Talking King Records with Jon Hartley Fox

(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.

Keep reading:

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

Key King Artists

The True Story of Cadillac Records


Review – “King of the Queen City”

(Above: The Delmore Brothers landed a hit with “Blues Stay Away From Me” in 1949 on King Records.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

In a musical landscape that lionizes pioneering indie labels Chess, Motown and Atlantic, Cincinnati’s King Records is at best remembered as a footnote and the early home of James Brown.

Author Jon Hartley Fox aims to correct that perspective with his new book “King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records.” While Brown receives his due, Fox spends a great deal of time making the case that King was the most diverse and innovative label of its time.

King Records was founded in 1943 by Syd Nathan, a 40-year-old Cincinnati businessman with asthma and poor eyesight. Nathan’s got into the music business started by reselling old jukebox platters at the tail end of the depression. The venture proved so successful he opened Syd’s Record Shop on Cincinnati’s Central Avenue in 1940.

The first artists Nathan signed to King were Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis. Their success, coupled with the early hit “I’m Using My Bible for a Road Map,” led Nathan to advertise with the slogan, “If it’s a King, it’s a hillbilly.”

In 1945, Nathan dipped his toe in the waters of “race music” (the term “rhythm and blues” wouldn’t be coined for another three years), with Queen Records. The success of early artists like Bull Moose Johnson led the subsidiary to be moved onto the proper King label.

Nathan’s pursuit to make records for the “little man” took him into nearly every conceivable genre of music. Throughout his quarter century at the helm of King, the label produced hits on the country, blues, gospel, pop, R&B and jazz charts. A cross section of King’s staggeringly diverse roster includes Freddie King, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Stanley Brothers, Homer and Jethro and, briefly, John Lee Hooker, Hot Lips Page and Johnny Otis.

The label’s biggest artist, however, nearly didn’t make it out of the studio. James Brown came to King through a demo of “Please, Please, Please.” Nathan hated the track with a passion, and released it only to humiliate the producer, who staked his career on its success. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business went on to have an unprecedented string of hits on King beginning with “Please, Please, Please” 1956 and continuing until 1971, when Brown and his back catalog moved to Polydor.

The label’s success went beyond its across-the-board chart triumphs. In the early 1940s it was the first independent label to have its own fully functioning recording studio. Nathan was also at the vanguard of race relations, hiring black producers to supervise sessions with white musicians. Eight years before the hometown Cincinnati Reds would let blacks and whites play on the same team, Nathan had integrated crews in nearly every facet of the label.

Clearly, Fox has a lot of ground to cover in his book, and he does a good job of presenting the material in easy-to-digest portions. Each chapter covers a different facet of the label, such as country, gospel, solo or group R&B acts, production and distribution. From one-hit wonders to major performers, Fox does a good job breaking down the biographies of all the key players. In one or two pages, Fox paints a tight picture of everything the subject did before, during and after King. In that regard, the book functions almost as well as an encyclopedia of mid-century, Midwestern performers.

That approach, however, can also suffer from losing sight of the forest from all the trees. Nathan’s persona could have provided an easy and useful narrative thread, but he disappears for pages at a time. We don’t learn about his failing health until Fox casually mentions Nathan had a heart attack during a treatise on Brown. We also don’t learn much about Nathan’s personality – when he showed up at the office, his lifestyle, where he lived or his personal life.

The book’s timing also puts Fox at a disadvantage. Nathan died in 1968 and Brown in 2006. Most of the other performers are also deceased, giving Fox few primary sources to work with. Despite these difficulties, Fox proves himself a good researcher who draws on previously published material and interviews to tell his story.

The concise book covers a lot of territory in just over 200 pages. “King of the Queen City” is a brief but compelling work that should be devoured by music historians, both professional and amateur.