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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.

Keep reading:

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

Key King Artists

The True Story of Cadillac Records

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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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BoDiddleyGunslinger

Above: Musical pioneer Bo Diddley was cruelly excluded from the “Cadillac Records” story.

By Joel Francis

With Willie Dixon feeding steady hits to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other Chess artists, the label had become a driving force of popular taste less than a decade after it was founded. While blues were the label’s backbone, the Chess brothers had a hand in nearly every facet of African-American music – from doo-wop groups like the Moonglows and Flamingos and jazz pianists Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis to the comedy styling of Moms Mabley and sermons by Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father. Starting in 1963, Chess even had its own Chicago radio station, WVON, Voice of the Negro, which is still on the air today.

Chess introduced the world to rock and roll in 1951 when it released Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” Four years later, two new Chess artists helped rock and roll grow up in a hurry.

Chuck Berry was discovered by Muddy Waters while on vacation to St. Louis. Berry’s upbeat blues were spiked with country and given a teenage twist. Songs about work became songs about school; his love songs were less dark and more playful. Berry was a poet, capable of packing more syllables per stanza than any other singer. Consider the imagery and complexity in the familiar opening lines Berry’s legendary “Johnny B. Goode:” “Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens.” Berry’s guitar was just as active as his mouth. His quick fingers brought the blues at twice the tempo and his athletic solos made him the first guitar hero.

If Chuck Berry’s souped-up songs took the blues to the teen market in the guise of rock and roll, Bo Diddley’s African rhythms gave them a beat everyone could dance to. Diddley was born Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss. but took the last name McDaniel from his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, with whom he moved to Chicago as a child in 1934.  Diddley’s songs were downright primitive compared to Berry’s, but no less powerful or influential. His shave-and-a-haircut beat was the backbone for many of his own hits like “Bo Diddley,” and “Who Do You Love,” and countless imitators like Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive” and Bruce Sprinsteen’s “She’s the One.” Diddley produced strange sounds from homemade guitars, while Jerome Green’s maracas fueled the relentless beat. Diddley and Green’s back-and-forth on “Say Man” is one of the earliest recorded raps.

The 1960s were a boon for Chess. New stars like Etta James kept the label at the top of the charts while Chuck Berry was in jail. Rock and roll may have knocked Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf from their perches at the top of the charts, but their old singles found a huge white audience in England. Teenagers who bought guitars to form skiffle bands were suddenly playing Willie Dixon’s songs and ravenous for Chicago’s blues. Dixon obliged them, organizing several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe. In return, the British Invasion bands brought Chess music back to America with them, introducing white America to the music its dark-skinned brothers and sisters had been enjoying decades. Waters, Wolf and the rest of the Chess stable were suddenly pulled from the chitlin circuit to colleges, theaters and festivals.

Chess responded to the changing marketplace in several ways. Before then, most Chess releases were 45 rpm singles. Now the brothers started packaging their hits together into LP records. Decade-old Sonny Boy Williamson tracks appeared on a “Real Folk Blues” compilation designed to appeal to the hootenanny crowd. Later, classic Waters and Wolf tunes were given psychedelic updates for the Summer of Love.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part One: The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues
Part Three: The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

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