Richard Livingston Huntley
He's Keeping the Beat of King Records
Three drummers appear in Cincinnati King, the new play written and directed by KJ Sanchez and presented at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park. They are the late Sydney Nathan, a one-time drummer and the owner of King Records; veteran King side man Philip Paul; and Richard Huntley, an Austin-based drummer and the play’s music director who appreciates the colorful story behind the musicians, vocalists, and songwriters at the old Cincinnati label.
Huntley is the only one of the drummers who actually plays in the show. He performs with a crack combo that he assembled specifically for the production, which will run at the Playhouse through December 23.
The man who sits behind his own vintage 1960s drum set has been exploring the city’s musical past and present, including a visit to the old King headquarters on Brewster Avenue in the Evanston neighborhood. “The whole city’s music scene is legendary—and historic,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s such an honor to come here and meet Philip Paul and see where the King musicians played on all those great country and R&B hits.”
At ninety-three years old, the iconic Paul is still playing drums around town. Unfortunately, King closed its Cincinnati plant in 1971, after a run of twenty-eight years.
While the actors who play Nathan and Paul appear as important characters on stage, Huntley doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t have to. His smooth beats take us back to the early music of King Records of the 1940s and ’50s, when it laid the foundation of rock ’n’ roll.
Fortunately, I got to spend a couple of hours talking to him a week after the show opened. He is as great a conversationalist as he is a drummer. He has been devoted to music since he was a kid growing up in New York. His favorite style is jazz, but he can play any type of music—and enjoy it.
Huntley started his lifelong musical adventure when his mom enrolled him and his brother in piano lessons. But it was the drums that he was drawn to, and the power they provided. He paid for a drum set by using the money he earned from a paper route when he was only twelve years old. Even then, his mom would not let him keep them in the house. He had to move them to a neighbor’s basement, and that’s where he spent hours developing his craft. In a satisfying career that has taken him to over thirty countries, he has performed at important jazz and blues festivals and backed many jazz giants, including George Coleman, Harold Mabern, and Dave Liebman.
Huntley selected all the music for the Cincinnati King, spending hundreds of hours reviewing the vast discography that Sydney Nathan and his music-makers left behind. Huntley listened to their originals, covers, and remakes before finally making the tough decisions: Which ones would end up in the musical? Before making the decision, however, he had to negotiate with his wife, KJ Sanchez. She had been working on the script for several years, and had become fascinated with Nathan and his many star recording artists. “I have always been drawn to the tension between ambition and endurance,” she said.
Huntley, who has jazz in his DNA, was the perfect musician to find the great country and R&B numbers that would be sung by the talented actors playing Little Willie John, Lula Reed, the Delmore Brothers, and others. Yet the hardest part was whittling down the sixty songs he had already favored. After much agony, he realized he had to cut the number to seventeen. That’s how many ended up in the musical. “The decision wasn’t easy to make,” he added. “In fact, it was nearly impossible. But I kept at it. I needed special songs for the play, so that was a major factor in the selection process.”
It was a joy to hear the songs actually performed live. As Huntley explained, “I remember clearly the first time I had heard multiple versions of the King hit song ‘Blues Stay Away From Me’. The eerie, plaintive twang of the Delmore Brothers, the gutbucket cry of Lonnie Johnson, and the doo-wop infused Otis Williams and the Charms. I was blown away. I listened to the three versions repeatedly one afternoon, over and over again. How could one song be arranged, sung, and delivered with such a completely different feeling, grooves, and swing?”
The eerie sounds hit me, too. With their different arrangements, they sounded like three different songs. For the first time, I realized how the three versions could sound totally different. To my ear, they were entities of their own. The band brought its own originality to the songs, yet kept the feeling of the hits. Credit goes to drummer Huntley, pianist Ralph Huntley (Richard’s brother), guitarist Seth L. Johnson, and bassist Terrell Montgomery.
