Sunday, January 12, 2020

King Records of Cincinnati

For Immediate Release
Media inquiries contact: Emily Higgins, Publicist 
843.853.2070 x 113

An Interview with Randy McNutt

Author of King Records of Cincinnati

Publication date: June 1, 2009, Arcadia Publishing

Indie producers Randy McNutt (left) and Wayne Perry 
at the board at Jewel Recording, Cincinnati, 1972.

Recently I found this old interview that was done for promotion purposes some years ago. I thought I'd share it with my friends. No doubt you will have a favorite King story of your own.

What inspired you to write the book? 

The record company itself. I’m interested in how labels operated years ago, their founders, and their places in the overall record industry of their time. Fortunately, I was able to talk to many of these guys. I learned a lot from them. I was also inspired by King Records' studio and the musicians who worked over at 1540 Brewster Avenue in Cincinnati. I grew up listening to King recordings, but honestly I didn't think much about them when I was a kid. I was too caught up in Motown and the more commercial rock sounds. We were lucky then, before I could even drive, because radio gave us a broad music education. We heard everything from "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck to "Harper Valley PTA" and even the lush Percy Faith stuff. I guess you could call it jazz collides with mini skirts and begets "A Summer Place." But later, a few of King's hard-edged records began to leave a lasting impression on me. Just listen to the echo on "Cold Sweat"! Listen to the recording's clarity. They did this on tape, you know, and probably on no more than four tracks. Recently, I was driving down the road and that record came on the radio. Suddenly, a thought struck me. Those King records were so good because they were made by people, not machines. If there was a mistake, a little one or two, you kept the best take anyway because it was the one with the most emotion. I know that's how King worked, and even Sun Records too. I didn't get in on that [practice] because I started working on eight tracks, and we overdubbed. You really had to know how to sing and engineer records back in King's heyday because you didn't have Autotune and drum machines and Pro Tools. Too many of the new recordings are compressed to death until there is little humanity left in them. They sound like robots. On purpose, too. I know robots might build my car, but I don't want them making my music.

How did you become interested in pursuing a book about King?

I never intended to do one, not a picture book, anyway. It sort of morphed over the years. I suppose it started many years ago. Once I began to learn about recording techniques, and to make my own records, I started appreciating what went on over there at 1540. I'd "interview" anybody who would talk to me. We had conversations. I didn't even know what an official interview was back then. This happened long before I became a newspaper reporter and magazine writer. I became hooked on the place, and on the mystique of recording studios in general. They were like some kind of sanctuaries where you went to do special work. As a kid, I corresponded with a producer up in New York, and he'd type out long letters, single-spaced, explaining whatever I was curious about. I didn't even know this guy. Can you imagine this happening today? You'd get a text that reads like a telegram. He mentioned King a number of times. I admit that King was never on the cutting edge of recording, but that studio on Brewster Avenue could get funky with the best of them. What was it? Magic? I don't know. I have a friend who is a veteran engineer. His name is Gene Lawson, who played drums on "Memphis" by Lonnie Mack at King. He claims the special sound comes from the Ohio River. It is some kind of mystical deal, he tells me, and it runs through cities [located] on rivers. Well, I guess so. I don't know about that kind of thing. All I know is that studio had a sound that made soul and funk stand out. Good grief, it had a big concrete-block echo chamber on the roof. That'll give a record a jolt of adrenaline. King was special in more ways than one. Cincinnati had some terrific players, guys like Troy Seals and Roger "Jellyroll" Troy come to mind. Oh, man. Wayne Bullock, the organ man, and Lonnie Mack, the guitar player. Well, then there was Wayne Perry, the singer. We produced records together and had a great time. I loved the guy. We were comrades. He sounded really good on tape, too. As "the kids," as the older guys called us, we got to work with some of those older guys. They were larger-than-life to us. Jellyroll did some sessions over at King. Once, he came to another studio where I was recording, in the early '70s. He was to play bass. He was wearing a pair of red, white, and blue shoes. I said, "Hey, man, where'd you get those shoes?" That night I went out and bought a pair, even though I was a broke college student. I didn't care. I was wearing Jellyroll shoes! That afternoon when we recorded, somebody repossessed his car. Oh, the big time. The odd thing was, country music sounded good in the King studio, too. When it came to innovation, King Records was right there at the top of the list.

What is your personal connection to King?

It predated my own recording, but not by much. In 1971, Wayne Perry and I were lucky to be given a private tour of the King plant. It was on a chilly night, not long before the plant's doors were closed for good. The place felt as cold and lonely as a tomb. James Brown operated a record-production company out of there. I knew that much. I also knew I wanted to get one of our singles placed with King. This is when one of Brown's top promotion guys, Bob “Mr. Movin’” Patton, escorted us through the whole place. I dropped my jaw. Bob had been a DJ on WMOH in Hamilton, Ohio, where Wayne and I grew up. Wayne knew Bob. So Wayne asked him if King was taking any masters, and Bob said no, sorry, but he could show us around the place if we wanted. I thought it would be in some fancy building. Well, now I know that fancy wasn't a word used at King. I can still recall stopping to enter the studio. It had little red lights blinking on and off, and a big mic was standing upright. Wayne went right up to it and yelled like James Brown. "Hey, all right!" You know, when when we walked down a dimly lighted hallway decorated with dozens of album covers, I felt out of place. I thought I must be on Mars. Many of the artists’ names were unfamiliar to us then. We were too uninformed to recognize the names Cowboy Copas, the Delmore Brothers, Grandpa Jones, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Hank Ballard, James Brown, Tiny Bradshaw, and other acts. But when I was 18, 20 years old, I had no idea who these people were or what they meant to their kinds of music. I guess we were like any up-and-coming generation. We didn't know our music history. We were all that mattered then.

