From King Records to Shake-It, meet the pros promoting Cincy's musical heritage

It might not be common knowledge, but rock ‘n roll as we know it owes a lot to Cincinnati.

Historically speaking, King Records and Herzog Studios are a big deal. Their names may be familiar to Cincinnati music insiders, but the general public is largely unaware how significant these two studios truly were.

Cincinnati and its small-but-mighty music industry has ties to such standout 20th century giants as James Brown, Hank Ballard, Patti Page and Hank Williams.

Original music remains alive and well in Cincinnati, but only a few years ago, it seemed the legacy of Cincinnati music was doomed to die with its few remaining artists and studio musicians from the King and Herzog generation. It took the preservation and education efforts of local musicians and music lovers to help the city find a new voice and a place to come alive again.

Music advocates fight to save King Records

Cincinnati rose to a prominent place in the popular music industry when King Records opened its doors in 1943. It was a racially integrated studio before integration was widespread, with African American and white artists collaborating, playing and recording together. The recording and production studio crossed over genres, producing both “hillbilly” country music and R&B. King Records is credited with launching the career of icons like James Brown and highlighting fellow artists Ike Turner and Otis Redding.

King Records closed its doors shortly after the studio’s founding father Syd Nathan died in 1968. The facility, located on a dead-end industrial street in Evanston, fell into disrepair. In the late 1990s, there was talk among community leaders and a few King musicians (such as Bootsy Collins) about doing something to save the space, but the new owner had other plans.

In 2008, the building was designated as a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame historic site. But in 2015, its owner threatened to demolish the building to make room for new development. That’s when a number of historic preservationists from groups around the city fought to secure its designation as a historic landmark.

Today, King’s Evanston facility remains vacant and in disrepair, but it’s protected, and conversations about its future are happening. In 2012, organizers developed a plan to build the King Records Experiential Learning Center on the site, and held citywide events to educate and fundraise for the project. Meanwhile, the studio’s advocates and fans are doing their part to promote the King story and its significance to both Cincinnati’s African American community and American music at large.

King takes a suitcase on the road

Organizers recently launched the King Studios Suitcase Project, part of a nonprofit collaboration between the community of Evanston and Xavier University that strives to further promote King’s legacy. The team engaged local educators for help packaging the King Records story into a relatable conversation that teachers could have with students about music, race, history and economics.

After years of preparation, the Suitcase Project is now available on loan to local teachers from the nonprofit Crayons 2 Computers. The curriculum is packaged in four suitcases — and one guitar case — that mimic the way a gigging musician would have traveled the country in 1950. Each contains interactive real and recreated artifacts from King’s history, as well as timelines, storybooks and an iPad pre-programmed with lessons for various grade levels.

Sean Rhiney is the director of Xavier’s Eigel Center for Community-Engaged Learning. He’s part of the team that designed the Suitcase Project and, in a broader sense, is helping facilitate the relationship between the Evanston community and King Records.

Rhiney believes the King Records story is important and worth saving. He also acknowledges how hard it can be to fund a museum and keep it open.

“Part of this was an economic development engine, building a new place that is an experiential learning center,” says Rhiney. “It was a way to get this out into communities by leveraging the assets of the community. This is our cultural history. It’s an asset for our city. And music is such an easy way to engage people because they connect with it on different levels.”

A musician himself, Rhiney understands the power of music. He co-founded MidPoint Music Festival, a non-traditional, multi-venue event that helped pioneer revitalization in Over-the-Rhine when many residents and investors were still wary.

“[OTR revitalization] seems like old history to us,” Rhiney says. “There’s a disconnect for my age and older. Why would someone 16 or younger even care that [King Records] was such an innovative business model? We had to figure out how to connect this story and make it more contemporary and relevant.”

A legacy of recording on Race

When it came to music, King wasn’t the only game in town. Around the same time on Race Street downtown, WLW engineer E.T. “Bucky” Herzog was bringing in artists like Hank Williams, Rosemary Clooney and Flatt & Scruggs to record tunes that would propel those artists into the national spotlight. The two studios often swapped studio musicians, with “hillbillies” and blues musicians sitting in on sessions together, a collaboration that was decidedly rare for the era.

