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(Michael Buble and Chris Isaak pay tribute to Kansas City by performing Lieber and Stoller’s classic song during a 2007 tour stop in Chicago.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Chris Isaak has made a career working of the blueprint established by Elvis Presley. The debt is apparent in Isaak’s music, hairstyle and demeanor, a cool, effortless charm to the humor and charisma that plays equally well in both music and acting. So it’s only natural, then, that Isaak pay homage to Sun Records, the label that launched Presley.

Friday’s 90-minute show before a packed Uptown Theater paid homage to Sun and underlined its connection to Isaak’s own 26-year- old catalog. “Don’t Leave Me On My Own” sounded like a cross between “Wooden Heart” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”; “Let Me Down Easy” could have been a lost Presley single. During “American Boy” Isaak raised his arms and shook his hips with a vigor that would have landed him in trouble on the Ed Sullivan Show.

After driving through some of his favorite originals -– including a stretched-out “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing” and reliably hypnotic “Wicked Games” -– Isaak devoted the second half of the night to Sun. The arrangements stayed faithful to the original recordings, but the crowd’s energetic response showed there is still a hunger for this material.

It takes courage to cover songs as beloved and well-known as “Ring of Fire” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Isaak pulled it off, in part because those songs are right in his wheelhouse anyway, but also because of his obvious respect for, and love of, the material. The upbeat numbers also gave guitarist Hershel Yatovitz plenty of space to unleash several of his rowdiest solos.

Isaak performed most of the main set wearing a sparkly, sequined ensemble that looked like a Nudie suit designed by Lady Gaga. He poked fun of the outfit several times during the night and emerged for the encore in an even more outrageous mirror ball suit.

The tone was warm and casual. Both Isaak and Yatovitz ventured into the crowd. After winding through the main level during “Don’t Leave Me On My Own,” (with frequent stops for pictures) Isaak delivered “Love Me Tender” from the front of the balcony. Later, Isaak introduced pianist Scott Plunkett as the type of musician children could look up to. After the applause died, Parker promptly produced a large bottle from his piano and took a long swig.

Fans still shuffling to their seats three songs into the set probably regretted their truancy. Although Isaak performed a generous two-dozen songs, most of the songs delivered could have fit comfortably on the A-side of a 45. Isaak ended the night with a gorgeous solo acoustic version of “Forever Blue.” The ending seemed premature, but at the same time it didn’t feel like he’d left anything out.

Setlist: Beautiful Homes, Dancin’, Somebody’s Crying, Don’t Leave Me On My Own, Love Me Tender, I Want Your Love, San Francisco Days, Wicked Games, Speak of the Devil, Let Me Down Easy, Go Walking Down There > American Boy, Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing, My Happiness > Ring of Fire, Dixie Fried, How’s the World Treating You?, Live It Up, Miss Pearl, Great Balls of Fire. Encore: Blue Hotel, Big Wide Wonderful World, Can’t Help Falling In Love, (Oh) Pretty Woman, Forever Blue.

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(Above: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform a devastating cover of Radiohead’s “Black Star.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

The stage was adorned simply: two microphones, a pair of guitars, a banjo and a small black table set against a black curtained backdrop. In many ways it looked like the set-up for a radio show. The large banner advertising flour, soap flakes, a healing elixir or some other bygone product of American industry was implied.

For just over two hours on Sunday night, folk musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings delivered a spellbinding set to a near capacity Liberty Hall. The pair has been recording together for 15 years, but its music stretches back much further, back to the days of Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family and even Stephen Foster.

Rawlings provided the texture and coloring to Welch’s songs of isolation, desperate hearts, outcasts and murder. He coaxed many impressive solos out of his antique f-hole guitar, particularly on “Down Along the Dixie Line” and “Revelator,” the pair’s signature tune. The subject matter may have been bleak, but Welch’s  haunting voice and memorable storytelling, coupled with the duo’s understated but impressive arrangements made the material a joy to absorb.

They are touring behind their first album in eight years, “The Harrow and the Harvest.” All but one of the album’s songs found their way into the setlist, along with a handful of tracks from their four previous albums and a few surprising covers.

A well-schooled audience burst into applause at the opening notes of most songs, but then quickly quieted down to listen to every note. During the banjo-led songs “Rock of Ages” and “Six White Horses” the crowd stomped along so enthusiastically, the floor bounced along with it. Reverence was also broken when fans sang along with “Elvis Presley Blues.” David Rawlings’ side trip into Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” briefly turned into a hootenanny.

