'The King Thing': Inside the Movement to Save King Records, the Cincinnati Studio that Produced Decades of Stars and Hits

Historians insist that the King Records site in Evanston is ready for a royal return.

click to enlarge (From left) Philip Paul, Bootsy Collins and Otis Williams have been transformational for the King Records label and studio over the years. Now their efforts will help preserve the label's Cincinnati legacy. - Photo: courtesy of Elliott Ruther
Photo: courtesy of Elliott Ruther
(From left) Philip Paul, Bootsy Collins and Otis Williams have been transformational for the King Records label and studio over the years. Now their efforts will help preserve the label's Cincinnati legacy.

In 1956, James Brown and The Famous Flames electrified America with one of their most notable songs, “Please, Please, Please.” When performing it, Brown iconically fell to his knees as he roared those legendary three words, begging from the bottom of his toes, “Baby please don’t go.” Today, his remarkable flair and charismatic performances continue to be celebrated.

In the evolution of Brown’s fame, the birthplace of the song became lost in the glory it created.

That place was King Records, and it was right here in Cincinnati.

Actually, it’s still here – sort of. The site in Evanston was designated as a local landmark in 2015; as of press time, it’s awaiting a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. On Brewster Avenue, visible from both the northbound and southbound corridors of I-71, he King Records complex of five buildings holds a legacy so impressive and influential that somehow, Brown is a mere dot on its everlasting timeline.

But the shell of the King Records complex has been vacant for years, sadly without much national public acknowledgement of how the label, artists and producers shaped both the music of the time and the future of rock and roll, soul and more.

Fortunately, that may be changing. The King Records Legacy Foundation launched in 2021 as a collaboration between City of Cincinnati officials, the neighborhood of Evanston and former King Records recording artists Otis Williams, Philip Paul, Bootsy Collins and others. Williams’ son Kent Butts is the executive director of the foundation that’s trying to preserve the studio’s history. He tells CityBeat that all musical roads lead back to King Records – a major reason to secure the studio’s place in both local and national history.

“Pick an artist – any artist. Pretty much, I can draw it back to King somehow,” Butts says. “Somebody will say ‘Justin Bieber. How you gonna draw that back?’ Well, he came through Usher, and [producer and talent scout] L.A. Reid was who got him on. Usher is copying Michael Jackson; Micheal Jackson is copying James Brown. We are back to King just that fast.”

“And I can pretty much do that with most artists,” Butts insists. “Somehow, I can get you back to King or something that was started at King.”

It’s a sprawling, important legacy that the King Records Legacy Foundation is trying to highlight. To do that, the foundation is in the process of preserving some of the buildings at the King complex in Evanston to develop them into an active learning center and museum. The city proposed a preferred development agreement that was signed by the foundation’s committee members Aug. 15. Once the city finalizes the document – which is expected to happen in September – the project can move forward.

But before the future can be realized, it’s important to first consider – and hear – the musical past.

Working in harmony

According to multiple sources, King Records was founded in 1943 by Syd Nathan, who owned a record store in downtown Cincinnati before capitalizing on popular “hillbilly” music to launch a country music label. A few years later, he also sought and signed Black musicians and singers, eventually mixing both genres and talents into a new foundation of R&B, rock and roll, soul and funk.

Butts says that during an era in which most people still hadn’t been granted full civil rights or autonomy, Nathan – who was white – hired workers of all races, genders and backgrounds, including at the executive level. He also was an innovative businessman who streamlined the entire record-making process at one complex – a first for the industry.

According to A King Records Scrapbook by Brian F.X. Powers, King Records was the sixth-largest record company during the late ’50s, employing 400 people and successfully managing multiple genres instead of just one, as its competitors were doing.

