In the mid 1950s, Cincinnati recording studio King Records was a hit powerhouse, featuring R&B artists like James Brown and country acts like Moon Mullican, Charlie Feathers, and Hank Ballard & the Midnighters. After it was shuttered in the 1970s, the studio fell off the radar of many local music lovers, though the memories and legacy artists lives on.
Today, a devoted group of nonprofits, organizers, and policy makers are working to promote and preserve the historic studio. In 2008, Soapbox reported on a King Records History Symposium held at the main downtown library. As part of our Ten Year Anniversary Series, Soapbox explores new developments in the fight to keep King’s legacy alive and what the future holds for this important piece of Cincinnati history.
Though local historians, legacy artists and the community of Evanston continued to care about preserving the King legacy all along, 2008 was a watershed year for growing the awareness of the general public. That year, an historical marker was placed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the studio site at 1540 Brewster Ave. through the advocacy of Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation, the Bootsy Collins Foundation and others.
After the dedication ceremony, more than 50 legacy King artists, session players, and former employees attended a summit at Xavier’s Cintas Center, the largest such gathering since the studio’s closing.
In the years that followed, a collaborative group of community members and supporters through Xavier University founded King Studios LLC with the express purpose of preserving King’s history. Through the efforts of community organizers, public knowledge of the studio and its significance began to grow. In 2009, the New York Times ran a piece about King, the first by a major national news outlet.
Organizers also began new initiatives around education, including the creation of the Traveling Suitcases project which puts educational toolkits in the hands of K-12 educators, helping to share the King story with the next generation. September was declared King Records month, which is celebrated annually with musical performances, talks, historical exhibits, street festivals, and more.
As King Studios education committee co-chair Sean Rhiney said, “The most important thing is that this has been the work of so many people...the artists and community members have this vision for celebrating the asset of King Records.”
These community efforts ultimately led city council to declare the King Records building as a historical landmark in 2015. At that time, the property was owned by Dynamic Industries, a light manufacturing operator. When they sought a demolition permit, council intervened to limit the ability of the owners to destroy the site. In a unanimous 2015 vote, Cincinnati City Council changed the building’s zoning, making it more difficult to obtain permission to demolish the structure. Supporters hoped that securing historical landmark status would lead to eventual studio redevelopment, turning the building into a museum and memorial space.
This year, advocates got one step closer to this goal when city council struck a land swap deal that puts ownership of King Records in the hands of the city. In April, Cincinnati City’s Council’s Economic Growth and Zoning Committee unanimously approved an agreement to transfer ownership of the building from Dynamic Industries to the city, in exchange for two acres of undeveloped city property adjacent to another Dynamic Industries location.
With the building now under city protection, its future is looking brighter than ever before. Though no plans have been drawn up and significant coalition fundraising efforts will be necessary, the building may be one step closer to reviving the legacy in a more tangible way for visitors and Evanston residents alike.
"There has been great initiative from the city," said Rhiney. "Mayor Cranley and former councilmember Yvette Simpson have both been movers." With the support of local officials, "there’s been more and more recognition over the years."
Cincinnati cultural institutions such as WVXU, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and other organizations have also helped to build this recognition. In 2017, WVXU aired an award-winning series of King Records Month specials to critical acclaim. In November 2018, a new work by playwright KJ Sanchez titled “Cincinnati King” will debut at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The “docu-juke box musical” will explore the history of King Records and race relations in the 1950s.
Though a brick and mortar museum is still a ways off, the online digital museum on the King Studios website is open year round, and organizing for the 75th anniversary of the studio is underway.
When Rhiney became involved with King Records organizing in the early 2000s, he said that "there was this notion of independent artists thriving in Cincinnati but under the radar. Here was this great asset that existed but few people were connected to."
Today, the King Records story is one of ever-increasing connection. From legacy artists to Evanston residents, council members to major universities, the community will continue to work together to write the next chapter of the King Records story.