It might be tempting to write off Welch and Rawlings as a museum act, but the vitality and vibrancy of their performance make them impossible to dismiss. Their choice of covers was also shows pair refuses to be sealed in an antique vacuum. The set-closing cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” found Rawlings framing the song with Spanish flamenco flourishes.

A spellbinding reading of Radiohead’s “Black Star” – complete with a delicate introduction that showcased a conversation between guitars – was the evening’s best moment. The duo opened with “Orphan Girl,” the song Emmylou Harris recorded before Welch had a record deal to announce her talent.

Setlist: Orphan Girl; Scarlet Town; The Way It Will Be; The Way It Goes; Rock Of Ages; Wayside/Back In Time; I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll; Black Star (Radiohead cover); Dark Turn of Mind; Dusty Boxcar Wall (Eric Andersen cover). Intermission. Hard Times; Down Along the Dixie Line; Elvis Presley Blues; Six White Horses; Look At Miss Ohio; I Hear Them All > This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie cover); Tennessee; Caleb Meyer. Encore 1: Revelator. Encore 2: The Way The Whole Thing Ends; White Rabbits (Jefferson Airplane cover).

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(Above: Paul McCartney goes to Kansas City with a little help from his friends.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Big Apple has “New York, New York,” “Empire State of Mind” and dozens more. The Windy City has “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Tom Waits gifted the Twin Cities with not one but two songs (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and “9th and Hennipen”). Visitors to the Bay City are encouraged to “wear some flowers in (their) hair” while the City of Angels gets “California Love,” “Beverly Hills” and “Hollywood Swingin’.” Heck, the even the Gateway City has “St. Louis Blues.”

But there’s only one universally known song about my hometown: “Kansas City.” (Only obsessive music fans and listeners of a certain age will recall “Everything Is Up To Date in Kansas City” and “Train to Kansas City.”) When listening to Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong boast about other American cities I try to find comfort reminding myself that the Beatles only sang about one city during their career and they chose “Kansas City.”

“Kansas City” is the only song visiting performers feel obliged to work into their setlist. Willie Nelson played it at Farm Aid earlier this month and Paul McCartney used it to open his 1993 show at Arrowhead Stadium (the recording from that night also appears the album “Paul Is Live”). I’ve heard the song so many times in concert I feel like someone should tell all touring acts that no, really, they don’t have to play “Kansas City” on our behalf.

It’s not like the song is invisible around town. Twelfth Street and Vine may be gone (typical of my hometown – undermining its greatest assets), but the song is still very present. Go to a Royals game and if you stick around until the end you are guaranteed to hear “Kansas City.” If the boys in blue win, fans are treated to the Beatles version. If they lose then Wilbert Harrison is piped through the speakers.

“Kansas City” was seven years old by the time Harrison got his hands on it. Originally recorded by bluesman Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, the song was written by a couple of 19-year-old Jews inspired by a Big Joe Turner record. Littlefield’s performance featured a somewhat racier chorus, ending with the line “with my Kansas City baby and some Kansas City wine.” When Federal Records received Littlefield’s recording they promptly rechristened it “K.C. Lovin’.”

Wilbert Harrison

Harrison had been performing “K.C. Lovin’” for years before he decided to record it in 1959 under its original title and with the sanitized chorus we all know today. Released on Fury Records, the platter went straight to No. 1 and spawned an army of imitators. Within weeks, interpretations of “Kansas City” by Hank Ballard, Rockin’ Ronald, Little Richard, Rocky Olson and a reissue of Littlefield’s original recording could be found in record shops. Paired with his own “Hey Hey Hey,” Little Richard’s cover hit No. 27 in the UK and inspired the Beatles’ recording.

The men – boys, really – who penned “Kansas City” wouldn’t visit the town that inspired their song until the mid-‘80s, nearly 35 years after handing the tune to Littlefield. Despite this handicap, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller nailed their vision of “a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City,” as Stoller later explained on a UK television show.

Hot on the heels of “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City” cemented Leiber and Stoller’s reputation as rock and roll’s hottest songwriters. Before the decade was out they would write scores of hit songs for the biggest singers of the day – Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Phil Spector, Ben E. King and, especially, the Coasters – and shape the young days of rock and roll more than anyone else. A sampling of their songs from the time reads like an early rock and roll greatest hits collection: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block Nine,” “On Broadway,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and on and on.

Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller show the King of Rock and Roll his next hit.

The duo’s use of strings on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” predates (and foreshadows) the Motown sound that would dominate pop music in the coming decade. In fact many of their arrangements and innovations were so prescient that Leiber and Stoller found themselves on the sidelines for much of the 1960s. The Beatles and other British Invasion bands learned to write emulating Leiber and Stoller and other Brill Building songwriters, making third-party songwriters largely redundant. The expansive use of the recording studio rendered Leiber and Stoller’s pioneering arrangements sounding (for a while) like quaint relics of the past.

Despite these advancements, rock and roll and pop music will never outgrow the shadow of Leiber and Stoller. Grammy awards, hall of fame inductions and songwriting royalties stand as a testament to Leiber and Stoller’s perpetual influence. Even “American Idol” paused to pay tribute with an all Leiber-and-Stoller episode last spring.

Jerry Leiber, 78, died Monday. His survivors include Mike Stoller, his songwriting partner of 60 years, his family and everyone who ever picked up the guitar or sat down at the piano and tried to write a song or become a star.

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 (Above: The voice of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn, transforms “Eight Miles High” and shows off his guitar chops with this stunning acoustic arrangement.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The stage was empty, but the sound was unmistakable. The shimmering jangle from the 12-string blonde Rickenbacker guitar rang clear throughout the Folly Theater as Roger McGuinn, voice and architect of the Byrds, strolled out casually from stage right. The chorus of the opening song, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” resonated throughout the night: “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”

For the next 100 minutes, McGuinn treated the two-thirds full theater to a stroll through his back pages, or, more specifically the music that influenced the sound of the Byrds and his songwriting. It took McGuinn half a hour to work his way up to the rock and roll era. He explained a reworking of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire” ended up as “She Don’t Care About Time,” a Byrds b-side, sang a sailor chanty, a spiritual and paid homage to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. He also used his own “Chestnut Mare” as an example of the cowboy songs from the old West.

These performances were interesting as a musical history lesson, but the show didn’t really take off until Elvis entered the building. Calling the transistor radio the iPod of its day, McGuinn explained how the portable radio freed him from having to listen to his parents’ music (and vice versa). The thrill of watching Presley inspired McGuinn to get his first guitar.

Now inspired, McGuinn told the audience about his lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where each week not only was a new song taught but several different styles of playing it. From there he took the crowd on a expedition through the Limeliters and Chad Mitchell Trio in Los Angeles into Bobby Darin’s band before landing at the Brill Building in New York City.

It was there McGuinn first heard the Beatles and recognized the folk-chord structures they used. Alone in his vision to marry folk with the British Invasion, McGuin fled the Greenwich Villagescene for the Troubador in Los Angeles where he met Missouri native Gene Clark and group that would become the Byrds were born.

Each adventure was illuminated by a musical representation of the time, from the Limeliter’s “There’s A Meeting Here Tonight” and Joan Baez’ “Silver Dagger” to “You Showed Me,” the first song McGuinn and Clark wrote together, which later became a Top 10 hit for the Turtles.

McGuinn performed most of the set seated on a piano bench at center stage. The only musician onstage, he was surrounded by four instruments, an acoustic and electric 12-string guitar, a 7-string guitar and a banjo. The open cases around him made McGuinn look like a posh busker.

The crowd relished every note and story. The room was often so quiet you could hear McGuinn’s pick hitting the strings. He frequently had to prod the audience to get involved, even singing the chorus on major songs like “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” another Dylan cover.

Although his tenor voice had lost some of its range, McGuinn’s singing was strong and his guitar playing was impressive. The best moment was a fascinating new arrangement of “Eight Miles High” that was more Ravi Shankar than Timothy Leary. Appropriately, the autobiographical journey ended with a relatively recent song, “May the Road Rise To Meet You.”

Set List: My Back Pages; She Don’t Care About Time; Leave Her Johnny, Leave Her (Time For Us To Leave Her); Old Blue; Chestnut Mare; Pretty Boy Floyd; Rock Island Line; Heartbreak Hotel (excerpt); Unknown Spiritual; There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight; Silver Dagger; Gambler’s Blues (aka St. James Infirmary); The Water Is Wide; You Showed Me; Mr. Tambourine Man; You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere; Mr. Spaceman; Dreamland; Up To Me; Eight Miles High; Turn, Turn, Turn. Encore: Feel A Whole Lot Better; Bells of Rhymney; May The Road Rise To Meet You.