Of course, Nathan didn’t do it alone or all at once. In the late ’40s, Nathan hired Henry Glover, one of the first Black music industry executives. As an A&R (artist and repertoire) expert for King, Glover – a musician himself – initiated some of the studio’s genre mixing, A King Records Scrapbook says.  “Henry would work with whoever — country, blues, whatever,” Butts says. “They started to tie things over, like the doo-wop artist would back up the country singer or sing a country singer’s song or vice versa to see what would work.”

And many historic sources credit King’s vice president and general manager Hal Neely as the man behind the studio’s big business moves, helping it evolve into a fully self-sufficient company (according to A King Records Scrapbook, Neely bought King from the Nathan family after Nathan’s death in 1968).

By the early ’50s, King Records’ entire operation was happening under one roof: recording, pressing, art creation, packaging and distribution.

To do all of that, Nathan needed space, and lots of it. Documents from Charles Dahan, a professor in the recording industry department at Middle Tennessee State University who contributed evidence for King Records’ application for the National Register of Historic Places, show that the business’s original property consisted of five interconnected structures, which exist in varying degrees today.

click to enlarge The King Records complex, shown here in 1966, was expansive in Cincinnati's Evanston neighborhood. - Photo: Lee Hazen
Photo: Lee Hazen
The King Records complex, shown here in 1966, was expansive in Cincinnati's Evanston neighborhood.

The city of Cincinnati owns several of the original parcels at 1540 Brewster Ave. That portion was constructed in 1921 and in part is “a one-story brick warehouse that houses 17,604 square feet and occupies .69 acre,” Dahan says. Adjoining that building is a “one-story utilitarian garage” that Dahan describes as being in fair condition.

When that space operated as King Records, the building on the first parcel had two floors. The second floor held offices, storage, a remix studio and the art department. The first floor contained a large studio and areas for shipping and receiving, printing, inspection and insertion, plating and testing, machine shop, press room and mill room, according to a sketch in The King Records Story by Darren Blase.

The remaining parcels, which are privately owned today, are at 1548 Brewster Ave. – three interconnected structures, 26,434 square feet on .414 acres, Dahan’s information says.

Steve Halper, Nathan’s nephew, recalls working in the shipping department when he was 16 years old, noting that nobody knew then that they were making history.

“People looked back and saw the things that happened at King Records, like the mixing of races making music [and] the way he [Nathan] set up his whole operation. To me it was a way to make some money and a hard job,” Halper tells CityBeat.

Halper also notes that the factory was a sweatbox.

“These machines they made the records on created a great deal of steam and heat,” he says. “The shipping department wasn’t as bad – it was where they would have these presses – and right when you came in, you’d hear all that noise and the steam.”

The 'King thing'

King Records was responsible for many of the era’s defining sounds. In 1949, popular country duo The Delmore Brothers co-wrote “Blues Stay Away From Me” with Glover. According to A King Records Scrapbook, the record was “regarded by some as the first rock and roll record.”

Likewise, Little Willie John recorded the first version of “Fever” at King in 1956. And in 1958, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters recorded “The Twist,” named after that time’s dance craze.

These three songs and many others symbolized the power of what was created at King, but the label’s artists didn’t necessarily get their due nationally. Countless artists like Doc Watson (“Blues Stay Away From Me”), Peggy Lee (“Fever”) and Chubby Checker (“The Twist”) would go on to render different, frequently more popular versions of the songs that had been born in Cincinnati. Songs of that era were widely covered in part because it made financial sense – song royalties generally went to writers, producers and labels rather than to the artists. But there also was a racial aspect at play during the pre-Civil Rights times.

“The songs were written or sung so well,” Butts says. “Like Elvis – when he sang my father’s ‘Hearts of Stone,’ he sang it like my father. It was just that he was white and he could do it more publicly, and it would get pushed out in that time frame more so then if my father went out and did his own song.”

King Records artists embodied so many different genres, but no matter their sound, no matter their instruments, they had a certain flair that marked them as products of the label. And, boy, did people try to mimic it.

click to enlarge King Records employees pack records in the shipping department in 1947. - Photo: Steve Halper
Photo: Steve Halper
King Records employees pack records in the shipping department in 1947.

