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redsmetz
01-25-2009, 03:31 PM
There was a nice article in today's Times about Cincinnati's famed King Records.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/arts/music/25smit.html?_r=1&ref=arts


Rocking Cincinnati’s R&B Cradle
By RJ SMITH

Cincinnati

A CROWD gathers around crumbling walls that are a small evolutionary step up from a miserable pile of bricks. The facade leaks water, and masonry falls off the sides of this big, old building, in a working-class neighborhood here.

This structure is a landmark of pop culture that never received the sendoff it deserved. Yet people are gathered here on a cold afternoon in mid-November not for a memorial service but to help resurrect King Records, the label that was once the home of James Brown, Nina Simone and Charlie Feathers.

King started as a so-called hillbilly label in 1943; moved into “race music” — the onetime name for what became rhythm and blues — around 1945; and attempted in ways great and small to merge both audiences until it essentially shut down a few years after the death of its owner, Syd Nathan. It never achieved the household-name status of Stax or Motown, but the crowd wants to change that.

It’s an appropriately eclectic mix of folks dressed in country and R&B styles from 40 years ago. There’s a septuagenarian African-American man in an ermine coat and felt bowler. There’s a bouffant-haired woman with a hard twang leaning on a walker. There’s even a guy with mutton chops who looks like a rockabilly werewolf.

That would be Billy Davis, onetime guitar player for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. And like many of those assembled today, he recorded for King, the independent label where Charlie Feathers cut “One Hand Loose” and the R&B singer Little Willie John cut “Fever.” King is where “The Twist” was first laid down, by Ballard, and where Wynonie Harris made “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

Now Cincinnati is rediscovering a landmark it barely knew it had. The occasion is the unveiling of a historical marker, financed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, celebrating the site as a historic address. Also announced at the event were plans to establish a King Records Center, including a recording studio, in the neighborhood. (Later this year the University of Illinois Press will publish “King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records,” by John Hartley Fox.)

Enough about New Orleans, Memphis or Nashville, and other, better-celebrated cradles of popular music. For Cincinnati, it’s star time.

“While no single city has naming rights as the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll, the elements that made rock ’n’ roll — the blend of country, blues and the big beat — were being created at King Records,” said Larry Nager, former pop music editor for several Cincinnati dailies and the author of the book “Memphis Beat.” “Whether it was the big-voiced jump blues of Wynonie Harris or the hillbilly boogie of Moon Mullican, these were the records that the first generation of rock ‘n’ rollers were cutting their teeth on.”

For about a decade, musicians, fans and local politicians and businesspeople had been working on their own to elevate King’s profile. “This place is holy, sacred ground,” said John Cranley, a former city councilman, who had started an effort to preserve the structure while in office. In recent years they’ve joined together to meet, and to watch their efforts reach a critical mass, in part because of the city’s nationally publicized racial problems.

“In 2001 the city made a name for itself with what the papers called a race riot,” said Elliott V. Ruther, a founder of the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation. “On some level it became, ‘O.K., Cincinnati, what are you going to choose to focus on about yourself? The K.K.K. at Fountain Square?” (He was referring to notorious displays erected at that site.) “We can focus on that. Or we can look to the 1940s, and the creative vision and business plan one man had.”

Another reason for the renewed interest in King is the energy of one of Cincinnati’s leading citizens. His name is Bootsy, baby.

At the dedication, Bootsy Collins — who was a studio musician at King until James Brown took him on the road, to say nothing of his long membership in Parliament-Funkadelic — pledged to say just a few words, but ended up calling local dignitaries out of the crowd and exuding an enthusiasm for what King meant — to the city and to himself as a young man raised in Cincinnati.

“All the artists and all the hip people hung around King,” Mr. Collins said later, at his home outside Cincinnati. “I was still going to school and I wanted to be hip and cool. At that time I never thought I’d actually be a professional musician; I thought playing music was just fun.”

“But the more I hung around King,” he added, “the more I started falling in love with music. From seeing how passionate and dedicated those musicians and artists were, I realized, ‘If I’m going to do this, I can’t be joking.’ ” Mr. Collins has even opened a restaurant in downtown Cincinnati that displays vintage King lore.

One crisp day in November, Brian Powers, a city librarian, offered a reporter a tour of other local landmarks. He parked beside the site of Herzog Studios, where Hank Williams recorded “Lovesick Blues” and which King used for some early recordings. Then he drove to the formerly blacks-only cemetery (this being in many ways a Southern town) where the bandleader Tiny Bradshaw rests. Bradshaw bridged big-band jazz and small-group R&B; he came to Cincinnati to record at King and liked it so much he stayed.

“Guys like this just did so much for American music, and America doesn’t even know about them,” Mr. Powers said. “Heck, Cincinnati barely even knows.”

Then he drove a short distance to a Jewish cemetery where lies the body of Syd Nathan. Syd, as any King pilgrim quickly learns, Syd was a trip.

Mr. Powers has written a reference book for the library on King and Mr. Nathan, the mogul who founded the label. Born in Cincinnati in 1904, as a young man he worked at a pawnshop and promoted wrestling matches. Then he opened a record shop and found he had, as he would put it, “shellac in my veins.” (In the early days, records were made of molded shellac.)