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(Above: The crew at Championship Vinyl discuss their favorite Side 1, Track 1′s in the ultimate record store flick “High Fidelity.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Music fans geeked out for Record Store Day, have a new bedside companion until the next incarnation of the annual event. In “Record Store Days,” Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo have loving assembled a history of their musical Mecca.

The tome operates on several levels. The bountiful pictures that depict the stacks, musicians and proprietors of record shops qualify the book as a fetish object. It’s easy to get lost in the details, such as trying to identify the covers on display during Elvis Presley’s trip to a Memphis shop, or getting lost in the promotion displays in a picture the counter at The Holiday Shop, a Roeland Park, Kan. store in the 1950s.

The chapters are quickly paced, and contain lots of headers, so they can be read in bits and pieces. There are nearly as many sidebars as photos. The insets tell the stories behind the most outlandish names, like Minneapolis’ Oarjokefolkopus or Los Angeles’ Licorice Pizza, chronicle the history of record stores in movies, and tell about finding that first love in the racks – musical or otherwise. Along the way, plenty of musicians, owners and fans relate their favorite vinyl experiences.

Finally, the book offers a comprehensive history of the independent retail industry. The story starts at the turn of the last century, when records were sold in furniture stores as an accoutrement to Victrolas and other record players. Like everything else, music sales declined during the Depression, and the materials used to create the platters were scarce during World War II.

The record store as we know it blossomed in the 1950s, and enjoyed a heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s. The spaces almost became alternative community centers, where music fans would swap songs and stories while digging for the latest gem.

The final half of the book also serves as a cautionary tale of the industry. CDs gradually replace vinyl, but when the bubble bursts in the late ‘90s, neither the major labels nor the stores have anything to replace them. Particularly telling is the story behind SoundScan, the computer-based sales tabulator that destroyed the manipulative hand tallying.

“Record Store Days” ends on a happy note, with the opening of Amoeba on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and the recent resurgence of vinyl. The final chapter discusses the founding of Record Store Day and is sunny enough to convince anyone to hop in their car and run to a record shop as soon as they finish the page. The book doesn’t try to be objective. It reads like a loving embrace written by people who love vinyl, for record fans.

The book’s biggest flaw is that too much of the action is centered in Los Angeles and New York. There are some mentions of Criminal Records in Atlanta, Waterloo in Austin, Texas and Oarjokefolkopus, but little else occurs between the coasts. Some love for the great college town record shops would have been a welcome – and diverse – addition.

Calamar and Gallo are not out to convert new fans to the cult of vinyl, and readers will quickly know if they are in the target audience. (Hint: If you don’t think it’s cool that the record on the cover actually has grooves, this book likely isn’t for you.) The duo knows the next best experience to being in a record store is reading about record stores, and their offering does a great job of taking fans there.

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(Above: Blues guitarist Freddie King was one of several King artists to get pinched when James Brown’s career started taking off.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Jon Fox Hartley is the author of the book “King of the Queen City” about King Records in Cincinnati. From 1943 to 1968, King was the home of James Brown, Freddie King, Grandpa Jones and countless other musicians. While other independent labels of the time concentrated on one type of music, King founder Syd Nathan wanted to produce “music for the little man” in all genres.

Fox , a native of Dayton, Ohio who now lives in California, recently took the time to speak with The Daily Record over the phone.

In the book, you make the case for several forgotten artists, such as Henry Glover, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown and the Dominoes. These pioneers made important contributions to music, but have been ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why do you think they have been overlooked and haven’t received the recognition they deserve?

I think the first reason is that they’re all dead and have been for several years. Because of that, there’s no one to go to award shows and remind people they haven’t been elected. Also, because of the haphazard status of King reissues, records on King weren’t as available and presented as well as those on other labels. Finally, while all of these artists had pop success, they weren’t pop artist with large audiences. They were niche artists.

I would think that Wynonie Harris has a pretty good shot at getting in (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Henry Glover’s daughter has talked to me about putting together some kind of campaign to get Henry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Country Music Hall of Fame.

