King Records Month brings 'story out of shadows'

Posted at 11:00 AM, Sep 10, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-10 11:00:34-04

Significant events, people and institutions are often honored with a special day, but Cincinnati’s King Records had such a monumental impact on popular music that an entire month is needed.

King Records Month during September marks the 72nd anniversary of the studio’s establishment by offering nearly 30 events and programs, most of them free.

The studio, in business from 1943 to 1971, was a mid-20th-century mecca for musicians of all stripes who weren’t yet mainstream. If you’ve heard of King Records, you likely know that funk and soul artist James Brown recorded many of his early hits in a studio in Evanston. (ArtWorks' new Cincinnati Legends mural “Mr. Dynamite,” at Liberty and Main streets in Over-the-Rhine, portrays Brown crouched over a microphone, pounding out a steamy vocal.)

However, there were many more artists besides Brown. When Syd Nathan, King’s founder and major domo, cranked things up at the Evanston warehouse that still exists, his first recordings were “hillbilly” tunes — what we call bluegrass today — based on his connections and acquaintances at WLW radio, where the weekly show “Midwestern Hayride” had an immense following.

The Producers 

There are many people behind King Records Month; music historian Brian Powers, who works at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, has been a driving force, as has Chris Schadler, project manager with the King Studios initiative based at Xavier University’s Community Building Institute.

Powers put together a panel discussion and photo exhibit at the Cincinnati Public Library in 2008 to mark King’s 65th anniversary. That same year, momentum began to build around Xavier’s initiative to preserve the heritage of the recording studio, which operated near the university campus at 1540 Brewster Ave. Schadler jumped in around the same time.

Their efforts resulted in the placement of a historic marker from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame late in 2008. It reads, “From 1943-1971 King Records forever changed American music. Owner Syd Nathan gave the world bluegrass, R&B, rock and roll, doo-wop, country, soul and funk. With stars from James Brown to the Stanley Brothers and its innovative, integrated business model, Cincinnati’s King Records revolutionized the music industry.”

“I’ve sort of become the main guy putting this together,” Powers said, quickly noting that most of September’s events are happening because so many people in the community want to further the studio’s legacy.

The Set List 

Powers and Schadler have coordinated a comprehensive schedule of events. This coming Sunday is of particular interest to bluegrass fans, featuring appearances by music writer and historian Gary Reid of Roanoke, Virginia, a leading authority on the Stanley Brothers, bluegrass performers also from Virginia, whose hard, lonesome sound flourished for two decades (1946-66). They recorded most of their hits at King Records.

Carter Stanley, left, and Ralph Stanley comprise the Stanley Brothers, who recorded most of their hits at King Records. Photo provided by Cincinnati Public Library

Reid’s comprehensive study of the pair, "The Music of the Stanley Brothers," is the product of 40 years of research that included interviews with musicians, producers, songwriters and bluegrass experts. At 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Public Library, he’ll discuss his book and the brothers’ careers. At 6 p.m. at MOTR Pub, Reid will perform his one-man play with music, "A Life of Sorrow – The Life and Times of Carter Stanley," based on the short tragic life of the guitar-playing, songwriting brother. Reid’s show includes Carter Stanley’s tales of life on the road, recollections of entertainers, his jealousies, insecurities and struggles with alcohol. (He died in 1966 at the age of 41.)

Also on Sunday is an anniversary celebration of King Records’ rhythm and blues output featuring Otis Williams and Philip Paul, recording artists who had long careers there — Williams with his group The Charms, and Paul as a drummer who could play just about any kind of music. The program is set for 4-7 p.m. at Smale Riverfront Park’s Schmidlapp Event Lawn and Stage, adjacent to the Moerlein Lager House. Williams will host the show, which will include multiple musical sets with special guest performers. Afterward, many of the musicians will continue the party from 7 to 10 p.m. at Mr. Pitiful’s (1345 Main St., Over-the-Rhine).

Otis Williams and his group The Charms had a long career at King Records. Photo provided by Cincinnati Public Library

If King Records’ bluegrass legacy catches your fancy, go to The Comet (4579 Hamilton Ave., Northside) at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20, when the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars will perform their annual tribute night to King’s bluegrass musicians, including the Stanley Brothers.

Check out the full schedule for other events, including special programming on public radio stations WVXU and WNKU. If you just want to hear the music, several Cincinnati bars will pay homage to King Records by stocking their jukeboxes with CDs of tunes recorded there. The Comet’s box will feature bluegrass recordings, while Northside Tavern’s (4163 Hamilton Ave.) will be loaded with R&B numbers, including a few too risqué for airplay back in the day. At MOTR Pub you can play funk by James Brown and bluegrass by the Stanley Brothers.

Powers called the September celebration of King Records “the biggest one we’ve done so far.” Schadler chimed in to say, “We’re working hard to bring this story out of the shadows.”