“Everybody that I’ve talked to who knows about King or even just liked something they heard from King, they all tell me that by either watching or listening to the way people from King played, they picked things off of that – off of how the guitar players were playing like Freddie King and those type of people,” Butts says. “And they put that into their new formula of what they were trying to do.”

“The ‘King thing,’ back then, it was like an uncut diamond,” Butts continues. “They found out how to chip off of it and make it something special for them – all these different artists. It was kind of just sitting there like [the building has] been sitting since we started bringing the legacy back out.”

If you ask Butts, Brown epitomized the “King thing,” with his rhythm and delivery.

“James Brown didn’t have a lot of words in his songs, but the tightness of his music together – he was a stickler for a super-tight band,” Butts says. “His big thing was make sure you do it on the one.”

“Do it on the one” refers to counting a musical measure. Brown liked to emphasize the first beat of a measure rather than the second, which was different from what many of his contemporaries did in R&B and rock. He also developed a somewhat slower, sultrier groove.

“When you hear everybody do a drop on the one – Bootsy [Collins] has made a career out of that – well, James Brown brought that aspect into the game, then George Clinton and all these other funk people. So it’s a unique thing that was grown from seed to grass. Dealing with someone like James Brown, that really spurred the whole funk movement.”

Brown permanently put King Records on the map with hits like “Get On Up” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” His fame generated a great deal of profit for the label, while Brown relied mostly on live performances as a means of income, Blase writes in The King Records Story.

The “King thing” carried over behind the scenes, too. Butts says that when people ask about King’s history, they tend to focus on a single aspect, such as a genre or artist. But the bigger picture spans two decades, Butts insists.

“I want people to understand this is for all of us,” Butts says. “So many people are looking for the quote - it’s too big. It’s this ‘King thing.’”

Brown’s sometimes-tumultuous relationship with King’s owner Nathan is part of that lore.

“A combination of royalties, publishing control and an acrimonious relationship with Syd Nathan led to Brown’s decision to leave King for Smash Record Company in 1963,” The King Records Story states. “Despite their differences, James Brown returned to King in 1965 with the agreement he would preside over his own work.”

Brown had an office on the second floor at King Records where he and Nathan infamously disagreed. The King Records Story says that Nathan notoriously disliked the song “Please, Please, Please” and threatened to fire King executive Ralph Bass, who had signed Brown.  Halper says his mother was an “intermediary” between Brown and Nathan.

“James Brown used to call the house at 2, 3, 4 in the morning when he felt like it, and he’d complain or say something to my mother, and it would be passed on to my uncle,” Halper says. “She was sort of the Henry Kissinger between the two.”

The kings of history

The King Records roots run deep in Cincinnati, as do the roots of those driving the King Records Legacy Foundation. Butts says the involvement of the “Three Kings” – Otis Williams, Bootsy Collins and the late Philip Paul – was imperative in forming the nonprofit.

It’s yet another magical “King thing” from the Queen City.

“For individuals like these three King people to come together, that’s not easy or shouldn’t be assumed as an obvious kind of thing, because they really represent so many different aspects of the King era and of different generations,” says Elliott Ruther, the King Records Legacy Foundation secretary.
click to enlarge (From left) Bootsy Collins, Philip Paul and Otis Williams have been vital to the King Records Legacy Foundation. - Photo: courtesy of Elliott Ruther
Photo: courtesy of Elliott Ruther
(From left) Bootsy Collins, Philip Paul and Otis Williams have been vital to the King Records Legacy Foundation.

Between 1954 and 1961, Otis Williams and the Charms released nearly 50 singles on the label, A King Records Scrapbook says. A King agent discovered Williams during a talent show at Withrow High School in Hyde Park. The Charms’ biggest hit “Hearts of Stone” was released in 1954 and ranked on both the R&B and pop music charts, according to A King Records Scrapbook.