Jon Hartley Fox

In the book you also make the case for “Good Rockin’ Tonight” as the first rock and roll song. Why do you believe “Good Rockin’” that title over “Rocket 88”? How does acknowledging “Good Rockin’,” which was recorded in 1948, change our perspective of the landscape of early rock and roll?

It’s funny, because I made this argument in the book but hadn’t thought I’d have to explain or defend it. Right before the book came out, my wife says “You know you’re going to have to talk about that.” And she was right, because everyone has asked.

It’s a backwards process. You start with a song acknowledged as rock and roll, like “Rocket 88.” Then you break down the attributes that make it rock as opposed to jump blues or country. There’s a certain beat, a certain attitude and the subject matter of the lyrics aimed at kids. There’s also the aggressive, hyper-charged vocals.  Once you have those attributes of what makes a song rock and roll, you can apply them to other songs and see if they measure up.

For me, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” makes a strong case. It was the first post-war song to use “rockin’” in the sense of having a good time. “We’re going to party tonight.” It was also one of the first songs to be bought and listened to by white teenagers. The trend crested in the ‘50s, but as early as late ‘40s, white kids were buying these songs and listening to them on the radio.

If you take “Good Rockin’ Tonight” as the first rock and roll song over something by Bill Haley and the Comets or Elvis Presley or Jackie Brenston, it changes our understanding that rock and roll was something brand new that popped on the scene fully formed. It coincides with the evolution of a lot of things reflected in the music people in the upper South and Midwest heard on radio stations out of Memphis and Nashville. You’d hear country, gospel, jump blues, R&B and country boogie on those stations. Then you realize everything that went into rock and roll wasn’t a market creation so much as young people coming of age hearing the music of the ‘40s and synthesizing them.

Describe King founder Syd Nathan. What kind of a person was he? How did he live? How did his personality compare to other independent label owners of the time like, say, Leonard Chess or Berry Gordy?

When I talked to people about Syd Nathan, the word that invariably came up was “character,” as in He was a real character. He was kind of like someone out of a short story. He was tight with a penny, but generous sometimes. He was ahead of the race line culturally and politically, but could tell the crudest racist joke. He was a fun guy but abusive and could push people to the brink of mayhem.

A lot of people got mad at Syd Nathan, but few stayed mad at him. He was gregarious and loved to be surrounded by people. He was the guy holding court in the corner booth at the bar.

In talking to people who worked for and knew Syd Nathan, everyone respected him. Everyone had Syd stories. It is rare to find anybody who will badmouth Syd Nathan these days. I think that’s partly out of nostalgia, but I also think on a day-to-day basis he was probably a real good guy.

There are several stories about Syd’s anger, but I think he used those temper tantrums in the studio to get results out of people. He was trying to get the artist fired up. If he thought there was a spark missing from the performance, he would pick a fight to get the artist fired up. I think these fights were calculated, because Syd never held a grudge and no one stayed mad.

Compared to Leonard Chess or Berry Gordy, Syd Nathan was certainly more expansive musically than either man. He didn’t want to limit himself to one style of music; he wanted to try it all.

I really don’t know this for sure, but I think Syd was probably a little more progressive on race matters than Leonard Chess. I often thought of this while researching the book. At King, Henry Glover would write songs, play on sessions and produce. He was a highly valued vice president of the company. At Chess, Willie Dixon filled many of the same roles, but his day job was as a janitor at Chess.

I had long heard a rumor that during World War II Nathan had 30 or 40 Japanese-Americans working for him. I thought that was unusual because on the West Coast these people were being sent to internment camps.

Well I asked somebody who knew Syd at a book signing. He told me Syd was working with a religious political action group trying to relocate people about to be interred. Syd accepted about 30 to 40 families. They were American citizens, but if they’d stayed at home they would have been locked up. Syd moved them all to Cincinnati where they lived in an apartment complex on the bus line so they could come in to King and work each day.

Most labels find one niche and exploit it. Why do you think King was so successful in so many varied genres?

I think they were successful because they wanted to be and weren’t afraid to try. Syd realized he could make more money if he didn’t specialize in one kind of music, but did a lot of different things. Before the days of record stores, only two or three shops in a town would sell records back in the corner. They’d sell what they got from wherever. Syd saw that specializing was leaving money on the table so if they wanted gospel, he had gospel records for them. Same thing for blues, country, R&B, whatever.