Huntley said he was surprised by the sounds that King achieved by recording for the first few years on one-track tape machines. “This was an era, mind you, when the music was recorded at the same time, with musicians in one room playing live—with no overdubs or ‘punch-in’ to correct a mistake,” he said. “One had to play it correctly or live with the consequences—there were no computer programs to correct a wrong note, a ripple in the grooves, or a waiver in the pitch.” He said the immediacy and intimacy of the one-track sessions “is the real genius of this music, and I truly hope it inspires deeper listening.”
Recorded vocals and arrangements used in the play are not necessarily based on the ones done first by King. Nor are they always by the artists most closely identified with the songs. Nathan liked to record the same song by artists in R&B, country, pop, and other genres, so plenty of versions were available to Huntley. He decided to base his versions on those that fit the plot, the show’s theme, and the types of vocalists who are featured. Several songs that Huntley chose were recorded by Little Willie John because he is a major character, portrayed by actor and vocalist Richard Crandle. His vocals are electrifying.
Huntley chose these songs:
1. “Gravy Train,” sung and written by Tiny Bradshaw.
2. “I’ve Done It,” sung and written by Moon Mullican, with co-writers Henry Glover, Lois Mann (Syd Nathan), and Louis Innis.
3. “Fever,” sung by Little Willie John and written by John Davenport (Otis Blackwell) and Eddie Cooley.
4. “All Around the World,” sung by Little Willie John and written by Titus Turner.
5. “I’m Doin’ It,” sung by Annisteen Allen and credited to writers Alan Freed, Henry Glover, Lois Mann, and Fred Weismantel.
6. “Blues Stay Away From Me,” sung by the Delmore Brothers and Lonnie Johnson and written by Rabon and Alton Delmore, Henry Glover, and Wayne Raney.
7. “Sixty-Minute Man,” sung by Bill Brown and written by Billy Ward and Rose Marks.
8. “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered,” sung by James Brown and written by Cowboy Copas and Lois Mann.
9. “The Twist,” sung and written by Hank Ballard.
10. “It’s Easy Child,” sung by Lula Reed and Freddy King and written by Sue Sandler, Gene Redd, and Kaye Bennett.
11. “Need Your Love So Bad,” sung and written by Little Willie John.
12. “You’re Welcome to the Club,” sung by Lee “Shot” Williams and written by Sonny Thompson.
13. “My Love Is,” sung and written by Little Willie John.
14. “I’m Shakin’,” sung by Little Willie John and written by Rudy Toombs.
15. “Leave My Kitten Alone,” as sung by Little Willie John and written by John, Titus Turner, and James McDougal.
16. “Drown in My Own Tears,” sung by Lula Reed and written by Henry Glover.
17. “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me,” a R&B version sung by Little Willie John and written by Wayne Raney and Lonnie Glosson.
Nathan published a number of the songs through his Lois Music. He produced some of the earlier recordings and preferred to live with a mistake or two in a track because it sounded livelier and had more feeling than other the takes. He was looking for a sound that only he could hear, and many times those livelier songs were big hits.
“As I dug deeper,” Huntley said, “I learned that King had an interracial studio band, which, for the 1950s and 1960s, was very rare indeed. Who were these fabulous unsung heroes who could create such exquisite and memorable music—music that would be the foundation of rock ’n’ roll, soul R&B, and country music? . . .
“So many styles and flavors—music that was pulsing and swinging with an intensity and spirt that sounds just and vibrant and fresh today as the day it was released.” At King Records, in a run-down former pressing plant in Evanston, Richard Huntley found a whole new world of music.
Alison James contributed to this story.
By KJ Sanchez
Syd Nathan: Neal Benari
Philip Paul: Stanley Wayne Mathis
Little Willie John: Richard Crandle
Roberta Paul: Tracy Schoster
Anita Welch: Annisteen Allen, Lula Reed, and others.
Cullen R. Titmas: Moon Mullican, Cowboy Copas, the Delmores.