Paul, who died in January, was a renowned session drummer for King, appearing on hundreds of hits and notably working with legendary blues guitarist Freddie King. A King Records Scrapbook says Paul often was called into the Evanston studio because he lived within walking distance – something that belied his immense hit-making talent.

Collins, who grew up on Hackberry Street, came along much later, as he was only about eight years old when Nathan founded King Records. He and his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins eventually played in Brown’s backing band for two years; in 1972, Collins joined George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, where he continued to hone his groovy baselines. In 2020, Rolling Stone named him the No. 4 bassist of all time.

Butts is the son of Williams, but he didn’t know his father back then. Instead, he says he was raised by his mother, who “ran in the same circle” as other King artists like Ballard and Brown. Artists often stopped by Butts’ childhood home to check on the family, he adds.

Butts became a musician himself, playing clubs in a band called Caliber. In 2008, Charles Spurling – the King Records executive who discovered Collins – randomly found Butts playing a gig in Cincinnati.

Spurling and Collins’ brother saw Butts and wondered about his origins.

“I was doing a soundcheck. Charles came over to me and he said, ‘Hey, where are you guys from?’ I said, ‘Cincinnati.’ And he was like, ‘Well, you can’t be from Cincinnati because we know all the bands around here,’” Butts recalls. “Then out of the clear blue sky, he said, ‘Who’s your father?’”

Butts says nobody had ever outright asked him that, nor was it the focus of his music career. Butts says he began to tell Spurling that it was Otis Williams of the Charms and not man of the same name in the Temptations when Spurling exclaimed, “I knew it – you look just like him when he was young!”

It wasn’t until 2008 that Butts and his father connected in person, and it happened at the King Records site when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame installed a marker honoring the label’s history. Butts says he then went on to tour briefly with his father as one of the Charms.
Despite his personal connection, Butts says the King Records Legacy Foundation was formed to focus on the studio’s entire history, not just certain individuals.

“I’m not just doing this for Otis Williams. I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for all of us, because it’s for all of us,” Butts says. “It’s for the city, it’s for you, it’s for everybody.”

An attempt at honoring royalty

There have been a number of attempts to preserve the King Records complex and legacy, though some methods were at odds with each other and this history is murky.

Butts says that Brown tried to acquire the property at one point. According to A King Records Scrapbook, Brown visited the King site in June 1997. Though not confirmed, it’s possible that this is when Brown showed interest in purchasing the complex.

“When he came, he was crushed when he saw the condition of the building,” Butts recalls.

A previous owner of the studio’s site had tried to demolish the property, but in 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected that attempt. The city ultimately acquired the buildings, cleaned up the property and made it secure. Dahan, the historian, credits a number of organizations with saving the site, including the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation, the Bootsy Collins Foundation and the Cincinnati Preservation Association, along with Evanston residents and city government.

At one time, there even was a movement to preserve King’s legacy without saving the buildings. Before the King Records Legacy Foundation was formed, a group called the King Studio Board had other plans for honoring King’s history, Halper says. Many of the current Legacy Foundation members like Butts, Williams, Collins, Paul and Ruther were in that group, but disagreements eventually disbanded it.

Halper was a member of the King Studio Board and says the original buildings were not and still are not worth saving. His involvement on the board lasted at least five years and began somewhere between 2010 and 2012, he says.

click to enlarge King Records Legacy Foundation members are awaiting confirmation of the site being accepted to the National Register of Historic Places. - Photo: courtesy of Elliott Ruther
Photo: courtesy of Elliott Ruther
King Records Legacy Foundation members are awaiting confirmation of the site being accepted to the National Register of Historic Places.

“I got involved in the committee that was set up as a joint effort between Xavier [University], the neighborhood of Evanston and this community nonprofit that was set up in conjunction with Xavier,” Halper says. “It really wasn’t just about King Records, and that was what was so important about it. It was something for Evanston. It was going to be a learning center, and it was going to be on Montgomery Road.”

