As American as rock and roll itself, and perhaps the proverbial apple pie, is the institution of the independent record label. Pop music as we know it would be unimaginable without their influence, and anyone who doubts that need only look to the legacy of Nashville’s Sun Records. Yet a couple hundred miles north of where Elvis first stepped into a recording studio (fifty eight years ago today, by the way), stands a far lesser known label but one that is, arguably, about as accomplished.
Former location of King Records in Cincinnati. Photo courtesy of Dr.Vulturo.
Cincinnati’s King Records is the home to numerous artists and songs whose fame far outstrips their place of origin, too many of which (for instance, “The Twist”) are so ubiquitous they have been erroneously credited with the likes of Motown by the gate-keepers of illegal file sharing sites. Most notably, King was where the hardest working man in show business, the one and only James Brown, made his early days working for one of the hardest of hard-asses ever to commit his life to laying grooves to wax, King label head, Syd Nathan.
“He was a record man, and I think he might have been the greatest single record man ever,” says John Hartley Fox, author of a history on King for the Illinois University Press, titled The King of Queen City. “Not to say that his company was the best or the most successful. But if I had to pick a guy in history to start a record, I’d pick him. As they say in sports, if you had to choose one player to build a team around – I would pick Syd to be the head of a label and let other people produce things, he knew that wasn’t his forte.”
Though conventional history may paint a meager picture of Nathan as a miserly, cigar-biting caricature who thought Live at the Apollo wouldn’t sell a dime (“gruff” was the adjective used by all those interviewed), the Jewish Arkansan established a business model that none of his peers – in the majors or independents – survived long enough to successfully replicate, let alone try.
Whether for reasons of being fiercely independent, distrusting of anyone else, or just a total pain in the ass to work with, Nathan resolved to own every possible means for getting his records in the hands of the customer. At its height, King commanded its very own recording studio, manufacturing plant, and for a time, its own fleet of shipping vehicles.
“They were the largest independent presser in the country,” says Darren Blase, owner of Cincinnati-based record store and independent label Shake It Records as well as the author of The King Records Story.
“The music stands on its own but the business model and the vision of the guy is just as important,” continues Blase. “Whenever I do these interviews with people for things in Cincinnati, I’m just like, ‘Why is this not taught in business classes?’”
While expensive and laborious to make a reality, Nathan’s all-in-house business philosophy can be largely attributed to King’s long-term survival compared to their fellow independents during the same period. It gave the Cincinnati label the synergy to out-draw even their major label competitors in New York and Los Angeles by releasing material from the heartland (and thus, not having to cross coasts) at lightning fast speed, at least by postal standards. On the day a King musician recorded a catchy number, they could expect freshly pressed singles to be in the hands of radio DJs in major markets in at most a week’s time, if not sooner – a turnover rate not even Columbia could boast.
This emphasis on self-sufficiency cast each King record – from its sound production to its cover art – with the gritty, frugal aesthetic that would soon become their signature style.
“King’s albums pretty much were in a class of their own as far as album artwork,” says Randy McNutt, author of The Cincinnati Sound.
A long-time fan of King and self-produced musician in the early ’70s, McNutt was given the chance to visit their offices before they were cleaned out a few years after Nathan’s death in 1968. The album covers decorating the hallways of the once bustling operation left quite the impression on him.
“They didn’t look like anyone else’s albums,” he continues. “They weren’t slick.”
King’s art department made great use of stock photography (anything to pinch pennies, in Nathan’s eyes). Photo shoots for album covers were often basic, sometimes taken on Cincinnati street corners for that local appeal. One of James Brown’s first King releases, It’s A Mother, is a great example of this modest approach: It may not have been Sgt. Pepper, but it made the record company distinct compared to the high-end, commercial, cut-and-paste cover art being ushered in by the incoming teenage marketplace.
Though as innovative as the intricate way that King conducted its business was, what might be even more impressive was how truly ahead of their time they were in terms of their business culture.
Decades before Chuck Berry would blur racial lines by blending his white-man voice with rockabilly guitar, Nathan saw social walls being torn down as the owner of a used record shop in the early ’30s. He paid very keen attention to trends that defied conventional logic, ever reliably purveyed by the mainstream industry, in marketing genres based on color and class.
“He understood that things were never as clear cut or as clean cut as the industry thought,” says Fox. “He’d seen white people buying music by black artists, black people buying country music, which is huge in the south. That’s what there was on the radio. White people liked it as much as black people did.”
He went on to found King in 1937 as a country label (their motto was, “If it’s a King, it’s a hillbilly”) that simultaneously invested in subsidiary labels specializing in specific genres; for instance, King’s sister label Queen Records recorded what was then called “race records” — a euphemism for rhythm and blues music.
By 1947, Queen artists would be fully integrated into King’s roster. From then on, a policy was instituted that no racial discrimination would be tolerated in hiring or promotion. Through the 1950s and into the ’60s – powered by the popularity of James Brown – King’s sights focused more and more on marketing the typically “black genre” to the masses.
Such diversity, however, didn’t wasn’t limited to its already eclectic roster. Eventually, Nathan would extend management positions to capable individuals regardless of race or gender, emphasizing ability over all else. Surprisingly, this didn’t lead to any significant incidents of tense rapport or discord in the studio or elsewhere within King (that are widely reported). Rather, business resumed rather harmoniously, perhaps because the product – and the talent of those making it — spoke for itself.
“Syd’s great talent was [that] he allowed people who knew a lot more than him about music to take the reins, whether it was somebody like Sonny Thompson, or Henry Glover, or Ralph Bass, or Gene Red, or Louie Enis,” says Blase. “He knew enough to take a step back and let these guys take over.”
Though today those names might be legendary in niche musical circles and their immediate influence expired since King closed shop in the early ’70s, the discography they leave behind is slowly but surely on its way to a long overdue renaissance. Through the influence of the Cincinnati-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and locals looking for sources of cultural pride in their fair city, interest in King has taken on a new life.
“I think one of Syd’s great attributes is [he believed] a song is a song is a song, and if it’s good, it appeals to everybody,” admires Blase. “…you can take this rhythm and blues song and sell it to a country audience, and you can take this country song and sell it to an R&B audience, which just shows you that at the end of the day, despite background and despite class and color and everything, we’re all dealing with the same stuff. We’re all dealing with the same experience.”
James Brown’s Mother Popcorn record. Photo courtesy of Daniel Hartwig.