King Studio's Reinvention Helps Build a Better Community

So what do a retired school teacher, a rock musician and studio owner, an urban planner, and Vice Chancellor of Ohio's state university system have in common?

They're all part of a team that is resurrecting and reinventing one of Cincinnati's greatest legacies into an educational experience like no other. Part commemoration of a historic record label that launched the careers of rhythm and blues legends James Brown, Hank Ballard, and Bootsy Collins, and part innovative community and university based partnership, the new King Studios will be an integral part of Evanston's neighborhood transformation. And it's doing so by combining the passion of a community, the powerful might of a university, and a little bit of musical mojo.

But first a little bit of history: Record impresario Syd Nathan founded King Records in Evanston in the 40's. A notoriously frugal owner, Nathan practically innovated the concept of one-stop shopping for the recording industry. His headquarters on Brewster Avenue included a studio for recording talent, a record pressing plant, and distribution center all under one roof. King's talent roster capitalized on the diverse city that was growing up around it . At the crossroads of the north and south, the studio set itself apart with its racially diverse lineup, making bluegrass records with the iconic Stanley Brothers and Cowboy Copas and capturing early doo-wop groups and soul acts like Ballard, Freddie King, and a young man from Georgia, James Brown.  King's rock solid foundation, however, was the local talent pool that Nathan recruited for his studio band that counts bassist Collins and drummer and long time Evanston resident, Phillip Paul, among its alumni.

"The story is a unique story that's as important to Cincinnati as the Ohio River," says Chris Schadler, project manager for the new King Studios, and an urban planner at the Community Building Institute.

The new King (the label was bought and sold following Nathan's death) won't be a record label, but aims to integrate education, entrepreneurial training, and cultural learning under one roof just as Nathan consolidated years earlier. Plans include an interactive space commemorating King's important musical and social contributions, as well as visual arts education center. It will, of course, ultimately include a fully functioning private recording studio that serves regional and international artists once again. But it will also operate as a learning laboratory for current Xavier music majors (and their new arts management program), as well as provide an entrepreneurial apprenticeship program for Evanston high school students.

Schadler says planning for the studio and building already crosses multiple academic disciplines at Xavier besides music. He notes that even the School of Business is getting involved by building a solid business plan for the future day to day operations.

Another component that will be integrated into the space involves programming by the Flavor of Art Studio, an Evanston arts anchor for teens and seniors.  The Studio, which originated out of a Leadership Cincinnati Class XXX project designed to make art more accessible to the community, will incorporate visual art into the new facility through education, classes and shows.  As a member of the King Team, Community Council member Anzora Adkins sees visual art as an important component to both tell the community and King's story, but also to connect the partners who are bringing the project to life.

"Art is a tool for how a community defines itself and King Record's kind of epitomizes that. What better way to make sense of how these communities relate to each other?" Adkins says.

The retired CPS teacher got involved in community revitalization to make a difference. Adkins says that when the idea for a community engagement center based on the King legacy was hatched, the Evanston Community Council went to the city for funds to acquire the property where the new studios will now be located. They received $950,000 in June 2009 to purchase land on Montgomery Road. Once built, the facility will be on the front doorstep of Evanston's business district at the gateway of I-71 and Montgomery Road. While the original studio building still exists, its location at the end of no outlet street made it less than an ideal space for a project that wants to connect a community and its educational partners.

Adkins says that when Interstate 71 was built in the 70's it literally divided a thriving Evanston community, sending residents and businesses elsewhere. Ironically it's the access to I-71 at the Montgomery/Dana exchange that makes this project work better now.

"We felt a new development would really help our business district so instead of building on the original studio site at Brewster we wanted to build on Montgomery Road to make an impact," Adkins said.

While grant writing, planning, and programming for the Center have already begun, the physical aspect of the project will begin this May with the demolition and clearing of buildings that occupy the space. The project team is hopeful for an anticipated three-year timeline once fundraising kicks in, with a best case scenario to have the Center and Studio open for business by 2014.

To prepare, the project team took trips to Memphis and Cleveland to help conceptualize the space as a living, breathing center for exploration, learning, and education.  "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame folks suggested to us that 'in real time, learning is going on and you should capitalize on that, even more than a museum idea,'" Schadler says. So one thing was certain: this wouldn't be a stale museum where you view the 'artifacts' and move on. Two charettes helped to identify how best to use the space with the Flavor of Art occupying the first floor, the King Record's experience on the second floor, and the third floor housing the new King Studios. The studio will be part of any building tour, with an exhibit of recording technology, and a recreation of the control room that looks out on the current studio.

To handle the reinvention of a new King Studios, the project team enlisted musician and studio owner John Curley. Curley was a member of the Afghan Whigs, one of Cincinnati's more famous musical exports in the mid-90's. He established Ultrasuede Studio in Camp Washington as a place for local and national talent to make music. When Curley got wind of the King Studio's project, the history and future possibilities drew him in, committing his industry experience and engineering talent.

"When you talk to people in the music business, they all have heard of King," Curley says. "It's like this six degrees of Kevin Bacon, there's an artist with a King connection everywhere. Lots of people, Keith Richards, Joe Perry from Aerosmith, talk about it," Curley says. 

Curley visualizes that studio could do business with some of those international and national clients in awe of the King legacy, as well as provide a space for local production and commercial work. The studio would also function as a teaching space with an apprentice program for local high school students that build a foundation not just for learning how to record music, but to learn about the recording industry too. 

Curley says King Record's history of innovation and diversity has served not only as an inspiration but perhaps even as a guide for the collaborative undertaking that Evanston and Xavier are pursuing.

"(King) is an amazing story of collaboration and integration that began before Stax (in Memphis), which usually gets the credit for that. It was one of the first integrated work places in the country," he adds.

Byron White, an Ohio Vice Chancellor who chairs the King project and was formerly with Xavier's Community Building Institute, says that while there are other universities that have built community partnerships and institutions, this one is actually quite unique because of it's blend of academic, neighborhood, and entrepreneurial partners.

"Usually those partnerships are the university saying 'we want to do something in the community' and they raise money to do something, but ultimately it belongs to the University. This is a community making the first investment, then the University saying 'we'll join you in this, it will be joint-owned, it's not going to be Xavier's institution', yet the university is making a tremendous investment and benefiting from it. It's a different kind of collaboration," White says. "There aren't many institutions in this neighborhood or this city that could pull this off. And King Records is the perfect foundation to make this work."

Want to learn more about King Record's legacy, and the many artists that helped make musical history?  Check out this great primer on King and drummer Phillip Paul that was produced by Think TV/CET for Our Ohio, and funded by the Ohio Farm Bureau with support from the Ohio Humanities Council. 

Photography by Scott Beseler
Chris Schadler, Anzora Adkins, and Byron White
Bootsy Collins and Zella Nathan
Former King Studios on Brewster
Photographs taken during King Studios manufacturing
John Curley of Ultrasuede Studio
Ultrasuede Studio
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