Syd also realized that the song sold the record more than the style or performer. If he thought a song was good, he’d record it in several different styles. Once in a while he was right, and the same song was a hit on the country and R&B charts by different performers.

Once the major labels smelled money and figured out what King and other independent labels were doing they would swoop in and take it away. Syd knew the more diverse he could make King the more control he would have and the more success was guaranteed.

One often hears of a hit record ruining a company, like the Beatles and Vee-Jay. How was King able to sustain the massive popularity of James Brown? Did Brown’s success come at the price of other artists on the label?

To answer the last part first, yeah, Brown sometimes hurt other artists. Freddie King was very vocal about why he left King. One of his reasons was that all the promotional muscle and ad money went to James Brown. There were certainly others who felt his success came at their expense.

King built a huge infrastructure in the ‘40s and ‘50s. They had their own pressing plant and printing facilities to make covers; the studio was in house. The infrastructure took a certain amount of volume to make it profitable.

Right about the time they got it perfected in the mid-‘50s, business started to fall off. But just as the market started to decrease, along comes James Brown. Here was an infrastructure dedicated to James Brown, because frankly there weren’t many other artists left.

Had James’ success hit at a busier time, he might have swamped them. Other labels might not have been able to keep up with demand or gotten paid. That wasn’t a factor at King because they controlled their pressing. If they needed 100,000 James Brown records shipped out, they could get it done. They didn’t have to stand in line like other labels did.

In one of the last chapters you discuss the difficulties King supporters have faced in trying to get the label complex the landmark recognition it deserves. Other than the unveiling of a plaque in 2008, why has King yet to be recognized by the city of Cincinnati?

Again, I think this is in part because the principals are all dead or moved away a long time ago. There’s no real physical presence. The ice house complex (the former King building) is an ugly building in an industrial facility in a funky part of town. With the label’s move to Nashville in the ‘70s, there’s nothing to memorialize. About the only thing to do is put something on the building, and now they’ve got that done.

People have been trying for years to get something done with the old facility. A group at Xavier University in Cincinnati is the latest to try. They want to build a King museum with a recording studio and training facility for youth. We’ll see how this goes. It seems something like this gets proposed every 10 years.

The important thing about King is the spirit of it and I don’t know how to memorialize that. King was never about the facility, it was the spirit and idea of making records.

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 (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.

Bill Doggett
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.

Swan Silvertones
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.

Charlie Feathers
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.

Stanley Brothers
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.)

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 (Above: Elvis brings a mid-year Christmas to Kemper Arena in 1977.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When Elvis Presley, who would have celebrated his 75th birthday today, rolled into Kansas City for the first of two concerts at Kemper Arena, he was far from the hungry, hunky artist who terrorized parents and could only be shown on television from the waist down.

Presley played the arena twice in the last 18 months of his life. Although the monarchy was waning, the King could still captivate a crowd. Jess Ritter wrote about Presley’s initial show on April 21, 1976, in the Kansas City Times.

“From the moment (Elvis) strode onstage last night, though, he proved clearly that, at age 41, he is still one of the most charismatic entertainers in America,” Ritter wrote. “Elvis worked hard in his stint, which lasted well over an hour. The punk hip gyrations of the past are gone and all his movements are carefully choreographed, but they are vividly real – and insinuating. In his ice-blue shirt, white singlet and tight white pants encircled at the waist with a massive rhinestone belt, Elvis dominated the stage without trying too hard.”

Ritter doesn’t mention many of the songs played in the brief review, focusing instead on Presley’s medical conditions and history. The only number mentioned by name was “Return to Sender.”

Presley’s bicentennial show wasn’t his first stop in town. He played Municipal Auditorium – the biggest concert hall in town prior to the construction of Kemper Arena – in 1971 and 1974. The venue was also the site of Presley’s only previous Kansas City concert, on May 24, 1956.

Such frequent performances were part of the King’s new motif. After the success of his ’68 Comeback Special, Presley ditched Hollywood and returned to the stage. The TCB Band, anchored by former Ricky Nelson guitarist James Burton, accompanied him on most of those occasions.

The band that rolled into Kemper 14 months later, in June, 1977, was more or less the same, with two exceptions. Drummer Larry London had replaced Ronnie Tutt, who left to join the Grateful Dead Jerry Garcia Band. Tony Brown debuted with the band that night on keyboards – without the benefit of any rehearsals.

