This is King Records, circa 1966. Behind the loading dock's
doors stood the King Recording Studio, where James Brown,
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and other performers
recorded. (Courtesy Lee Hazen.)
By Randy McNutt
One of Cincinnati's best-kept secrets, King Records, once forgotten by all but dedicated music enthusiasts, is now the happening thing. Its funky factory now has a historical marker, courtesy of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and people are talking about songs that have been dormant for half a century. This qualifies King for one of my "Subterranean Music Tours"--self-guided trips through an underworld of forgotten places that once rocked or shocked the nation.
Founded in 1943 by Cincinnati native Sydney Nathan, King Records operated at first from his record shop, and soon moved into a gothic old factory at 1540 Brewster Avenue in the Evanston neighborhood. King would reign for twenty-five years as America's largest and most innovative independent record company. I would go so far as to say that in the 1940s it was the nation's most prolific and largest independent roots music label--a distinction that King still holds. One reason for this is the company's depth. It had an active pressing plant that daily punched out tens of thousands of 45-rpm singles, LPs, and 78-rpm discs. Nathan did everything but make his own shipping cartons, and all under one roof. He could afford to take chances on long-shot singles. From his dreary factory he pressed discs for hillbillly crooners Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, R&B legends James Brown and the Famous Flames and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, country boogie greats Wayne Raney and the Delmore Brothers, and blues guitarist Freddy King.
Nathan and most of his stars are gone now, but their careers will live again if Xavier University is successful in opening a King Records museum. Although that too is a long shot, it might happen in time. But you don't have to wait to experience the King magic. You can travel into the musical past with only a car and a dream. To set the mood, bring along an audiocassette (no iPods or compact discs permitted) of Brown's prehistoric funk masterpiece "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag (Part 1)." It's a dance record, in case you didn't know, so feel free to tap the steering wheel and yell "Ain't That A Groove."
When you arrive at your first stop (call it your first take), listen closely. Above the steady humming of tires you might hear Brown's faded screams--"Hey, all right!"--from a parallel universe.
So, tourists, let's go, let's go, let's go!
The King factory, 1540 Brewster, is visible from Interstate 71, north of downtown Cincinnati. On the plant's left side is a concrete-block addition, behind the loading dock. This is hallowed ground, the King Recording Studio, where anybody could cut a record if he or she had the cash. Here, Ballard cut "The Twist"--the original version--in 1959, and guitarist Lonnie Mack made his instrumentals "Memphis" and "Wham!" for Fraternity Records in 1963. In 1971, when I was a kid songwriter signed to a fading Fraternity, I was among the last to see the historic studio intact, a day or so before it would be stripped and the King plant closed. On that cold night, promo man Bob "Mr. Movin'" Patton led us through the dim and silent building. In the studio, I stopped to touch the top of the Hammond B-3 organ that James Brown and Bill Doggett used on sessions. (At the Starday Studio near Nashville in 2000, I rediscovered that old B-3, unused for years and covered with boxes of recording tape.)
The alternative weekly City Beat is based at 811 Race Street. In the late 1940s, the second floor housed E.T. "Bucky" Herzog's recording studio, Herzog Recording.Herzog had been an audio engineer at WLW Radio before leaving to start his own studio. Early in King's run, Nathan recorded some acts in Bucky's home studio. Soon, Herzog relocated to Race Street and the big time. He once told me he had to ask Nathan to leave because he was too tough on the musicians. Nathan responded by opening his own studio in October 1947. But Herzog still had plenty of business: Hank Williams, Patti Page, Rex Allen. They came to Herzog's for the talented musicians, not the studio.
The Inner Circle, 2691 Vine Street, near the University of Cincinnati, is now Bogart's. The Circle hosted rock bands, and Brown visited regularly to search for new musicians, hot beats, and a little inspiration. One night, probably in 1968, he discovered a band that he would name the Dapps. While every other band in town seemed to be imitating the Beatles, these white guys were exploring soul and early funk and merging their licks with rock 'n' roll. At times the Dapps included Tim Drummond on bass, Tim Hedding on organ, and Beau Dollar on drums. The Dapps recorded for Brown at King, making a few singles for themselves and other acts. Then they broke up. But the sound of the Dapps still haunts the nightclub on Vine.
Dino's, 16 E. Sixth Street, is the one-time clothing store where Brown bought his hip threads. Back then, my young songwriting partner and I used to go around town looking for him, and laughing and shouting "Hey, all right!" When we finally saw Soul Brother No. 1 leaving Dino's one day, I exclaimed, "Wow! James Brown!" My friend just shrugged. "Oh, man," he said, "I see him all the time." Dino's claimed it helped create Brown's "fashion image," which I always thought was something of an oxymoron.
Union Baptist Cemetery, 4933 Cleves-Warsaw Road, in Cincinnati's West Price Hill neighborhood, is the resting place of Myron "Tiny" Bradshaw. At age 45 in 1950, the Youngstown, Ohio, native had his first King hit, "Well, Oh Well." By 1953, the bandleader had his fifth and final King hit, "Heavy Juice." His band performed in the Cotton Club, Cincinnati's first integrated nightclub. When he died in 1958, Bradshaw was buried in his adopted town's old black cemetery.
Unitl its demise in 1972, The Midwestern Hayride boomed from WLW Radio and WLWT (the television station) on Crosley Square, at Ninth and Elm Streets downtown, every Saturday night. The show provided King with a well of country talent, including popular vocalist Bonnie Lou; Zeke Turner, an original A-team country guitarist; and Louis Innis, a guitarist, songwriter, and major King operative. A Hayride quartet, the Hometowners, also recorded for King, and included Kenny Price (later of Hee-Haw fame). Other part-time Hayriders included King's own Cowboy Copas and Charlie Gore, who started on the show in 1949 and became a regional country star. He recorded for King from 1951 to 1956. He co-wrote Bonnie Lou's rockabilly hit "Daddy-O."
At the corner of Ohios 126 and 128 in Ross in Butler County, you'll find the Venice Pavilion, now an antiques mall. In the 1940s, however, the pavilion offered a slice of heaven--dancing, bowling, and country music. On its stage King star Copas sang "Filipino Baby" and "The Tennessee Waltz" on hot summer nights.
Shake It Records, 4156 Hamilton Avenue, in the Northside neighborhood, will end your tour. Browse through old records and new compilation compact discs that feature original King songs. Soon you'll understand why Cincinnati was the original Music City and why its visionary was Syd Nathan. Why isn't this man in the Country Music Hall of Fame?
Shout it out: "Hey, all right!"
Randy McNutt is the author of two pictorial histories, The Cincinnati Sound and King Records of Cincinnati, published by Arcadia Publishing Co. For more information, see Amazon.com or www.arcadiapublishing.com.