Saturday, August 31, 2013

King Records: 70th Anniversary

By Randy McNutt

Cincinnati is celebrating King Records Month to remember the 70th anniversary of the indie label's founding by Sydney Nathan and several friends and family members in 1943. Home of the Hits blog will be running stories about King to coincide with this event. The following story is a remembrance of one of America's most interesting independent labels of history.

Many years ago, when I started producing recordings independently with my partner Wayne Perry in Cincinnati, we finished a track called "Mr. Bus Driver" at Rusty York's Jewel Recording in suburban Mount Healthy. I told Wayne that I would like to see it come out on King, because King did so much soul music. Our recording was soul-rock, and I thought it would give King a more contemporary sound and help us too. Neither Wayne nor I knew much about the history of King Records. We were only 21 years old, so King was older than we were at the time. But we knew that James Brown, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and other good soul acts came out of King's studio at 1540 Brewster Avenue in the Evanston neighborhood of the Queen City. That was enough for us.

Wayne called a guy named Bob "Mr. Movin'" Patton, a former disc jockey on our hometown radio station, WMOH in Hamilton, Ohio. Wayne told him what we wanted, and he offered to take us on a tour of the King factory and studio. He worked for James Brown at the time as a promotion man, and Brown, as King's reigning seller of records, kept an office in the old building. The place looked like something out of a Dickens movie. It was low and funky and uninviting. Wayne and I took my Karmann Ghia to the factory, about 25 miles from our town, and we nearly froze on a January night when the temperature was close to zero. Once inside, we noticed the place was very dim. Shadows covered the corridors. Patton led us through offices and more connected buildings, and finally we ended up in the pressing plant. It looked eerily still.

Then we moved on to the recording studio, which Nathan opened in 1947. He needed a place to record because he was tired of going out of town or using a local studio that he preferred not to visit. I can still remember the place in the semi-darkness, and Wayne standing up in front of a microphone and yelling, "Hey, all right!" We laughed, and he did his James Brown impersonation, and we moved on. But for that few minutes we spent in the studio, I imagined how it must have looked when so many hits were being cut right there--"Memphis" and "Wham!" by Lonnie Mack (on Fraternity Records); "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye" by the Casinos (also on Fraternity from Cincinnati); the original version of "The Twist" by Ballard and the Midnighters; and many country and R&B hits by Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and other acts. The studio's resume seemed like the credentials to the Who's Who in Recording.

While there, we moved on through a long narrow hallway with garish album covers all over the walls. I stopped to read them and I marveled at the unusual artwork and the names of people I had only heard about in snatches of conversation with musicians--guys like Copas and Hawkins, and Otis Williams and the Charms, Freddy King, James Brown and the Famous Flames, and so many other hits acts who had recorded here or for King from the 1940s until that very year--1971. I felt like I was standing on hallowed musical ground, and I wasn't even aware of much of the history yet.

After Nathan, the architect of it all, died in 1968, the label was sold and resold, and finally the new owners decided to operate King from the offices of parent Starday Records in Nashville. They cleaned out the old building on Brewster Avenue and that was the end of King in Cincinnati. This came shortly after our walk through King on that freezing evening. Unfortunately, the Cincinnati office of King was no longer around for me to pitch "Mr. Bus Driver" to, so we went to other labels. King's local musicians, producers, A&R staff, and others scattered to seek work elsewhere, mainly in Nashville. James Brown's contract was sold to Polydor Records in New York.

But my interest in King was only beginning. From then on, whenever I could find someone who had been associated with King in some way, I interviewed him or her. I started meeting some fascinating and talented and hardworking people. I'll explain more about them later.

For now, though, it's time to sit back and play some King hits.

Rusty York recorded his version of
"Peggy Sue" for King.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Hillbilly Stars of King Records

Some Hillbilly Stars of King Records
(A pictorial appreciation)

Founded in Cincinnati in 1943, the independent King Records started with hillbilly music and Grandpa Jones. Soon founder Sydney Nathan expanded the hillbilly roster and by 1946 he was having national hit records with Cowboy Copas, a "Grand Ole Opry" star. Over the 1940s and 1950s more King country acts came along--Bonnie Lou, the yodeling star of several WLW and WLWT programs; Lulu Belle and Scotty, a couple who performed on WLW's country shows; Jimmie Osborne, another hit-maker for King; and Moon Mullican, a boogie-woogie piano man and vocalist who was an inspiration for some rockabilly acts that would soon follow. King continued to make country music through the years, but its heyday was in the late 1940s. 

Bonnie Lou

Lulu Belle and Scotty

Grandpa Jones and Cowboy Copas

Cowboy Copas

Jimmie Osborne

Moon Mullican

Read more about the hillbilly stars of King Records--and other acts--in Randy McNutt's King Records of Cincinnati, issued by Arcadia Publishing. The book is available from and other Internet outlets and book stores.