Brown, now a Nashville music executive, spoke with an Australian Elvis fan site about his time in the TCB Band. He said Presley liked to surprise the band. One night the King called for “Blueberry Hill, which wasn’t in the repertoire.

“I just started playing the rhythm of the song, you know,” Brown said. “This is in front of, like, 20,000 people. I’m sweating. I mean you can feel the water rolling.”

Brown suffered the collective skunk eye from his bandmates until Presley bailed him out.

“Elvis says, ‘That’s not the way it goes,’ walks over to the piano, sits down and plays something. Then the band kicks in,” Brown recalled. “He started singing it and got up and left and out in front and did the next couple of songs I was worthless. I mean total embarrassment, you know.”

While Brown fared better in his debut, his boss was not so lucky. Shifra Stein described the spectacle for the Kansas City Times.

“Looking in desperate need of a rest (Presley) drank frequently on stage from a paper cup. Sometimes he stood to one side, eyes closed, and let his show troupe take over for him,” Stein wrote. “At other times, in mocking self-parody, he ran through all his old songs – ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ ‘It’s Now or Never,’ ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and so on. In several instances he forgot his lyrics, and at one point sang ‘My Way’ reading the lyrics from a paper, explaining to the audience ‘I can’t remember the words.’”

But the sold-out crowd didn’t care.

“The arena was filled with thousands of aging teenagers,” Stein wrote, “mostly women in their 30s whose voices rose to a maddened shriek when their beloved idol climbed on stage about 10 p.m.”

They bought $5 belt buckles, “souvenir programs with poorly reproduced Elvis photos for $3” and snapped up tickets being scalped for $50. Stein estimated the evening “represented almost one-quarter of a million dollars in profit for Presley who is currently raking it in on tour across the country.”

The concerts were the crown jewel of Kansas City’s return to national prominence at a time when the city boasted Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA and NHL franchises and hosted the 1976 Republican National Convention. Although an outdated relic today, Kemper Arena was the bait that lured the NHL and NBA teams and RNC to town.

The night after Presley played Kemper, his band took the stage in Omaha, Neb. That performance and the following nights in Lincoln, Neb. and Rapid City, S.D. were immortalized on the album “Elvis in Concert.” Just five nights later, Presley concluded his spring tour in Indianapolis. That June 26 concert, little more than a week after his performance in Kansas City, would be his last. Six weeks later, Presley was dead.

Setlist: Elvis Presley, Kemper Arena, June 18, 1977

2001 Theme, See See Rider, I Got A Woman, Amen, That’s All Right, Blue Christmas, Are you Lonesome Tonight?, Big Boss Man, Love Me, Jailhouse Rock, O Sole Mio, It’s Now or Never, Little Sister, Teddy Bear, Don’t Be Cruel, And I Love You So, My Way, Early Morning Rain, What’d I Say, Johnny B. Goode, I Really Don’t Want to Know, Hurt, Hound Dog, Can’t Help Falling In Love, Closing Vamp

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(Above: Ornette Coleman jams with the Roots. Improbably, people respond positively to the non-traditional collaboration.)

By Joel Francis

In 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” Although the genre was only seven years removed from the its birth on the “Rocket 88” single and three years from its explosion into the mainstream with Elvis Presley, Danny White was right. Sixty years later, it is hard to imagine American culture without rock and roll.

It is also hard to imagine what the malt-shop teens and leather jacket hoods of the Eisenhower administration would have thought about auto-tune, power pop and nu-metal. Although the seeds of today’s rock were planted in the 1950s, the resulting flora has blossomed into hybrids that bear little resemblance to the original crop.

Picture how different today’s musical landscape would be if anything that varied from the pre-British Invasion strains of rock and roll were bastardized. If songs bearing the touch of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were decried as impure for straying from the “true” roots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.  Or if anything after the summer of punk and the rise of synthesizers was kept at arm’s length and segregated from the great Rock Cannon.

Would we expect our children to dig out old Bill Haley and Beach Boys albums if this were the case? Teach them “Fun Fun Fun” and “Maybelline” as historical exercises? Of course not. They would shrug, pay us lip service and invent their own confounding strain of music. The ties to existing music would be obvious – nothing emerges in a vacuum – but nothing we couldn’t dismiss as the impure follies of youth.

Why, then, do we place the same parameters around jazz and feign surprise with then inevitable occurs?

