Loud and Proud: King Records comes back to life

Since 2008, Cincinnatians have been hearing about local efforts to preserve the legacy of King Records, the eclectic music studio and business operation that flourished in the Evanston neighborhood between 1943 and 1971.

Led by entrepreneur extraordinaire Syd Nathan, King produced records by artists the genres of “hillbilly” and “race” music, forms that evolved into country and rhythm & blues. Many music historians believe King was a laboratory where those elements merged to become early rock & roll. There is no arguing that music recorded there shaped the work of legendary performers like the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.

King Records featured talent that ranged from bluegrass stars The Stanley Brothers and The Delmore Brothers to R&B singer James Brown, whose first single, the 1956 King recording “Please, Please, Please,” launched his legendary career as the Godfather of Soul. Noted R&B artists Wynonie Harris, Tiny Bradshaw and others as well as groups such as The Platters, The Ink Spots, The Five Keys and Otis Williams and the Charms all recorded there.

The company’s business model incorporated everything from creating and producing music to pressing records and distributing them across the country. King’s racially diverse workforce was unprecedented in the 1940s and ’50s.

In 2009 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sponsored the placement of a historic marker acknowledging that diversity at 1540 Brewster Ave., the site where Cincinnati native Nathan established his company.

Unfortunately the King buildings have fallen into disrepair, and little remains of the original enterprise. Efforts to restore the facility have been supported by community leaders and local boosters, ranging from Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley to the Cincinnati Music and Heritage Foundation to funk bassist Bootsy Collins.

The recent Cincinnati Parks tax plan offered a promise of funds to acquire, stabilize and perhaps renovate the Evanston property following votes by Cincinnati’s Historic Conservation Board, the City’s Planning Commission and City Council to landmark the dilapidated buildings, and Council revised local zoning in October to make it more difficult for the current owner to demolish the buildings.

But the parks tax became entangled in political wrangling and was defeated in November by a wide margin. Legal complications regarding the building site continue.

Will King Records be relegated to fading memories?

Last summer Councilmember Amy Murray told The Enquirer, “In our zoning code, we have options available that seem like a clear path” to saving the building. Councilmember Yvette Simpson tells Soapbox, “Cincinnati has a rich music history, and King Records is at the center of that. The Evanston institution has helped to shape Cincinnati’s musical character, and the city needs to do more to preserve it so future generations can appreciate its legacy.”

In a statement to Soapbox, Cranley says, “I still support saving the King Records building and am hopeful we can get it under contract.”

Nevertheless the future remains cloudy. So what happens now?

Community engagement makes a difference

A ready answer isn’t entirely tied to the fate of the King Records property. Thanks to the leadership of Xavier University’s Community Building Institute (CBI) and the Eigel Center for Community-Engaged Learning partnering with Evanston neighborhood leaders, there is some good news.

King Studios Experiential Learning Center, a nonprofit organization based at Xavier, has been working for several years to use the King legacy as a platform for education, engagement and revitalization. A space on Montgomery Road adjacent to the intersection with Brewster Avenue — just three blocks from the original studio site — has been identified for a facility to serve as a memorial space dedicated to King Records, a recording studio and a visual art studio.
According to Chris Schadler, CBI’s program manager for King Studios, the nonprofit is focused on community, education, legacy and fundraising.
“We’ve been trying to raise awareness, especially to create some sort of a facility and support annual events, including King Records Month,” he says, adding that there’s been a monthly celebration each September since 2012. “It was our dream to have a facility built by King Records’ 75th anniversary in 2018.”
Renderings for a three-story facility were drafted in 2010, but fundraising has been sporadic, sometimes muddied by the controversy regarding the original site.
Anzora Adkins, president of the Evanston Community Council since 2007, chairs the King Studios board.
“There’s no timetable yet,” she says, “but we have many good ideas, including a plan in writing on what we would like to occur on Montgomery Road.” She believes the new facility can complement the original site.
“We have a coming-together point of view,” she says. “We want to work this out and work together concerning places, the original site and the new development — one would enhance the other. Not having the building would mean not telling all the story. I’m praying for it, and I can see it happening.”
As a neighborhood leader, Adkins sees King Studios as a means to focus her community. Evanston’s business core was devastated by the construction of I-71 in the 1960s, but it’s being restored along Montgomery Road east of Xavier’s campus.
“Never count it out,” she says. “This plan will help our business district.”
She points out King’s role in the local history of civil rights, praising the racially integrated workplace and the merging of musical traditions.
Momentum continues to sustain King’s legacy
The defeat of the parks tax isn’t the end of the road, Adkins maintains.
“If we want to see the rainbow, we have to tolerate the rain,” she says. “But we are thinking positive about it. Xavier’s Community Building Institute has helped us with so many plans.”
She mentions the support of City Council, too. “I’m not a person who gives up easily. We need to work together to move forward. There can be no big ‘I’ and little ‘you.’”
Schadler echoes Adkins’ sentiment and underscores her passion.
“We have many different people on the King Studios board, and everyone is trying to push it forward,” he says, taking a pragmatic stance. “We hope to build something we could control. Perhaps it would become a welcome center if the original building can be preserved.”
There is the possibility of a walking tour to connect the new center with a restored King Records site.
“There’s a lot of potential and much activity behind the scenes,” Schadler says. “We’re nowhere near critical mass, but every year people know more and more about King. It feels like something big could happen. We will keep doing what we’re doing: events, educational components, exhibits. They sustain the legacy of King Records.”