According to Halper, the city had set aside funds to purchase land on Montgomery Road for a proposed community center and King Records museum but needed environmental clearance to build there (Ruther says this process happened around 2014).

The King Studio Board already had plans for the site in place when Halper joined the board, he says. Ultimately, the clearance took too long and the idea was abandoned. It’s unclear if this incident was what led to the eventual disbanding of the original board, but based on conversations with Halper, Butts and Ruther, it seems likely.

“I don’t know if they’ve ever really done anything of any substance to develop the [King Records] property. And it would cost millions and millions,” Halper says. “Even the one on Montgomery Road, that was a dream. Without tons of money to do it, it would have never happened.”

Halper isn’t sure that the King Records Legacy Foundation’s current plans will be successful.

“I just don’t see this one happening. It’s a deadend street. It’s got no parking. It’s just – to me – a pink elephant in the middle of Evanston,” Halper says. “I hope I’m wrong. I would love to see my family’s legacy preserved someplace in Evanston, but I just dont think it’s going to be at that place.”

Butts, who says he had been part of the King Studio Board for nearly a decade, maintains that despite the condition or availability of the King Records complex, preserving the legacy is crucial. Ruther agrees.

“In my view, if you’re serious about this being about King, the building still exists and people are going to want to connect with it,” Ruther says. “I understand the building is not in the best condition, but I’m somebody that would want to preserve it.”

In 2019 “The Three Kings,” wrote a letter to the city in the form of a legal motion to create the King Records Legacy Foundation. Williams, Paul and Collins referred to the committee members listed in the motion as “The King Dream Team.” The letter thanked the government for its participation and said that the promise to revitalize the King property must be led by the legacy.

“Some individuals excited about the King thing with good intentions mistakenly act like the King legacy is theirs and living legacies get treated as an afterthought or a prop,” the letter declares. “Sometimes individuals take advantage of the situation to the expense of the actual King legacy – akin to a modern-day version of stealing songwriting credit.”

Butts says that people who had other ideas about how to preserve the King Records legacy weren’t acting maliciously; their plans simply were not in the interest of the “core” of that legacy, he says.

The new vision

Now the King Records Legacy Foundation is moving forward with its vision for a historic complex that will permanently mark Evanston as the birthplace of a special sound that influenced the nation.

If all goes well, Butts says the project will honor King Records with a learning center that features interactive aspects, including a recording studio, performance space, rotating and permanent exhibitions and an abundant collection of historic artifacts.
click to enlarge (From left) Patti Collins, Christian McBride, Bootsy Collins and Kent Butts stand at the marker that honors history at the King Records site. - Photo: courtesy of Elliott Ruther
Photo: courtesy of Elliott Ruther
(From left) Patti Collins, Christian McBride, Bootsy Collins and Kent Butts stand at the marker that honors history at the King Records site.

He says details of the development agreement with the city likely will be finalized by the end of September, but for now, the group is working with at least a three-year agenda and an initial, tentative $20 million budget. So far, the foundation has secured $200,000 in private funding and a pledged $1 million from the city. Foundation members also are considering hosting a celebrity benefit concert to launch a capital campaign.

“It’s imminent; we are in the very final stages,” Ruther affirms.

The King Records Legacy Foundation also expects to receive confirmation of the property’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places soon, which would present opportunities for grants. Knowing that Butts is committed to including every tangible King Records memory it can uncover, Dahan – the historian for the foundation – wrote a 61-page narrative of the business’s history, which was submitted with other supporting documents to the National Register of Historic Places. Nominations for property in Ohio are processed by the State Historic Preservation Office, which has already approved the King Records Foundation’s proposal. The National Park Service makes the final decision.

Beth Johnson, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, anticipates a decision this month. In her previous position as urban conservator, Johnson worked with the department of community and economic development on basic stabilization work, making sure that any work done at the King Records site was historically appropriate.

