Tuesday, December 15, 2009

King of the Queen City is Important Label History

King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records
Jon Hartley Fox
University of Illinois Press
(280 pages, 23 photographs)

This writer have long been a fan of many of rhythm’n’blues artists that recorded for the King family of labels. These include Roy Brown, Wyonnie Harris, Ivory Joe Hunter, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Freddie King, Little Willie John, Esther Phillips, The Five Royales, Billy Ward & the Dominoes and James Brown, to name a small part of the musical legacy of Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati based group of labels that included Queen and Federal. King was a pioneering label in more ways than one as this very welcome history of the label and overview of the extensive recordings that were made for it makes clear.

“King of the Queen City” expands upon a public radio series of the same title that Fox did in 1986 and is a history of the label that Syd Nathan launched in 1943, which became a company that Fox observes was “one of the most, important successful and influential record companies in history. During the almost twenty-five years Nathan was at the helm, King recorded — and introduced to the American public — a stunning array of musical giants, from country stars Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones and bluegrass greats Don Reno and Red Smiley to blues guitarist Freddie King and R&B and soul stars Hank Ballard and James Brown.” Furthermore, while one of hundreds of independent labels to emerge during the forties, none of these matched “King for variety, innovation, depth of catalog and sheer moxie.” It changed not only how music was recorded but also the music itself and whereas almost all other independent labels concentrated on one type of music, King was active in virtually all genres of American vernacular music and did not simply dabble in these styles but had many top stars and some of the biggest records in these styles. It was music and records for “the little man,” as Nathan often put it.

King did more than simply pioneer in the music it recorded and issued. King Records under Syd Nathan pioneered in other ways. It was a record company that had an integrated staff, in what really was a southern city at the time. Nathan started the record company during the middle of World War II when there was a shellac shortage and during the first Petrillo recording ban, may not have been what one might have been instructed in business school. Despite these circumstances Syd Nathan developed King into pioneering record company. He recorded his artists in his studios, manufactured his records (which entailed learning how to master and manufacture records) and using a national promotion force under his control. Other companies may have had their own studio, or perhaps manufacturing plant, but they would not also have their own promotion staff, rather relying on regionally based independent promotion staff. And one cannot emphasize enough his pioneering in hiring individuals on merit, not on the basis of race or other matters.

King also pioneered in having his R&B acts record songs penned by his country stars and vice versa (such as Wyonnie Harris “Bloodshot Eyes”), therefore enabling the exploitation of the songs in the music catalog the label cultivated and owned in addition to the recordings. Overseeing many of the sessions (whether country and R&B) was Henry Glover, Nathan’s first Artist & Repertoire Director. Glover was probably only the second black man to hold an executive position with a United States record label and helped produce some of the label’s early hits like those by Bull Moose Jackson and Harris. Fox, in telling the story of King Records, notes the unheralded and pioneering role that Glover, and also Ralph Bass played in the development of American music of the past 65 years, and notes how few of these have received the recognition they deserve.

Nathan had a strong personality and could get into intense arguments with his staff. The book recounts the legendary story of Nathan’s reaction to James Brown & the Famous Flames’ “Please, Please, Please,” that Ralph Bass recorded, spewing “This is the worse piece of shit I’ve ever heard in my life. …” The earliest acts on King were country acts like Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers and Merle Travis and King would build a distinguished country catalog that included Hawksaw Hawkins, Hank Penny and the great rocking honky tonk piano pioneer, Moon Mullican and then rockabilly sessions with such pioneers as Charlie Feathers. And there would be the countless blues and vocal groups as well as gospel sessions held under the eyes of Glover, Bass and others. Lets not forget such important popular instrumental performers as Earl Bostic and Bill Doggett. Is there anyone reading this who has never heard “Honky Tonk?” The recordings story along with that of Doggett, saxophonist Clifford Scott and guitarist Billy Butler is among those recounted here. This is just to give a small flavor of what the King Catalog represented. King Records passed along with Syd Nathan when he died. The label’s catalog was purchased as was the music publishing. and Fox discusses the various reissues of King recordings and other matters that have happened over the four decades since Syd Nathan passed away.

Fox weaves the label’s history around a discussion of the many performers and musical styles the label touched on and even one familiar with a number of the artists will discover much new. This is not to say there are not omissions in discussing artists, especially after they left King. For example, the discussion of Esther Phillips sort of dismisses her post-King years, ignoring the fact that the Beatles invited her to England because of her recording “And I Love Him,” and one year Aretha handed Esther Phillips a Grammy one year when Aretha won over Esther’s classic album “From a Whisper to a Scream. Its his superficial summary discussion of her and Johnny “Guitar’ Watson, that have me wondering what has he missed on performers who I am less familiar with. This does seem a minor point as his achievement is compiling so much information on the King Records story and artists and recordings of King and associated labels. The label’s story is perhaps not as integrated with the narrative of the performers, but that is a function of what he has attempted here. 

If not a perfect book, it is a remarkable achievement and Fox makes the case for the recognition to folks like Henry Glover, Ralph Bass and Syd Nathan himself by popular music historians. Their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should have been secured years ago, and hopefully this volume will lead to that belated recognition. To the extent these folks are not in The Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame, that oversight should be immediately addressed. Jon Hartley Fox is to be thanked for his impressive addition to the popular music literature. “King of the Queen City” is highly recommended for anyone seriously interested in American vernacular music.

To comply with FTC regulations that may or may not be applicable, I obtained a review copy of this book from either the publisher or someone doing publicity for the publisher.

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