Why did King close in 1971?

Founder Syd Nathan had died. The whole operation had rested on his shoulders. The company was sold, and sold again. The closing of the plant signaled the beginning of the end of an era in independent music—in Cincinnati and the nation. King meant that much to the independent record industry. There was never a label as independent as King, and there never will be again. It did just about everything except make the cardboard shipping boxes and the record sleeves, and they were made up in Miamisburg, Ohio, just a modest truck drive [away] from Cincinnati. Indie labels would continue, and they will always be around as long as somebody has the gumption and desperation to do it himself. But there will never be a label like King Records again.

King ad shows the label's 
diversity in the late 1940s.

What made King so successful? Was it versatility? 

Sydney Nathan. King Records was his vision. He literally built it from nothing. Some of his ideas weren’t totally original, although he might not have even heard of some of those early indie labels that had tried a few similar ideas 20 to 30 years earlier. Nathan came up with his ideas, borrowed some others, and eventually came up with his own series of nationwide distribution offices. Starting his pressing plant back in the '40s was the most important decision he made because it gave him the freedom to manufacture his own records. King became the bridge between America’s old-time labels of the 1920s, like Gennett Records of Richmond, Indiana, and the radio-oriented indies of the single’s golden age, the '60s. King's presses were humming with Brown's records by the mid-'60s. Oh I knew about James Brown, for sure. Wayne and I used to see him around town. I used to joke about it to Wayne and say, "Hey, there he is! James Brown!" He'd tell me I'm an adolescent. Pretty soon, he was doing it, too. Then one day downtown I really did see James Brown, and by the time Wayne caught a glimpse of him, Mr. Dynamite was dashing into a store. Wayne used to see Brown, when he was in town, over at the Inner Circle nightclub in Cincinnati. Wayne sang blue-eyed soul there when he was something like, oh, I guess he was sixteen years old. He couldn't legally get in there! It was there that Brown discovered what would become the Dapps, which I consider the first white funk band and for sure one of the earliest funk bands in the country. The Dapps were on the scene early on, not long after "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." That record saved King from going under. Brown signed the Dapps to his production company, and that's how they got on the King label. I believe Mr. Nathan was gone by then.

What made King different from other independent labels?

By example King showed other independent labels how to stay in business. You should create a lucrative publishing company, squeeze out every dime you can by cross-pollinating your own songs from one genre to another, build a large pool of studio musicians, cover the right hits, make everything under one roof, and so forth. Say what you will about Nathan, but he practically invented the concept of the one stop. He pioneered the development of modern country music. Why isn’t he in the Country Music Hall of Fame? This is a rhetorical question. He isn’t in it because he wasn’t from Nashville, and he was a crotchety fellow who displeased some competitors down there. Few younger people in the current record business know who he was or what King meant to the industry. It’s the same thing that happens in baseball, in any field. You’re a has-been in ten years. He was cutting hit “hillbilly” and roots records before Nashville ever dreamed up the name Music City, U.S.A. And he was doing his thing up here in Cincinnati. Obviously, he didn’t fit in. 

How did you research the information for the book? 

I had help from a number of people, from various corners. A friend of mine, Brian Powers, is a librarian in Cincinnati. He is as crazy about this stuff as I am. We both love the old record business and the way it operated. We trade anecdotes about music pioneers. I gathered a lot of my information slowly, in my spare time, mainly from people who were there at ground zero on Brewster. I had heard many stories about them, of course; they had accomplished many things during their long careers. But I didn’t know that some of the white musicians had played on James Brown’s recording sessions. I didn’t know that some of the country musicians had played on R&B sessions at King. Keep in mind that I did this just for fun. If you had told me it would be used in a book, I would have said you are crazy. So I started interviewing them—the people who made the music at King. I became so fascinated that I continued talking with more and more of them, over 15, 20 years. Then I interviewed the company’s executives and songwriters and office workers. But my focus was always on the performers and the songwriters and all the other people who created the music. They really achieved something special, something that has lasted.

Coming soon: Part 2 of Randy McNutt's interview. You will find his "King Records of Cincinnati " in bookstores and through

James Brown was keeping the 
label going by the 1960s.

The Delmore Brothers came to
King early, in the 1940s.

Thanks to the people at Arcadia, 
and especially to record man Howard Lovdal, 
my mentor and friend, for interviewing me 
for a change. We had a blast at lunch over 
at the Tiny Cove, didn't we Shad? 
You are missed.--RM