Mr. Nathan could be a loud and tactically crude man, who chomped on cigars and argued with half the artists who came through his studio. A stubborn self-starter, he would shout down James Brown when he thought he was right.

He brawled with Brown, his biggest act, countless times; he legendarily refused to record him live at the Apollo Theater in Harlem until Brown agreed to underwrite the recording himself. Despite their explosive relationship, together they helped change pop history.

One of Mr. Nathan’s innovations was to construct a facility not just for recording music but also for pressing records, designing album-cover art, and packing boxes and shipping them out. An industry outsider who learned as he went, Mr. Nathan to some degree assembled a music industry that he could control, all under his roof. Except for the cardboard album covers, which were manufactured elsewhere, the label did it all. With King’s facilities a record could be cut in the morning and acetates placed in D.J.s’ hands that night. More than once, a King artist was on the road back home to Macon, Ga., or Philadelphia, when he was surprised to hear his new song playing on the radio.

Another key to King’s success was its racial pragmatism. It’s probably a stretch to call Mr. Nathan a progressive, but he was colorblind in his pursuit of the widest possible audience. He didn’t just record both white and black acts; he had his ace R&B studio band playing on country records, and his country bands trying their hands at black pop hits, an almost unthinkable practice at the time.

The Stanley Brothers, for instance, did a version of Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time,” and the African-American shouter Wynonie Harris covered the honky-tonk singer Hank Penny’s “Bloodshot Eyes.” It was a way of getting the most out of a hit, and perhaps it was Mr. Nathan’s stubborn nature to argue to those who told him blacks and whites would never like the same records how very wrong they were.

Besides King, Cincinnati has a notable musical history that has largely been forgotten inside or outside city limits. The local singer Mamie Smith moved to New York and recorded the pioneering “Crazy Blues” in 1920; Jelly Roll Morton recorded onto piano rolls in a downtown studio. After Prohibition a circuit of illegal casinos employing many musicians popped up across the Ohio River in Kentucky.

“Cincinnati was settled by good, solid German folk,” said Mr. Nager, who wrote the text on the King marker. “To them, honest work was making soap and killing pigs, not making music or cutting records. To them, the Jews, blacks and hillbillies working at King Records were gypsies, outsiders.” King Records, he said, “remains Cincinnati’s single most important cultural contribution to the world.”

Syd Nathan died in 1968; the label changed hands several times in subsequent years. Today the bulk of its catalog rests with Gusto Records, a Nashville company that appears to neglect its treasures.

The night the historic marker was unveiled, the alternative weekly City Beat held its annual Cincinnati entertainment awards show. The event was built around a tribute to King, and opened with a blazing, freaky set by Mr. Collins, paying tribute to James Brown. There was an acrobatic, youthful singer billed as Young James Brown, with Tomi Ray Brown, Brown’s last wife, singing backup for him. Even Danny Ray, the man who had draped the cape on Brown for decades, was there to introduce the tribute. At the end of the show, Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass patriarch who recorded for the label in the early 1960s, sang and sang until his voice gave out.

The music was a mix of the faith and the funk, fatback and fiddle tunes. Whatever happens to the brick structure that used to house the label, King will never really die as long as music like this can be heard in an old music hall in Cincinnati.

redsmetz
01-27-2009, 06:47 AM
I found this link to some history of King Records. It's really amazing the volume of music that the label put out, acts that went on to major careers. Like Sun Records in Memphis, Syd Nathan sold off the contracts of his major acts to the big labels, although James Brown was with him for most of his career (and most Brown albums were recorded in Cincinnati).

http://www.history-of-rock.com/king_records.htm

The song "Sixty Minute Man" in the movie Bull Durham is a Federal Label (a subsidiary of King) recording by the Dominoes. For those of you in Cincinnati, the public library has a number of CD's for King's artists. Just do the Advanced Search and limit it to King Records and Sound Recordings to limit your results.

Reds Freak
01-27-2009, 09:33 AM
Cool articles, thanks for sharing Redsmetz. I love Cincinnati's little hidden gems like these.

Anybody eaten at Bootsy's restaurant downtown? I haven't but I peeked inside, looks very funky...

redsmetz
01-27-2009, 05:26 PM
Here's another story from CityBeat last November from when the marker was installed.

http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-16602-the-king-of-them-all.html

There was a mention too of some attempts to add a King Record center with Xavier University (not far from the original building) along with an annual music festival, if I remember correctly.

The guys are Shake It Records are really into the history of local music. They've got a link on their web page that has more than just King Records:

http://www.shakeitrecords.com/history-links.html

Roy Tucker
01-28-2009, 02:57 PM
Great series done by WVXU on King Records.

You can listen to it here.

http://www.wvxu.org/schedule/kingrecords.asp

redsmetz
10-16-2009, 08:10 PM
King Records is back in the news. There is a new book out titled "King of the Queen City." There was an article in this morning's newspaper, but I can't find it online. The author is coming to town this weekend for Books on the Bank at the Convention Center.

Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air interviewed the author this week, as well as Bootsy Collins. I didn't catch it all, but here's the NPR link, with a story, excerpts and the program itself.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113826003