If you’re a longtime Cincinnati Pop music fan, you’ve surely heard of King Records, the legendary Evanston recording studio that cranked out early Rock & Roll hits by James Brown and others in the 1940s and ’50s. Syd Nathan, the studio’s quirky founder, is a story unto himself — and it’s about to be told in a new world premiere musical at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
Playhouse Associate Artist KJ Sanchez based Cincinnati King on years of research and interviews. In 2013, she and other community members began to collect material about King. That effort culminated in a celebration of session drummer Philip Paul and King Records at Washington Park in 2015. Both a writer and a director, Sanchez is also a theater professor at the University of Texas. She has developed the show in conjunction with American Records, her theater company that chronicles American history. Over the past 15 years, she has made about 15 documentary plays based on real people and about real subjects.
Five years ago, Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison invited Sanchez to turn her attention to Cincinnati’s own contribution to Rock & Roll history, King Records. Her associate, Richard Huntley, the production’s music director and drummer, says, “I had known about King Records peripherally — Tiny Bradshaw, Little Willie John, some of the bigger artists. But once I started digging in and doing research, I was blown away by the incredible music, the musicians, all the stories.”
Even before the advent of music legends like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips and Sun Records, King was cranking out hit recordings in Cincinnati. That was Nathan’s doing. Sanchez describes him as “this guy with nothing more than an eighth-grade education who knew nothing about record labels, who went from basically running a radio repair shop to owning the sixth-largest record label in the world. He was scrappy, he was feisty, he did it all himself.”
Sanchez thought this project would eventually become a documentary play. “The people that I interview become characters in the play. All the dialogue comes straight from our transcripts, and they talk to the audience as if the audience is interviewing them,” she says of her documentary process.
After all the material was assembled, she realized it would be more powerful to intersperse music with the narratives.
“This show really wanted to be a musical,” she says.
Sanchez has translated Nathan into a colorful character in her play. He battled with one of the company’s greatest talents, Little Willie John, an African-American Gospel and Blues singer who likely had a major impact on James Brown once he began recording at King studios.
“Syd Nathan is one of the most fascinating people I have ever studied,” Sanchez says. She admires his chutzpah, and his irascible management style, but she also recognizes his great humanity. Nathan was something of a pioneer of diversity, perhaps resulting from Cincinnati being a city on the way to everywhere else. Nathan’s studio recorded early Rock & Roll songs, Country tunes (called “Hillbilly Records” at the time) as well as Gospel and Rhythm & Blues numbers (termed “Race Records”) — often backed by an interracial studio band that had the talent to shift from one musical genre to another.
Philip Paul offered Sanchez and her team first-hand insights into day-to-day activities at King Records. An actor plays him, but all of his lines come from conversations with Sanchez. She says he’s been an invaluable resource in assembling the show.
“I don’t in any way want people to think this is the definitive ‘King Records’ story,” Sanchez is quick to say. “I decided to go deeper with fewer people, to focus on the drama and the personal, emotional stories.”
Huntley and Sanchez have gathered many of the classic tunes that emanated from the studio for the production: “The Twist,” “Sixty Minute Man,” and “Fever,” along with 14 more numbers that make up Cincinnati King. Huntley especially points to being blown away when he discovered multiple versions of the classic number “Blues Stay Away from Me” — rendered by “the eerie, plaintive twang of The Delmore Brothers, the gutbucket cry of Lonnie Johnson and the Doo-Wop-infused Otis Williams and the Charms.” (Versions by the Delmores and by Johnson are both included in the show.)
Musician Philip Paul, still performing in Cincinnati at age 93, is portrayed as the narrator.
“He was born and raised in Spanish Harlem in New York,” Sanchez says. “He was an up-and-coming Jazz star in New York.” Singer Tiny Bradshaw was recording at King and needed a new drummer, so he invited Paul to come to Cincinnati. Paul did — via Greyhound bus with his drums. He went on to provide drum accompaniment for roughly 350 King recordings.
“We’ve kind of invented this genre of a jukebox/docu-mashup — it’s one part songs from the King catalog, another part with Philip Paul as the story’s narrator,” Sanchez says.
The third part is fictional scenes between Little Willie John and Syd Nathan. “Syd actually made records of himself talking to his staff,” Sanchez says. “They’re full of his ego and bravura, but he’s really funny in these recordings.”
She listened carefully to these recordings and then imagined scenes of Nathan and Willie John insisting on being interviewed, which should culminate as an engaging, entertaining mix.
In addition to the production of Cincinnati King on the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage (they recently announced that it's being renamed to the Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre), the theater has assembled several related events, including a set of firsthand accounts by artists who worked at King Records, especially Sanchez’s prime resource, Paul. This “Perspectives” program happens at the Playhouse at 7 p.m. Nov. 26; it’s free, but registration is required (box office: 513-421-3888). You might also want to check out a documentary, King Records: Birthplace of Rock & Roll, to be screened 7 p.m. Nov. 29 at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton and 2 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Kenwood Theatre. ($12 admission.)
Previews for Cincinnati King begin Nov. 3 at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The production opens Nov. 8 and continues through Dec. 23. Tickets and more info: cincyplay.com.