Johnson linked the Ohio History Connection – a non-profit that operates Ohio historic sites – with the King complex, the Legacy Foundation and the city. The Connection received an underrepresented community grant through the National Park Service, which was used in King Records applying for the Historic Registry, Johnson says. King fit the bill due to neighborhood demographics as well as the label’s pre-Civil Rights integration and collaboration.

“That grant is specifically focused on making sure that we are getting resources for underrepresented communities listed onto the National Register and, in a way, trying to right a wrong in that very, very few places listed on the National Register are associated with underrepresented communities,” Johnson tells CityBeat.

The history of King Records speaks for itself, Johnson adds. If King is added to the National Register, grant and tax credit opportunities will multiply.

“One of the most important things is, it does open the building up to be eligible for historic tax credits, which, in combination with both the Ohio historic preservation tax credit as well as the federal, can provide up to 45% credit on expenses in regards to the rehabilitation of the building,” Johnson says.

Those funds would be handy, considering the big vision that the King Records Legacy Foundation has for the studio’s legacy. In an email to CityBeat, Ruther says that the project likely will include a repository of artifacts; a museum with a gallery and rotating exhibition space; facilitation of new music and art; music education; a concert and performance space; and Civil Rights-Era education components. The learning center also will provide support for King Records artists and former employees and will connect with community and global partners in furthering the label’s legacy.

The foundation already has acquired some artifacts, including what Butts says is one of the “finest assets” — a Neumann microphone that Brown used. The foundation also has secured clothing from King artists like Collins and Paul and is working toward getting Brown’s original desk that he used in the office.

Modern musicians also are lending a hand. Jack White, the vocalist and guitarist for the White Stripes and the founder of label and studio Third Man Records, has publicly shown support for preserving the King legacy. Having a deep love and knowledge of music history and vintage equipment, White owns a piece of machinery from an original lathe that was used to press records at King.

click to enlarge (From left) PhilipnPaul, Kent Butts, Otis Williams and Jack White chat about King Records. - Photo: courtesy of Third Man Records
Photo: courtesy of Third Man Records
(From left) PhilipnPaul, Kent Butts, Otis Williams and Jack White chat about King Records.

With the city’s backing all but finalized, the foundation is doing what it can to speed up the development timeline.

“I’m already working with the city on getting temporary electric in,” Butts says. “It’s a matter of getting a design, and there are a few stabilization situations – which is what I’m dealing with right now – to get the whole thing done.”

Butts says he’s in the process of selecting an architect for the King Records complex. The foundation also has engaged students from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning. In 2019 eight groups of students produced eight different designs for King Records site development. Butts says it’s possible that aspects from each will influence the final design.

Butts, Ruther and other King Records Legacy Foundation members say they’re planning to get Evanston residents’ input, as well, especially as the foundation considers meeting parking and neighborhood needs.

“At King, we are really at such a ground zero of getting started – not only what it is to have the shell of the buildings owned by the city, but also how to step through how we best move forward and how that can lead to an evolving relationship for the future,” Ruther says. “We are still figuring out how to best embrace this culture and history that is ours.”

Foundation members hope to reveal physical development progress – or possibly even completion – by the end of 2025.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, but as the son of Otis Williams – who Butts says is the last surviving lead singer to come out of King – Butts says he’s as connected to the studio’s roots as anyone could be. This is a new beginning for King Records, Butts says – a beginning that permanently shares how a buried Cincinnati treasure changed the music industry nearly 70 years ago and how it will come back to life once again to serve the city where it was born.

“It will be a hub for what music has been, is and will be in the future,” Butts says. “Everything from the music business, history, education – it’s kind of a gumbo.”

“It’s always hard for me to put this in a few words because it’s such a big thing – to explain all of the aspects of what music does,” he continues. “With this building, I want to highlight the importance of music as something that’s needed culturally. Music as a language.”

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