The King of Them All

Cincinnati label/studio King Records gets overdue acknowledgement from the music world on Nov. 23

Nov 19, 2008 at 2:06 pm

It won’t exactly be the sort of historical marker you’ll stumble upon while taking a stroll. It will be found at the end of a dreary industrial street in Evanston, fixed to a pole in front of a poop-brown abandoned warehouse overlooking cars whizzing by on I-71.

But someone who comes upon it next week — or in years to come — will likely do a double-take reading what happened in that crumbling building.

The 42-by-30 inch marker will simply read:

King Records: The King of Them All.

From 1943-1971 King Records forever changed American music. Owner Syd Nathan gave the world Bluegrass, R&B, Rock & Roll, Doo Wop, Country, Soul and Funk. With stars from James Brown to the Stanley Brothers, and its innovative, integrated business model, Cincinnati’s King Records revolutionized the music industry.

For years civic boosters, politicians, musicologists and musicians have been asking that something be done to honor the legacy of King Records. Finally, a historical marker will go up 2 p.m. Sunday at the site of the old King plant at 1540 Brewster Ave.

The ceremony will be followed by what amounts to a King family reunion at Xavier University. More than 50 surviving King artists, session players and former employees have been invited along with surviving family members.

The King celebration continues that night during the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEA) show at the Emery Theater featuring performances from Ralph Stanley and Bootsy Collins, representing the Country and R&B bookends of the King legacy.

Those involved with the marker project hope it’s the beginning of a resurrection of King Records in the Cincinnati consciousness. The next significant step is an ambitious plan to build a new King Records Center, complete with working studio, in the Evanston neighborhood.

While still in preliminary planning and fund-raising stages and perhaps years away, already signed on to operate the proposed King studio is John Curley, the former Afghan Whigs member and owner of Ultrasuede Studio in Northside. Curley and other backers of the project see the new King Center as a music and arts cultural touchstone for the area, not to mention an effort to literally reconnect Cincinnati with its musical soul.

“What we’d want to do with the recording studio is provide opportunities for internships and workshops and do more community outreach to get kids interested in learning about recording, performance and all aspects of the music business,” Curley says.

But first the marker goes up. The project is sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum as part of a nationwide “landmark series,” still in its early stages.

So far the Rock Hall has landmarked the “Crossroads” in Clarksdale, Miss. (where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul for his gift of playing the Blues), the Whiskey a Go Go in Los Angeles and various Cleveland locations. A marker will be placed in February at the venue where Buddy Holly last performed — the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa — commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death.

The King marker project includes an educational component as the Rock Hall and Cincinnati State College will sponsor a soon-to-be announced King lecture series and distance learning program.

The marker is one of many events that have taken off this year in commemoration of the 65th anniversary of King, which has included a panel discussion and exhibit sponsored by the Hamilton County Library. The efforts have been orchestrated by the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit group — with core members Darren Blase of Shake It Records, Cincinnati State Development Director Elliott Ruther and Bootsy and Patti Collins — founded to raise awareness of the area’s musical heritage, with the King effort as its starting point.

Rock Hall President Terry Stewart is among those happy for what might be called the Cincinnati King awakening.

“I have always felt strongly about your King history, so we are happy to get involved with the marker program,” says Stewart, who will attend the marker event and the CEAs. “I often make the point that if Cincinnati had gotten its act together it could have made a legitimate pitch for the Rock Hall being in Cincinnati because of King.”

Indeed, the influence of King on today’s Pop, Country, Rock and Hip Hop music is perhaps impossible to overestimate. If you do it just by the numbers, the studio had more than 400 hits on Country, R&B and Pop charts and more than 10 Rock Hall of Famers with ties to the studio.

Discovering our own history In the early 1940s, record store owner Syd Nathan found Hillbilly music fans coming in looking for the artists they heard on WLW-AM, which had been drawing on the Appalachian musicians in the region to fill its airwaves. Nathan figured with all these artists coming to town, why not open a studio and record them?

