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.