It seems every year a new study comes out showing the median age of jazz listeners climbs while attendance drops. The latest is a National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted through the U.S. Census Bureau. Predictably, the self-appointed Guardians of Jazz like Wall Street Journal columnist and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout are freaking out. But all this hand-wringing is like an ordinary bicycle enthusiast fretting while the chain-driven model populates the streets. The vehicle is still very much alive, it’s just been modified and influenced by culture.

Too many jazz museums and concert curators suffer from WWWS: What would Wynton say. Would Wynton Marsails, the genre’s most prominent performer and steadfast caretaker, approve of their exhibit or event? While Marsalis is a talent trumpet player who deserves every bit of his fame and credit for bringing jazz to the masses, he is conservative and traditionalist to a fault. Museum directors and concert promoters should be following their own muse and vision, not looking to someone as restrictive as Marsalis for tacit endorsement.

The growth of jazz from Dixieland to big band to bebop is celebrated, but somewhere along the line – about 1965, shortly before John Coltrane’s death, when free jazz and fusion started to creep into the mix – a line was drawn. In shorthand, acoustic Herbie Hancock playing with Miles Davis and recording for Blue Note is “good” jazz; synthesizer-rocking Hancock’s best-selling “Head Hunters,” though, is “bad.”

If directors and promoters must get the thumbs-up from a Marsalis, could it please be Branford? Although a lesser celebrity, the tenor saxophone player and older brother of Wynton has equally distinguished jazz pedigree. He’s also allowed jazz to grow, branching into pop with Sting, serving as musical director for the Tonight Show and working with hip hop artists.

If the stodgy stylistic caretakers turned up their noses when jazz artists, the highest pedigree of musicians, started dabbling in rock and funk, they have completely ignored most jazz performers slumming with rappers in a genre oft-maligned for possessing the lowest level of musicianship.

The elitists are missing the point. At their best, jazz and hip hop are better together than chocolate and peanut better. The improvisational aspect of jazz fits the free-flowing poetry delivered by a great MC. The swing of the instruments matches the swagger of the beats. Dig the way DJ Logic’s turntable work complements Medeski, Martin and Wood’s “Combustication” album, how Mos Def and Q-Tip’s rhymes soar over Ron Carter’s live basslines, or how Roy Hargrove’s trumpet pushes and accentuates Common’s poetry.

Teachout and Wynton Marsalis’ simplified stances ignore the long history of jazz in popular culture. The enduring standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” was plucked from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although both Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong released albums of Disney material, it is doubtful Wynton Marsalis would record a song from a children’s cartoon.

The Chicken Little jazz forecasts don’t show that jazz is less popular or interesting today. The news they bring is even more disturbing: hard evidence that the standard-bearers of the genre are increasing ignorant to how their beloved music has grown, changed and been embraced. They’re the ones missing the party, but don’t worry – their numbers are dwindling.

(Below: More Ornette Coleman with the Roots for all the alarmists. Note how well the musicians play together despite being from the disparate worlds of jazz and hip hop. Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse.)

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Chris Clark – “Love’s Gone Bad,” Pop #105, R&B #41

By Joel Francis

Producers had been looking for a “white singer with a black sound” long before Sam Phillips signed Elvis Presley. But Berry Gordy’s quest definitely added a layer of irony to the process.

Not that Gordy fared any better than the majority of his contemporaries. We can be fairly certain that the assets that drew Gordy to Chris Clark were not vocal.

Nonetheless, Gordy positioned Clark to be Motown – and America’s – answer to Dusty Springfield. He propped her up with songs by Holland-Dozier-Holland and even wrote and produced several numbers himself. Gordy’s favoritism didn’t go over so well at Hitsville. Other artists resented that Gordy spent so much time trying to make a star out of someone who refused to wear shoes, didn’t dress sharply and ate too much.

The public didn’t find much to like, either. Clark’s releases refused to dent the charts. “Love’s Gone Bad,” a HDH composition, was her greatest success, and somehow was enough to earn her the right to cut a full album the next year. 1967′s “Soul Sounds” dropped without a trace. So few copies were pressed that 40 years later it is a rare Motown collectible.

Despite all this, Clark managed to hang around Motown for quite a while. She co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay to “Lady Sings the Blues,” Motown’s 1972 foray into film. That film, of course, starred Gordy’s ultimate protégée, Diana Ross.

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