Within in a dozen years King labels were cranking out seminal Hillbilly and Bluegrass music from such artists as Moon Mullican, Cowboy Copas, Grandpa Jones, The Delmore Brothers, Webb Pierce, Reno & Smiley, The Stanley Brothers, Jimmie Osborne and Clyde Moody. (Read Brian Baker's feature on Ralph Stanley here and bluegrass musician Katie Laur's "Ode to Ralph Stanley" here.)

Soon King got into R&B, or “race records.” As Nathan was once famously quoted, “We saw a need. Why should we go into all those towns and only sell to the hillbilly accounts? Why can’t we sell a few more while we’re there? So we got in the race business.”

In a few years the “race” roster would overshadow the Country players with such R&B pioneers as Tiny Bradshaw, Bill Doggett, Earl Bostic, Roy Brown, Little Willie John, Wynonie Harris, Jimmy Witherspoon and Hank Ballard. There was a stable of Doo Wop groups such as the Platters, Royals (Midnighters), the Dominoes, Ink Spots, Five Keys, Swallows, Five Royales and Otis Williams & the Charms. Blues singers/guitarists on the label included Lonnie Johnson, Albert King, Freddie King, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Memphis Slim and John Lee Hooker.

And there was James Brown, who launched his recording career at King with “Please, Please, Please” in 1956, going on to record most of his groundbreaking Funk catalogue on Brewster Avenue.

Other than with Brown, Nathan had little success crossing his tunes and artists over to a larger mainstream market. That would be left to others.

You know the songs, of course. To name just a few: Hank Ballard’s “The Twist,” (covered by Chubby Checker), Little Willie John’s “Fever” (popularized by Peggy Lee), Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rocking Tonight” (covered by Elvis Presley), Five Royales’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” (The Shirelles), Albert King’s “Hide Away” (Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn) and, more recently, The Stanley Brothers’ “Man of Constant Sorrow” (a hit in O Brother, Where Art Thou? with Dan Tyminski the voice of George Clooney).

While Nathan was catering to niche audiences, he created a musical stew rarely replicated in the recording world. Black and white session players worked together in what was likely the only truly integrated business in Cincinnati of the ’50s. They often recorded a song with a Country artist, then did it again for the R&B market.

It was indeed the Petri dish for what would become Rock & Roll, often defined as the merging of Country, Blues and R&B. It would be personified in Elvis Presley, a white singer who sounded black, steeped in Gospel, R&B and Rockabilly. No doubt, as a teen, Elvis was sitting in his room at night listening to Memphis radio play the artists from King, like Harris singing “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

The question for Cincinnatians is, why do so few know this history? There are many answers.

Nathan died in 1968 and the label was sold, moving out of town as many studio musicians faded into clubs and other cities. A couple generations thus grew up with little local awareness of the studio.

Actually, the mainstream (white) media didn’t do much at the time to tout the studio’s work. Little attention was paid in the local media to King’s artistry, especially the R&B acts.

When I worked as music writer at The Cincinnati Post, I was amazed to go through the clip file on King finding stories from the 1940s-’60s dutifully documenting King’s business moves but hardly mentioning the music. Incredibly, when King was sold in 1970, The Post referred to it as a “Country and Western” label.

Nathan himself wasn’t a publicity seeker.

As Bootsy Collins remembers, “He never had a neon sign out front. If you didn’t know it was King Records, you wouldn’t know it. He just wanted to get the music done and get it out. He wasn’t trying to be a star. He was like the man behind the camera. He just wanted to make the movie and make it happen.”

Nathan might have consciously shunned publicity, instinctively knowing what a radical thing he had going on in the ’50s. He was in Cincinnati, more southern than northern, still a segregated town. Nathan, who was Jewish, was running a business with blacks and whites working together.

“Syd Nathan was doing something I suspect a lot of people didn’t agree with,” Collins says. “He had a melting pot of artists and musicians in one place. That probably wasn’t real popular then. But not only did he have it going on, it was working.”

While King might have been a bit of a mystery even in its heyday to most of Cincinnati, those in the neighborhood knew exactly what was up. Collins was an Evanston teenager frequently hanging out at the gates of the vast recording operation that recorded, pressed, printed the covers and shipped under one roof.

