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King of the Queen City

King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records

Jon Hartley Fox
Foreword by Dave Alvin
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    King of the Queen City
    Book Description:

    King of the Queen City is the first comprehensive history of King Records, one of the most influential independent record companies in the history of American music. Jon Hartley Fox tells the story of a small outsider record company in Cincinnati, Ohio, that attracted an extremely diverse roster of artists, including the Stanley Brothers, Grandpa Jones, Redd Foxx, Earl Bostic, Bill Doggett, Lonnie Johnson, Ike Turner, Roy Brown, Freddie King, Eddie Vinson, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and even a young James Brown. While other record companies of the day made their fortunes by concentrating on one style of music, King Records was active in virtually all genres of vernacular American music, from blues and R & B to rockabilly, bluegrass, western swing, and country._x000B__x000B_Founded by Cincinnati businessman Sydney Nathan in the mid-1940s, King Records led the way for the hundreds of independent record companies of the 1940s and 1950s. Fox weaves together the elements of King's success, focusing on the dynamic personalities of the artists, producers, and key executives such as Nathan, Henry Glover, and Ralph Bass. Drawing on personal interviews, research in contemporary newspapers and periodicals, and deep access to the King archives, this book captures a sense of the inspired mayhem that permeated King Records in its glory days. _x000B__x000B_A progressive company in a reactionary time, King Records was also an early pioneer in racial integration, with an interracial creative and executive staff that redefined the face and voice of American music as well as the way it was recorded and sold. Analyzing the record industry's corporate culture and the national context of King's music, Fox assesses the meaning of King Records in postwar America and discusses the label's decline after 1968, when Nathan died and the company was acquired by Starday Records. With a foreword by legendary guitarist, singer, and songwriter Dave Alvin, King of the Queen City fondly looks back at an influential, innovative, and inspirational enterprise in American music.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09127-8
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Dave Alvin

    I was a teenage record collector geek when I first discovered the magic, power, and importance of King Records.

    It was in 1969 or so, and I was barely fourteen years old. A couple of years before then, my big brother Phil and I had fallen under the intoxicating spell of old music, especially blues. Back in those days there were only a few reissue albums of old and obscure recording artists available in regular record stores, so we were forced to start rummaging and searching through any location where we thought old 78s, 45s, and LPs could be found....

    (pp. xv-xxii)
  5. One SYD STARTS A RECORD COMPANY The Early Years, 1943–44
    (pp. 1-11)

    The day had begun with such promise.

    On this February Saturday in 1956, the twenty or so people crammed into the Cincinnati recording studio were ready to get down to business. The producer was enthusiastic, the featured artists—a young singing group out of Georgia called the Famous Flames—were excited, the studio musicians in place. Time to roll tape.

    They hadn’t even made it through the first song when the atmosphere was shattered by a loud voice shouting in the studio’s control room. “Stop the tape. Stop the tape,” yelled Syd Nathan, the founder and president of King Records....

  6. Two THE HILLBILLY BOOGIE Country Music on King Records, Part 1
    (pp. 12-21)

    The Bob McCarthy/Sheppard Brothers debacle of 1943 was a keen disappointment to Syd Nathan, Grandpa Jones, and Merle Travis. It’s one thing to have an unsuccessful record, but to be part of such a complete and utter flop—a total fiasco—was another thing altogether. All three were anxious to redeem themselves in the studio, so Nathan arranged another recording session for early January. They all hoped for a fresh start in 1944.

    Grandpa Jones had enlisted in the Army and was due to leave for basic training at the end of January. Nathan had no idea when he might...

  7. Three THE KING GETS A QUEEN The Short but Important Life of Queen Records
    (pp. 22-25)

    Syd Nathan often said he made “records for the little man.” By August 1945, buoyed by the end of the war and the moderate success of his initial country releases, Syd had decided to more fully embrace his vision of music for “the little man.” King Records was a country music label, but the time had come to expand. The King needed a Queen.

    Nathan launched Queen Records in August with the express purpose of recording black musicians. The new label had its first release within a few weeks—a cover of Joe Liggins’s big hit “The Honeydripper” by singer/saxophonist...

  8. Four HENRY GLOVER An Unsung Hero of American Music
    (pp. 26-31)

    Henry Glover was the living embodiment of the color-blindness and open-minded spirit that Syd Nathan espoused and attempted to live by at King Records. Glover was a black man from the south, but he was as comfortable in the studio producing white country acts as he was producing rhythm and blues acts. Glover knew the barriers erected between white and black music were artificial and not reflective of the way life was actually lived in America. Music was music, and a good song was a good song. It really was as simple as that.

    Henry Bernard Glover was born May...

  9. Five GOOD ROCKIN’ TONIGHT Rhythm & Blues on King Records, 1947–54
    (pp. 32-41)

    King’s new “Rhythm and Blues” series picked up where Queen left off without missing a beat. The first release in the new series was “Cuttin’ Out” by Earl Bostic, one of the masters Nathan purchased from Gotham. The immediate fireworks, however, were supplied by Bull Moose Jackson.

