Cincinnati is a city of fascinating legacies – unusual companies, traditions and neighborhoods that, in their heyday, helped the city develop and attract international attention. As interest in urban revival grows, there are ongoing efforts to not let them become part of a dead and forgotten past.
In recent times, such legacies as the city’s old breweries and beer gardens, Rookwood Pottery, streetcars, even historic Over-the-Rhine itself, have been targets for preservation and/or revival. Now, some music lovers are trying to call attention to King Records, a local post-World War II rhythm-and-blues and hard-edged country label that once flourished nationally and was a precursor to rock ‘n’ roll and its attendant pop culture.
Established in 1943 and reaching its peak with label artist James Brown’s mainstream-pop breakthrough in the 1960s, it lasted until the Evanston-based studio officially shuttered in 1971, after owner Sydney Nathan’s 1968 death and the company’s subsequent sale to out-of-town interests.
For other cities lucky enough to have once had record companies crucial to the birth of rock – like Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans and Nashville – that legacy has come alive in recent years through new museums, festivals, nightclubs and music-oriented tourism.
King enthusiasts’ efforts to do something similar here get a boost from a Saturday afternoon symposium, “King Records: A Cincinnati Legacy,” in the Main Library’s Garden Lounge, 800 Vine St. At 1 p.m., a panel with special guests will discuss “The Early Years: Country and Bluegrass.” At 3 p.m., “The Later Years: R&B and the Blues” will be the topic. There also will be an accompanying display of some 65 photos.
The library event is in honor of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the feisty record company, whose first release was by country singer (and, later, “Hee Haw” star) Grandpa Jones. The photo display will stay up in the library’s Cincinnati Room, along with old album jackets and sheet music, through the summer.
“King really says something about this city,” says Brian Powers, the librarian who organized the event. “In its studio, everybody from the (bluegrass) Stanley Brothers to James Brown recorded. King did everything; it was versatile and eclectic. To me, King is a great part of music history. But I don’t think a lot of people know about it.”
Urban legacies in general are important to the new influx of urban dwellers – young people and empty nesters looking for openness in arts and culture coupled with a colorful history and a pedestrian-oriented lifestyle. Wanting authenticity as well as quality, they seek apartments in rehabbed office and factory buildings and historic neighborhoods. They want a distinctive metropolitan experience – not stodgy or frozen in time, but with strong roots and a sense of place.
And they want to reverse the damage done to cities by the post-World War II urban renewal movement, which tried to make them all look the same – temples to modernism built around high-rises, freeways and parking. In short, they want warmth – which a good city, like a great song, needs to exude.
“For a city to understand its authenticity is of great value,” says Tom Murphy, a senior resident fellow for Urban Land Institute and mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994-2005. “As mayor, I felt like my task was to tear down everything from the 1950s and 1960s, when the underlying theory of cities was that they were built around the automobile. That’s the antithesis of what people now look for in cities.”
Along with a renewed civic investment in the city core is a more grass-roots effort to revive interest in some of the city’s forgotten “brands.” Cincinnati recently has seen renewed interest in the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, an important part of its once-flourishing German brewing industry, which operated from 1853 to Prohibition. Moerlein had a national and even international following, being the first American beer to pass Germany’s 1516 Purity Law.
Though originally revived as a brand in 1981 by then-active Hudepohl Brewing Co., Moerlein has had stops and starts until local entrepreneur Greg Hardman bought it in 2004 and started marketing the label as a craft beer. (He has plans to brew it here, eventually.) He has since acquired the names of such old Cincinnati breweries as Burger, Hudepohl, Windish-Mulhauser and John Hauck.
“You can take the old and bring it into the present in a way that makes it relevant to today,” Hardman says. “Christian Moerlein is an iconic name.”
In another revival of a Cincinnati legacy, Christopher Rose in 2006 acquired the assets and trademark rights for Rookwood Pottery Co., which was established in 1880 and won international awards for its art and architectural ceramics. It went bankrupt in 1941. He has started up the kilns again and plans to locate near Findlay Market.
Jim Tarbell, the former city councilman long active in preservation efforts, sees all of what’s happening as a way for the city to brand itself by saving what’s extraordinary from its past. “The reclaiming of our heritage as an instrument for our future growth is so appropriate,” he says. “And it’s happening here.”
King Records has increasingly been making it into discussions of roots-music lovers and record collectors, especially since its founder Nathan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a non-performer) in 1997. It was home not only to the late Brown – the Godfather of Soul – but also many other earlier African-American artists and their now classic blues and rhythm-and-blues songs. Wynonie Harris, Bull Moose Jackson, Billy Ward & His Dominoes, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters all often get cited as key precursors of rock ‘n’ roll. Ballard also recorded the original version of “The Twist.”
In addition, King’s early country artists included Moon Mullican, a Rockabilly Hall of Fame member known as King of the Hillbilly Piano Players, as well as Charlie Feathers, Reno and Smiley, and honky tonk singer Cowboy Copas.
The extent to which King’s legacy can be revived and celebrated by Cincinnatians –is difficult to ascertain. One reason is that it had a slightly disreputable, underground reputation in its time. But it also never created a recognizable King Sound or Cincinnati Sound the way other celebrated labels did. King historians say label owner Nathan was more businessman than music visionary. He wanted to sell hit singles, however and whatever. He originally owned a downtown record store and – like a record store – was a generalist in his tastes.
“He would throw it against the wall and see what happened,” explains Darren Blase, co-owner of Northside’s Shake It Records and a King historian, about Nathan’s aesthetic.
But Nathan had great strengths nevertheless. Unlike most other independent labels, King was an all-in-one operation – artists could record at an on-site studio; their records could be pressed and shipped from an on-site record plant. That gave King a leg up in sales and served as a model for the record industry.
Blase recalls: “I talked with musician Bill Doggett (1956’s instrumental “Honky Tonk,” King’s first major pop hit) once, and he told of recording a single at King on Friday and going into a record store in Chicago on Monday and finding it there. Nobody else could do that – nobody could beat King business-wise. Syd Nathan was a revolutionary.”
Blase compares King to another Cincinnati legacy – one that has never gone out of style. “It should be right up there in respect with Procter & Gamble,” he says.
Steven Rosen grew up in Cincinnati, attended Walnut Hills High School and worked at the Enquirer before becoming a Denver Post arts journalist and then a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. He contributes arts coverage to Cincinnati CityBeat. At one time, he published the fanzine “One Shot: The Magazine of One-Hit Wonders.”