“We wanted to see the stars. It was like a mini-Motown right here in Cincinnati,” Collins says. “We hung out there every other day. Man, we were bugging them to get in the door. No one got in unless you were an artist or had some business. It was like this big plant.”

Bootsy soon got in. Producer/artist Charles Spurling noticed him and his brother Phelps (Catfish) and asked if they were in a band.

After catching their act, Spurling invited them in for session work in 1967 when Bootsy was 15. When he turned 17, he and Catfish were picked up by James Brown and joined his back-up band, touring the world.

Brown himself caused a renewed flurry of King lore when he came to town in 1997 vaguely saying he wanted to reopen the studio. It was a tough time in his life, when he was facing abuse and drug charges.

Maybe he just wanted to relive the glory days.

After a tour of the dilapidated building, he discovered it was hopeless to renovate. He perhaps found you can’t go home again.

A King studio might live again if a group of backers can find $12 million. That’s the price tag they put on a visionary new building to be located in the Evanston neighborhood at the corner of Montgomery, Brewster and the I-71 ramp. The effort is spearheaded by the Community Building Institute (CBI) at Xavier University, which fosters community development and educational projects in the neighborhoods around the university.

“We realized we couldn’t use the old King building. It’s literally falling down,” says CBI Director Liz Blume. “But from our site you could see the old King from the new King.”

Blume is now soliciting public and private financing sources. Her vision is a three-story building: The first floor would house the Flavor of Art Studio, currently an art outreach workshop for neighborhood kids; the second floor would be a King museum; and the third would be the working recording studio.

Curley, who says he’d likely move his Ultrasuede studios to the new building if it ever comes to pass, sees a studio under the King mantra as an important element to the city’s music scene that could replicate Nathan’s pioneering, cross-genre vibe.

“I think Cincinnati is kind of segregated socially and musically as well,” Curley says. “The different musical themes here don’t really get together much. Part of that is natural, because different studios get known for different genres. I think having that King umbrella is something that could draw different types of people and music. It would open some doors for collaboration with people hanging out that would normally not get together.”

And in these times when young musicians hunker down in bedrooms and basements with their digital recording studios, Curley thinks a community-branded King studio could be a badly needed apprenticeship vehicle.

“It could be a place where kids could learn from someone who had some experience,” he says. “A lot of that has been lost with home recording technology. In the recording world we’ve lost the personal passing down of information and knowledge.”

Lineup for Sunday, Nov. 23: King for a Day

Besides celebrating the top artists and performers working in the current local music scene, Sunday’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards will cap off a day-long celebration of the city’s musical heritage as well as breathe some life into one of Cincinnati’s great old theaters.

Here’s a rundown of the day’s activities (all are open to the public):

2 p.m.: Bootsy Collins, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame President Terry Stewart and Cincinnati city officials unveil a historic marker donated by the Rock Hall and erected by the city at the former King Records studio at 1540 Brewster Ave. in Evanston. Stewart will also announce details of a King Records Lecture Series to be presented by the Rock Hall at Cincinnati State Technical & Community College. Free.

3 p.m.: The Evanston Community Council and Xavier University Community Building Institute host a reception on the Xavier campus (Cintas Center) to present their vision of a new King Records studio, museum and art center for the neighborhood. Free.

4-6 p.m.: The Emery Center Corporation hosts a reception and private tour of the Emery Theatre, which has been lying dormant for nine years. Reception will be around the corner at Coffee Emporium, 110 E. Central Pkwy., with tours beginning at 5. Free. RSVP to 513-421-9453.

6 p.m.: Doors open to the Emery Theatre for the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. Tickets are $20.

7 p.m.: The CEAs kick off with Bootsy Collins’ tribute to the best-known King Records alum, James Brown.

Afterparty: CEA tickets also include admission to the CEA Afterparty at Know Theater of Cincinnati a block away (1120 Jackson St.). The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars will perform, and winners of the annual Fashion Trashie Awards will be announced and mocked.