somebody else to write a book about King.”

For previous KING RECORDS coverage in CityBeat, check out Rick Bird's 2008 historical overview here and Brian Baker's profile of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and his connections to King Records. The 2008 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEAs) honored King Records, which The New York Times covered here.