    Jackson made the most of his “promotion” from Queen and scored big with his first King recording, Henry Glover’s “I Love You, Yes I Do.” A fine example of Jackson’s crooning, “I Love You” was a huge hit, by far the biggest in King’s short history. Released late in 1947, the record was...

  10. Six WHERE THE HELL’S THE MELODY? Country Music on King Records, Part 2
    (pp. 42-49)

    According to mandolinist/funnyman Jethro Burns, a banner hung across the entrance to the King recording studio that asked the pointed question, “Where the hell’s the melody?” Even if that’s not literally true, and with Jethro one never knew, itshouldbe true, because it was one of Syd Nathan’s favorite questions in the studio—usually delivered in a hoarse, raspy, high-volume roar, sarcasm dripping from every word.

    When Nathan asked Burns a similar question before hiring him to play on King recording sessions, Burns thought Nathan was pulling his leg. “Syd heard us [Burns and his partner, guitarist Homer Haynes]...

  11. Seven BUSINESS AS USUAL WAS PRETTY UNUSUAL Behind the Scenes at King Records
    (pp. 50-62)

    Syd NathanwasKing Records. The company was shaped in his image and mirrored his eccentricities. By turns progressive and conservative (sometimes both at one time), King Records was an unusual company, to say the least. The label was every bit as innovative and influential in its business practices as it was on the creative side of the company.

    King Records changed the way vernacular American music was recorded and marketed, and King was the model for more than one record company. After a couple of stumbles at the beginning, King prospered and grew, eventually becoming one of the country’s...

  12. Eight MASTERS OF THE GROOVE Earl Bostic, Bill Doggett, and The Honkin’ Tenors
    (pp. 63-73)

    Virtually all styles of American music underwent drastic transformations in the decade following World War II. Black popular music in the immediate post-war years had been ruled by blues singers like Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, and Bull Moose Jackson, men who sang the praises of wine, women, and high-rolling good times. By the early 1950s, however, the emphasis within commercial R&B had shifted almost entirely to vocal harmony groups.

    These groups tended to be young, male, and urban, and their vocal styles were deeply rooted in the gospel quartet sound, as secularized by such popular vocal groups as the Ink...

  13. Nine I’LL SAIL MY SHIP ALONE Country Music on King Records, Part 3
    (pp. 74-85)

    Moon Mullican is a key figure for anyone trying to understand American music, yet he remains vastly underappreciated. The 1930s was a time of superb piano players, from boogie-woogie greats Albert Ammons, Meade “Lux” Lewis, and Pete Johnson to western swing masters Fred “Papa” Calhoun and Al Stricklin. The 1950s belonged to such rock and roll piano players as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. The connection—both cultural and musical—was Moon Mullican.

    A piano-pounding wild man from the piney woods of east Texas, Aubrey “Moon” Mullican (1909–67) liked to say he played music that “made...

  14. Ten RECORD MAN Ralph Bass and Federal Records
    (pp. 86-93)

    Ralph Bass (1911–97) was one of the true characters among the record producers, A&R men, and talent scouts who came to the fore in the 1940s and 1950s. Although he didn’t try to pass for something he wasn’t, there was always something different about Ralph Bass, a white man of mixed Jewish-Italian ancestry who crossed the color line and never looked back. Bass was a jive-talking wheeler-dealer, half artist and half con artist. He was a consummate record man.

    Bass was full of himself, but seemed to know it, in a way that made his shtick (and self-promotion) more...

  15. Eleven THE SIXTY-MINUTE MEN Rhythm & Blues Vocal Groups on King Records
    (pp. 94-107)

    The line is short and straight from the R&B vocal groups of the 1940s and 1950s back to the black gospel quartets of a decade or two earlier. Quartets such as the Golden Gate Quartet, the Soul Stirrers, and the Harmonizing Four inspired the Ink Spots (with the very influential lead singer Bill Kenney), the Mills Brothers, and such seminal groups as the Delta Rhythm Boys and the Five Red Caps. These highly skilled vocal harmony groups of the 1940s secularized the music of the quartets and brought the sound to the masses.

    Next came the “bird groups”—the Ravens,...

  16. Twelve YOU GIVE ME FEVER Solo R&B Singers on King Records
    (pp. 108-116)

    Henry Glover called Little Willie John “the artist of all artists,” and though he laughed when he said it, Glover wasn’t kidding. “He was in a class all to himself,” Glover told writer Steve Tracy.¹ “He was a really truly great singer. I would say that blues came so natural to him that he was just a master at that and no one living during that day could touch him. He had some of the greatest blues gymnastics and voice gyration that you could ever dream of a person having.”

    Unfortunately, William John (1937–68) was also, as Glover put...

