Discovering Musical History on Race Street

Stepping off the elevator on to the empty second floor of 811 Race Street, visitors are greeted by tired and gray stained carpet, drywall painted a sea foam green and a white drop tile ceiling, circa 1982. The building's top floors currently serve as the busy world headquarters for alternative weekly, CityBeat, and the first floor once housed Artworks but you would be hard pressed to find anything special or historical about the empty space on the building's second floor. 

Except for this: there are those who believe that the second floor of 811 Race was home to what may have very well been one of the single most important recording studios in popular music history - home to recordings by country legend Hank Williams and some of the first rhythm & blues records ever made.  Leading the charge in unearthing the studio's rich history is the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation, led by President Elliot Ruther.

And while Ruther isn't willing to proclaim Herzog - the name of the former recording studio which operated from 1945 to 1955 at 811 Race -to be as historically important as say, Sun Studio in Memphis, there's little doubt that important contributions to popular music happened in this space over fifty years ago.  Ruther does believe that Herzog Studios is an important site which could bring significant international notice to Cincinnati.

"We have an opportunity to bring a greater international presence into this city by showcasing our musical history," he says.

In addition to Ruther, the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation is led by a diverse mix of musicians and local business people, including Patti Collins, Business Affairs Director for Bootzilla Productions and wife of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bootsy Collins, musician and city council aide Marvin Hawkins, local music historian Chris Burgan, African American Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sean Rugless, Shake It Records' owner Darren Blase, former P&G exec Russell Driver, and former Cincinnati USA Chamber PR spokesman, Raymond "Buz" Buse.  The group's primary attention has been focused on unearthing and documenting Cincinnati's rich musical heritage including the erection of historic markers at the old King Records Studio location on Brewster Avenue in Evanston, as well as in front of Herzog Studios downtown.

Recent musical archaeology conducted by the Foundation and Hamilton County librarian Brian Powers has determined that Herzog was operated under the auspices of its namesake, WLW engineer Earl "Bucky" Herzog.  Assisted by his brother Charles, Earl operated the city's first independent recording studio and live performance space. Herzog Studios actually predated the better known King Records.  King's owner Syd Nathan recorded numerous artists at Herzog prior to the construction of his own studio in Evanston.

In the decade after WWII, landmark R&B, bluegrass, country, pop and jazz recordings were made at the Herzog studios by artists like The Delmore Brothers, Patti Page, and Flatt and Scruggs. Most of these artists recorded at Herzog after performing at nearby WLW which, at the time, broadcast not only recorded music but also regularly featured live performances from the same artists.

An intimate fund-raising concert will be held at Herzog August 30th and feature Cincinnati country rocker Dallas Moore and legendary guitarist Jody Payne.  Payne, a graduate of Norwood High School, played with Willie Nelson for 33 years. The purpose of the fund-raising show Ruther explains, "is several fold [but] foremost, the show commemorates the 61st Anniversary of Hank William's sessions at Herzog."  Ruther says the show, called "Hank to Thank," is also a nod to a special recognition the Herzog space recently received.
"Leading Hank Williams scholars have confirmed that the Herzog Studio now represents the last surviving structure, anywhere, in which Hank Williams commercially recorded,"  he says. 

Research also demonstrates that Herzog was also the recording site for many classical, Jazz and R&B recordings, including the first rhythm and blues sessions of Bull Moose Jackson sixty years ago. Jackson's "Big Ten Inch Record" was covered to great acclaim by Aerosmith, and his recording of "HoneyDripper" is considered to be the very first R&B recording. 

The "Hank to Thank" show is also important, Ruther notes as it serves as a complementary fundraiser to further the Heritage's continuing efforts and celebrates another piece of good news. "Given the receipt of a recent anonymous grant," Ruther explains, "the Heritage Foundation has signed a year-long lease. This lease provides the Foundation an opportunity to prove that we can make Herzog Studios viable." 

Above all, Ruther wants to link Cincinnati's musical past and present. He hopes that Herzog will become the epicenter of local music; the collective living room for all members and genres of the local music movement. Such a symbiotic relationship is, Ruther believes, not only logical, but essential to the success of the Foundation. "From the very beginning," Ruther notes, "the Foundation has been driven by the local music scene whether it be Bootsy [Collins], Chris Burgan, or others."

In this vein, the Foundation plans on using the Herzog space as their new headquarters, a venue in which to host musical events and exhibits as well as other performances which would permit Cincinnati to celebrate its rich musical history. Ruther also states that he can see the day when the Herzog space will again be used for recording and hopes that one day soon the space will become a central location for the MidPoint Music Festival.

Recently the space was revived once again as a studio by local recording engineer Dave Davis.  Davis recorded a tribute concert given by the Comet BlueGrass All-Stars on the sixty-fifth anniversary of Flatt and Scruggs recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" at Herzog.  Davis also supports the resurrection of the space noting that the room retains much of the same acoustics as during its original operation. He also noted that from a historical perspective, "Herzog studio was also one of the first independent studios."  Davis added that, "the room is also important because it served as a link between the performance era [at local radio stations] - particularly WLW, and the recording era."

Ultimately, it's hard for Ruther to say exactly what will become of Herzog Studios. The more he unearths, the more he finds. "There are several lifetimes of work here for anyone interested," he says. Thus, despite the hard work of everyone involved, there's much that remains unknown about the spot. 

A prime example being the Moore show itself. After agreeing to do the show, Moore discussed Herzog with his mother. "To his complete surprise," Ruther says, "Dallas learned that his mother had recorded there in the fifties- a fact unknown to him when he signed on to do the show."

Whatever the past, the future of Herzog is exciting not only for music junkies but for the entire community. It's clear that the plain empty room on the second floor has many people excited. It's also clear that, in time, the future may very well uncover a momentous musical discovery that could place 811 Race at the heart of popular music history.

Want to attend "Hank to Thank"?  You can buy tickets here.  

Photography by Scott Beseler.

Herzog Studio historical marker

Elliot Ruther

Herzog Studio marker ceremony

Historical photo of a recording session at Herzog Studio

Hank Williams and his players at Cincinnati radio station WCKY

Current photo of Herzog Studio

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