Other cities have preserved and continue to celebrate what their own historic record labels meant to local citizens and to the world. As Detroit has done with Motown Records and Memphis with Stax Records — even though their efforts were hit-and-miss and the work remains unfinished — it’s still possible for Cincinnati to reap benefits in terms of tourism dollars and civic pride.
Suitcases packed with history
Partnering with CBI’s initiative, Xavier’s Eigel Center, led by Sean Rhiney, has focused on creating educational materials and experiences that might someday be used at the Montgomery Road center. There have been exhibits and community gatherings at Community Blend, the co-op coffee shop on Montgomery Road directly opposite the center’s proposed site.
King Studios’ goal is to showcase the history of musical and artistic collaborations that grew out of the company’s diverse workplace. Other intentions are to teach the fundamentals of music entrepreneurship to middle school, high school and university students; enable Evanston residents and others to create art reflecting their cultural heritage; and promote intercultural understanding between generations.
The most concrete effort is a set of “traveling suitcases,” portable educational toolkits designed to share and teach aspects of King’s legacy.
In the 1950s and ’60s, interstate travel, especially in the South, was difficult and often dangerous for performers. The suitcase format honors musicians who performed in theaters and clubs there.
Packed in historic, hard-sided suitcases from the era, the kits feature replica artifacts, technology and lesson plans telling King’s multi-faceted story. They include video clips, music, PowerPoint presentations, song lyrics and other materials that can be copied and handed out in classrooms. Lessons are adaptable for a single class session or an extended learning unit.
Designed for educational use in K-12 classrooms, the suitcases are being made available free to Cincinnati area teachers thanks to funding from the Elsa Heisel Sule Foundation and the Charles H. Dater Foundation. The project will begin serving teachers and students in September 2016.
Lessons learned
Xavier history professor Christine Anderson created the first King Records suitcase: “Civil Rights and Black Musicians Traveling on the Chitlin’ Circuit,” a reference to the performance venues that were safe for musicians and others in the segregated South. She became engaged in the King Studios project via the Eigel Center and Rhiney, who helps faculty members identify projects that utilize academic expertise and willing students for community betterment.
“I was drawn in that way,” Anderson says. “I both teach and do research in Cincinnati history and African-American history. The King Studios project really appealed to me. The history of collaboration and local creativity just seemed like a really positive thing that I could use my academic expertise to help students understand these cultural experiences as well as share them beyond the university’s walls.”
In her classes she explains that King was one of the first Cincinnati businesses to employ a racially integrated workforce.
“That’s an important story we need to tell,” Anderson says. “You have to remember that racial discrimination and segregation existed in the North (as well as the South) in the 1940s and 1950s. But there were people — not necessarily political activists — who worked to change things, to make things better.”
In a seminar with first-year Xavier students this fall, Anderson focused on “The Culture of Civil Rights,” including a unit on King Records that employed the suitcase she developed.
“The students really liked that, and they’re still talking about James Brown’s song ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,’” she says. “I plan to teach a course called ‘African Americans’ Struggle for Equality’ in the spring, and we’ll touch on King.”
Thanks to the Ohio History Service Corps, Anderson is working with Claire Payne, an Oberlin College grad serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer who’s creating a youth docent program for King Studios and developing another suitcase, “The Great Migration.”
Cincinnati was a destination for people heading north from Appalachia and the South in the mid-20th century, and King’s recordings drew on those traditions. Lessons in Payne’s toolkit will focus on factors that pushed and pulled musicians and audiences from the South and how their experiences shaped music recorded at King.
Three additional suitcases will be developed by Fall 2016:
Music and Fine Arts. As an enterprise that recorded country and R&B songs and artists, King Records used the nation’s first integrated session band. The diverse artists — including drummer Philip Paul, who still lives in Cincinnati and serves as an ambassador for the King legacy — led to musical creativity and innovation. This suitcase will focus on recordings that changed the musical landscape in the 1950s and contributed to the birth of rock & roll.
Economics and Entrepreneurship. King was a successful small business, and owner Syd Nathan’s career illustrates topics in entrepreneurship and business models. By exploring King’s story as a business, teachers can discuss economics, history, psychology, sociology, art, music and English.
Science, Technology and Popular Culture. King took advantage of and impacted the evolution of popular music in the mid-20th century. Smaller phonographs and transistor radios enabled young people to listen to new musical genres, which affected advertising and media and helped shape science and technology.
Efforts continue behind the scenes to preserve the King Records buildings where music history was made. Meanwhile, the collaborative endeavor between Xavier and Evanston is bringing educational stories to classrooms and civic spaces, ensuring that future generations will continue to benefit from the music and creativity produced in Evanston a half-century ago.
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Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.