  17. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  18. Thirteen EVERY TIME I FEEL THE SPIRIT Black Gospel Music on King Records
    (pp. 117-126)

    It wasn’t always Saturday night at King Records. Religious music, especially that of black Americans, was an important part of the King mix from the earliest days of Queen Records until King sputtered to a halt in the early 1970s. This was entirely consistent with Nathan’s oft-stated goal of making music for “the little man.” Gospel music was also a niche in which King could prosper, as the major record companies were largely uninterested in the music.

    Black gospel records on King fit into three categories: gospel quartets, small groups of usually four to seven singers who sang old hymns...

  19. Fourteen HOW MOUNTAIN GIRLS CAN LOVE Bluegrass Music on King Records
    (pp. 127-137)

    In 1946, only one band was playing the music that would come to be called bluegrass: Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. By the early 1950s, probably a few dozen bands, of varying levels of professionalism and spreading throughout the southeast and such northern states as Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, were playing bluegrass.

    Monroe bitterly resented these groups “stealing” his personal music, but the successful bands soon created distinctive sounds and identities of their own. Two of the best of these “first generation” bluegrass bands recorded extensively for King. One was called Don Reno, Red Smiley, and the Tennessee...

  20. Fifteen LET’S HAVE A NATURAL BALL The Blues on King Records
    (pp. 138-150)

    The success of Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues” proved that an audience existed for the blues. From that point on, record companies large and small would look to the blues as a source of artists, songs, and records. Syd Nathan made money with blues in his record-store days, so it is not surprising that King was an early and important force in postwar American blues.

    King’s most successful blues artist was guitarist and singer Freddie King,¹ who influenced a generation of blues and rock guitarists. The label also recorded important guitarists Albert King, John Lee Hooker, and Lonnie...

  21. Sixteen THAT AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT RIGHT Rockabilly and Rock and Roll on King Records
    (pp. 151-162)

    Rock and roll was the ultimate musical mongrel, a cultural amalgamation that borrowed freely from virtually every genre of American music that had come before—gospel, western swing, bluegrass, blues, jazz, and pop. Because King was active in most of those styles, the label was a natural for rock and roll.

    Not many people did more than Ike Turner to shape American music in the 1950s. He was a guitarist, pianist, talent scout, bandleader, record producer, songwriter, and behind-the-scenes fixer. Turner did it all and he did it well.

    Izear Luster “Ike” Turner (1931–2007) was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi....

    (pp. 163-175)

    James Brown was the most important musician to record for King Records—the most important, most influential, most innovative, and most misunderstood. Brown was a musical revolutionary who changed the world. The influence of James Brown’s music is universal at the beginning of the twenty-first century. One hears it in American hip hop, funk, and rock, the Afro-pop of Nigeria, Mali, and other countries, Jamaican reggae, and in the playing of musicians from Japan to Sweden. Among American musicians of the twentieth century, probably only Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley had a comparable impact.

    James Brown was King’s biggest seller....

  23. Eighteen BROTHER CLAUDE ELY AND EDDIE “LOCKJAW” DAVIS The Rest of the Catalog
    (pp. 176-181)

    If Syd Nathan thought a record would sell, he would release it. He even released records he didn’t think would sell (by James Brown, for example) in case he was wrong. Musical merit was not his primary concern when evaluating a record. He cared about sales. His tireless quest for sales led Nathan and King down many a path that other record companies never even noticed.

    Brother Claude Ely (1922–78), a singing, guitar-playing itinerant preacher known as the “Gospel Ranger,” was unique on the King roster. His records are among the most fascinating of the label’s releases. They sound...

  24. Nineteen LIFE AFTER DEATH King Records, 1968–2009
    (pp. 182-192)

    King Records threw a gala party in 1967 to celebrate the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The party was at Nathan’s house in the Bond Hill section of Cincinnati, and the seventy-five guests included Max Frank, who had hired Nathan to work in his radio store so many years before, Hal Neely, and several current and past King employees. Nathan was in a good mood because King had shipped 100,000 copies of “Cold Sweat” that day. Crowned the “King of King,” he was presented with a cardboard and velvet crown. Only one thing was strange about the party: it was a year...

  25. Twenty “WE BROKE THE SHIT DOWN” The Meaning of King Records
    (pp. 193-202)

    If Syd Nathan said it once, he said it a thousand times: King made records for “the little man.” Nathan also said that as a Jew, he identified with those on the margins of society, those viewed with disdain and condescension by the social elite. This was not just image building on Nathan’s part or empty rhetoric. Hewasan outsider. Even after he was wealthy and well established, Nathan never forgot his early struggles or humble roots.

    King Records was a successful company that sold millions of records and made millions of dollars, but King was important for reasons...

  26. NOTES
    (pp. 203-214)
    (pp. 215-228)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 229-234)
  29. Back Matter
    (pp. 235-246)