It is an old, nondescript industrial building in Evanston, a struggling, mostly black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Clearly visible from along I-71, the former icehouse is tagged here and there with graffiti and looks like any of the hundreds of similar ancient, non-residential structures located in the town Longfellow once called "The Queen City of the West," but between 1943 and 1971, it was home to a "King." King Records specialized in markets the major labels weren't interested in -- country and western, rhythm & blues, gospel, and more. The label launched a slew of artists and records that had intractable impact on American music, ranging from Homer and Jethro to Jackie Wilson to James Brown to the original version of "The Twist" by Hank Ballard. King Records closed its doors in 1971, and since then, the old King building at 1540 Brewster Ave. either sat empty or used for storage. For quite some time, there has been a frustrating effort on the part of Cincinnati's music lovers to install a plaque on the King building, without much interest from civic leaders. However, on Sunday, November 23, a large group of musicians, volunteers, educators, reporters, and prominent Cincinnati citizens converged in front of the old icehouse to join Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum president Terry Stewart in unveiling a plaque designated to honor King Records.
King was founded by ex-record store owner Sydney Nathan to exploit the popularity of honky tonk, hillbilly, and later bluegrass music, then burning up the airwaves on regional, Cincinnati-based radio stations such as WLW and WCKY, but being recorded by practically no one for public consumption; Louis "Grandpa" Jones was King's first artist. By 1945, Nathan had identified rhythm & blues as another niche market to address, and these records proved so important to his business that he hired African-American arranger and composer Henry Glover as his chief of A&R in 1947. In 1949, King Records officially adopted an interracial workplace as a core value of the company, initially to combine the then customary two segregated company picnics. This led not only to a happy workplace, but fostered a creative environment where black R&B artists were constantly intersecting with white cowboy singers and often sharing the same backup band. The resultant balance of friction and cooperation played a major role in the development of rock 'n' roll; beyond that, King's passionate advocacy of James Brown led to the funk revolution of the 1960s. By 1960, King was the sixth-largest record company in the world, and unique to the business, as all of its operation was in-house; according to Darren Blase, proprietor of Shake It Records in Cincinnati and an early booster for the drive to place a marker at 1540 Brewster Ave., "They made everything in this building except for the shipping boxes."
Quite a few arrived for the ceremony early; it was cold, and there was nowhere to sit, though some more senior attendees simply stayed in their cars until the speeches began. Representing the figureheads at King was a confederacy of widows; Stella Nathan, widow to Syd Nathan, Tomi Rae Brown, widow to James Brown, and so forth. Bootsy Collins, whose career began at King when he was a local Evanston teenager playing in bars, arrived, glittering shades and fancy threads in tow; many ex-King sidemen wore their performance dress to the event. "Elevating it from arcane esoterica to something worthy of civic action and academic support was a challenge, and it took many years," remembered Jim Tarbell, longtime Cincinnati city councilman and restaurateur. The break, ironically, came with the gigantic explosion of a BASF chemical facility in the neighborhood that leveled several blocks around Xavier University. Xavier acquired the land, transformed it from brown to green and noted that the King building, dilapidated but undamaged, sat at one far edge of property. When Xavier became aware of significance of King and its contribution to American culture, they began a campaign on its behalf, and are now working with Cincinnati State University to develop study courses on King. There is also serious talk of establishing a King Records Center for purposes of research, community outreach, and to help stimulate Evanston or "E-town," as it is called by locals.
"I was asked by an old man on my way down here, 'What's going on down there?,' recalled Darren Blase. "I said, 'We're going down to the King building; that's where James Brown made his records.' The old man said, 'No way!'" That is the core challenge with King; most people, particularly in Cincinnati, have no idea that it existed or that its achievements mattered so much. Most of King's hits were so widely copied by mainstream artists in more commercial incarnations that, overall, proper recognition has eluded both the label and its roster. "This might be just my opinion," said Terry Stewart, "but King Records is so important to the development of rock 'n' roll that there was just as strong an argument that the Rock Hall should locate in Cincinnati as there was for Cleveland, but of course, that is not how it worked out in the end." "James used to shake his head," remembered Tomi Rae Brown, "wring his hands and say, 'They're gonna tear it down, baby, they're gonna tear it down. I tried to buy it, but they won't sell it to me.' I know that James went to his grave convinced that someday they were going to tear down this holy place. All I can do is turn my eyes up to the heavens and say, 'Wherever you are, us win, baby, us win.'" Indeed, despite the cold, the long stretch of standing, and some long-winded speeches -- periodically interrupted with chants from the musicians of "Make it funky!... Make it funky!" -- there was a sense of elation throughout the crowd, old and young, which ran up to a fever pitch when the cover came off the plaque and Bootsy Collins stepped up to the mike, exclaiming, "Woww!! Free at last, Free at lastâ€¦"
Brown's Ferry Four: You Must Be Born Again (1945)
Wynonie Harris: Good Rockin' Tonight (1947)
Cowboy Copas: Signed Sealed and Delivered (1948)
Earl Bostic: Don't You Do It (1949)
Moon Mullican: Moon's Tune (1950)
Billy Ward & the Dominoes: Sixty Minute Man (1953)
Little Willie John: I'm Shakin' (1958)
Freddy King: Have You Ever Loved a Woman (1960)
James Brown: Make It Funky (1968)
Some images in this article are found on the Cincinnati Public Library's tribute to King Records, a great additional source of information located at King Records: A Cincinnati Legacy.