The Herzog building still stands at 811 Race, and is currently home to CityBeat. The studio ceased operation in the 1950s, and only in the last decade has the building’s former identity been embraced and reclaimed.

The CMHF unveiled Herzog’s historic marker in 2009 and have been steadily reactivating the building as a tribute to local heritage.

Once CMHF co-founder Elliot Ruther learned about the historic significance of Herzog Studios, he jumped on board to support the cause. Ruther is a local musician who has helped rally other locals around rebuilding Herzog’s public reputation as a studio on the front line of American music.

“I was born and raised here, but when I was a kid, I had no idea about all of these connections. This has helped me connect better with my hometown,” says Ruther, who, now as a parent, sees Cincinnati’s music history as a learning opportunity.

“This kind of music brings together people from all backgrounds — economics, religion, age — and it’s an authentic part of Cincinnati history.”

The nonprofit side of the modern Herzog business is working to restore and activate the building. A few months ago, they opened a storefront “emporium,” offering new and used instruments, vintage music gear and records. It is a treasure trove of past and present Cincinnati music, with local music paraphernalia scattered throughout.

Upstairs, the historic recording studio is a work in progress. Thus far, Herzog Music has hosted local CD release parties and community meetings and served as rehearsal space for visiting artists like Patti Smith and Sufjan Stevens.

Herzog partners with local groups like Herzog Music Academy, Folk School Coffee Parlor and Mike’s Music, which all contribute to the collaborative space, offering consignment instruments and repairs, private lessons in the connected studio and public events that include songwriting workshops and kid-friendly sing-alongs.

The future of the Herzog space, much like King Records, is an ongoing conversation. Though it may never become a traditional recording studio or museum, Ruther hopes it helps open up the public conversation about Cincinnati’s rich music heritage and pulls people together to celebrate it.

“What would it be like if we who are living here truly appreciated the diverse music that came from here and helped put it out?” he asks. “To me, it’s an opportunity to celebrate as a fan and a musician. From a broader standpoint of economics and tourism, it’s all present and available for us.”

Selling a diverse ‘Cincinnati sound’

In the mid- to late-20th century, Cincinnati was home to many micro-labels and cottage shops.

Darren Blase, co-owner of Shake-It Records in Northside, discovered the depth of Cincinnati’s music history when buying records as a kid. This was back when he says “everybody was a detective” — long before it was possible to perform a Google search for quick answers to who produced what album. On one particular day, he was caught off guard.

“My junior high school mind was completely blown when I was flipping through a shelf and found a Hank Ballard record and I flipped it over and there was a Cincinnati address,” says Blase. “I’d thought every record came from L.A. or New York.”

That’s when he ventured down the rabbit hole. He discovered many records he loved had ties to Cincinnati, and he was hooked on the search. He researched King Records and other local companies like Camp Washington’s QCA Studios.

He recalls how every week of his youth he would spend $4 of his $27 paycheck on cheap beer and spend the rest at Everybody’s Records in Pleasant Ridge. In 1999, Blase and his brother opened their own shop, which is now a destination record store that also produces local albums and in-house shows.

Shake-It’s local catalog of private releases is eclectic, featuring more recent titles from bands like Wussy and The Tillers, as well as locally-produced vintage reissues. Blase enjoys surprising shoppers with hard-to-find local music. He also says “Ohio” is one of the top searches for eBay shoppers seeking vintage 45s.

Over the next year, Blase says Shake-It will produce six or seven albums. The shop is currently preparing to reissue records by “girl groups” from the '60s, many of which feature women still living in Cincinnati. He wants to get them out to the public while these influential women are still around to see it happen.

One thing that makes Cincinnati’s music culture unique, Blase says, is that unlike New Orleans, Memphis and Seattle, we don’t have an immediately recognizable “sound.” But he sees that as a strength, a sign that Cincinnati is still a place where there’s room for everyone.

In other cities, he says, you know what to expect. But in Cincinnati, it’s more of a treasure hunt. Once you dig into the city’s music history, you find unexpected connections. For Blase, the hunt is still as exciting as it was when he was a kid. He’s consistently surprised by the quality — and diversity — of Cincinnati’s musical output, both then and now.

Thanks to growing interest among musicians and music lovers across the city, King Records and other recording studios like Herzog are no longer a thing of the past. They are now a living history.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.