(Above: The groundbreaking “Working on a Building,” which the Swan Silvertones cut for King Records.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
James Brown is certainly the best-known artist to record for Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based label, but King Records had forged a reputation long before Brown emerged. For a quarter century, from 1943 to 1968, King recorded some of the top performers in not only R&B, but gospel, jazz, bluegrass, rockabilly, blues and early rock and roll.
Here are some other King artists worth checking out.
Organist Bill Doggett was the biggest-selling instrumentalist on King. He joined the label after leaving Louis Jordan’s band in 1951, and recorded several sides with a trio. When the results weren’t what he’d hoped, Doggett added saxophone and guitar to the lineup and scored big hits with “Ding Dong, “Hammer Head” and “Shindig.” Doggett’s biggest success, though, was the 1956 smash “Honky Tonk.” The record sold 1.5 million copies that year, spent seven months on the chart and won several awards Doggett left King for Warner Bros. in 1960 when King owner Syd Nathan refused to increase Doggett’s royalty rate.
Claude Jeter’s Swan Silvertone’s were the biggest gospel act to record for King. They were only with the label for five years, from 1946 to 1951. The 45 songs cut for King bridged the transition from the traditional barbershop-based style of gospel singing to a more spontaneous, emotional approach. Jeter’s duet with co-lead singer Solomon Womack on “Working on a Building” epitomized the potential of the new method and influenced future stars Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke. The Slivertone’s later recordings on Specialty and Vee-Jay receive more attention, but the half-decade at King cemented the group’s sound and reputation.
Rockabilly guitarist Charlie Feathers is one of those criminally forgotten musicians whose talent outshines his reputation. Feathers grew up in Mississippi listening to the Grand Ol Opry, but learned guitar from bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Feathers briefly recorded for Sun before coming to King in 1956. After cutting several raw, visceral rockabilly numbers that went nowhere, commercially speaking, Feathers decided to model himself after Elvis Presley. When the sanitized new records also refused to budge, a frustrated Feathers left King. He bounced around from label to label, continuing to perform until his death in 1998. In 2003, director Quentin Tarantino resurrected a couple Feathers songs for his “Kill Bill” films.
Bluegrass legends Carter and Ralph Stanley were already stars when they signed to King in 1958. That fall, the duo released one of the genre’s landmark albums, an untitled recorded nicknamed after its catalog number, King 615. Along with old-timey mountain music, the Brothers recorded gospel and even R&B numbers, putting their stamp on Hank Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time.” The Stanley Brothers reached new audiences during the folk revival of the early ‘60s, and cut their final album for King in 1965. Carter Stanley died the following year, but his Ralph kept the flame alive. In 2006, Ralph Stanley found improbable acclaim for his a cappella reading of “O Death” on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.
Little Willie John
Soul singer Little Willie John had one of the longer tenures at King, spending one third of his life on the label. Unfortunately, John only lived to 30 and all his success came early. The Detroit native was just 18 when he landed his first big hit, “All Around the World.” In the next few years, John racked up 10 more To 20 R&B hits, including his signature number, “Fever.” A has-been at 25, John struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. He was charged with manslaughter after stabbing a man to death following a concert in Seattle. In 1968, John died in prison.
(Below: “Can’t Hardly Stand It” was one of several great rockabilly songs Charlie Feathers cut for King in the 1950s.)