CINCINNATI -- In the late winter/early spring of 1956 – when high school senior Oscar Robertson was being recruited by the University of Cincinnati and 20-year-old Frank Robinson was debuting with the Cincinnati Reds – a different scene was being played out in nearby Evanston and Over-the-Rhine, respectively, by men known for their work in a smaller space.
One a singer, the other a boxer.
As future international Top Ten-ers in their chosen fields, they should need no introduction.
And, yet, they do.
In 1956, 22-year-old James Brown, after years of trying, recorded his first hit, “Please Please Please,” at King Records on Brewster Avenue.
And 34-year-old former heavyweight champion of the world Ezzard Charles, who only 18 months earlier had lost his second of two great fights with Rocky Marciano, attacked the hills of Eden Park preparing for his fight with Don Jasper in Windsor, Ontario.
Now, in the autumn of 2015, the no-longer-with-us Brown and “Ezz” are returning to center stage within a week of one another, their freshly painted ArtWorks murals gracing – and jazzing up – the three blocks of Liberty Street between Main and Race.
Early last Friday evening, as the funk beat of Brown's “Get on the Good Foot” put a bounce into the steps of passersby and lyrics on their lips ("Got to get on the good foot; got to do it on the good foot”), Brown's mural at Main and Liberty was dedicated under a sky almost as blue as the blue in Brown's cobalt-blue suit.
And this coming Saturday afternoon, only 1½ blocks from the Over-the-Rhine Boxing Center at Race and Green Streets, which features the ring in which Charles defeated Joey Maxim at Cincinnati Gardens to springboard him toward the world heavyweight championship, Charles' mural at Republic and Liberty will be feted.
It is a remarkable cultural confluence that we consider:
It was a year when the baseball player Robinson, from Oakland, Calif., found life so much easier in Walnut Hills that he chose to live in a segregated hotel (the Manse), and prep star Robertson, from Indianapolis (he was being recruited throughout the country), found it necessary to tell the coach of the all-white UC basketball team that one of the four things he desired from his experience at UC was “I want no black problem.”
In fact, one of the few places in the white society of Cincinnati where there was “no black problem” was the recording studio at 1540 Brewster Ave., where Brown cut his first hit, and Oscar Robertson's mother cut a demo record that may have played a key role in Robertson becoming a Bearcat.
As Robertson himself explains in his autobiography, “Oscar Robertson, The Big O,” his high school coach and mother each thought the other controlled Oscar's collegiate fate (“In the end ... I was my own man,” wrote Robertson), although it was his mother seeking and securing an audition at King Records for some of her spiritual songs – and touring the integrated plant – that eased her mind about entrusting her son to UC, and really, to the city of Cincinnati.
Most of the 10 greatest hits of Brown's career were recorded at King Records.
A decade ago, former Cincinnati Reds star and Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson recalled how as a rookie on Opening Day 1956 he drove his brand-spanking-new, two-tone, green and white '56 Ford Fairlane to Crosley Field from the Manse Hotel, where he had quite a record collection, undoubtedly including “Please Please Please.”
"1956 was a great year for music," recalls Otis Williams, a King pioneer in doo-wop music, as we sit inside Mr. Pitiful's on Main Street, only three blocks from the mural of Brown, whom Williams knew well.
“That year spawned Little Richard ('Long Tall Sally' on the heels of 'Tutti-Frutti' in late 1955), Bo Diddley ('Who Do You Love'), B.B. King ('Singin' the Blues,' his debut album) and Elvis Presley with ‘Hound Dog’ ... How did those first three guys – black artists all, and you can include Ray Charles in that – have their first big hit records in the same year? They weren't do anything different. It's just that the people caught up with the times.”
It is magical to listen to Elvis Presley on Dec. 4, 1956, tell his young jam mates – Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash – of being mesmerized by a performer in Las Vegas a few weeks earlier. Joyfully, that incredible Presley jam session, dubbed the “Million-Dollar Quartet,” was recorded for posterity when producer Sam Phillips allowed his tape machine to run unchecked while the group improvised at Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis.
“There's a guy out there who's doin' a takeoff of me: 'Don't Be Cruel,' ” recalled Elvis. “He tried so hard, till he got much better, much better than that record of mine. He got the backin' of the whole quartet. They got the feelin' on it ... Grabbed the microphone, went down to the last note, went all the way down to the floor, lookin' straight up at the ceiling. Man, he cut me.”
And who was this young man Elvis was describing? None other than the great Jackie Wilson of “Billy Ward and His Dominoes,” yet another outstanding group in the King stable.
Those who know the King Records story know that Otis Williams, a former football and basketball star at Withrow High School, deserves a mural of his own somewhere.
It was Williams who in 1954 with his group "The Charms" first began to achieve some commercial success by an African-American artist for King. "Hearts of Stone" spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the rhythm-and-blues charts, and spiked at No. 15 on the pop charts). Also in '54, he wrote “Two Hearts, Two Kisses (Make One Love),” which Pat Boone turned into a major hit covered by Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. “Gum Drop” hit in '55.
King/Williams did even better with "Ivory Tower" in 1956, No. 5 R&B and No. 11 Pop.
The 19-year-old Williams was touring in California when he received a call from King Records' magnate Syd Nathan, who wanted to play Williams a song on the phone, "Please Please Please," by young James Brown.
Williams admits he didn't get along with Brown.
“Over time, I came to realize he was a genius – he knew what he wanted, and he went out and got it,” Williams said. “But he was fixated on me, because I had what he wanted. And he didn't want anybody over him. But I was good to him. I let him sleep on the floor of my apartment in Walnut Hills.
“I had the hits; I was the guy who paid the musicians (even though Williams was three years younger than Brown). Mr. Nathan didn't want to be bothered with James. He finally let James cut a record. And that was 'Please Please Please.' ”
Nathan didn't care for “Please” at all, telling confidantes he regarded it as a “piece of crap.” (In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine's “500 Greatest Songs of All-Time” ranked “Please Please Please” at No. 142. Almost every music critic has it among Brown's 10 best songs, some as high as No. 2.)
But part of Nathan's genius, besides having blacks and whites work together – in the studio as well as on the floor where the entire production process was done in-house (recording, mastering, printing, pressing and shipping) – is that he hired talented people, black and white, delegated freely, and, by and large, trusted their opinions.
“Tell me what you think,” he said over the phone to Williams, who at the time was higher in the cross-over category than any of his African-American contemporaries, including Ray Charles, Little Richard or James Brown, because it was the doo-wop era – vocal harmonizing of a mainstream, pop-oriented rhythm-and-blues.
Yes, the beautiful thing about Williams is that Nathan trusted him – as a teenager. Even from the beginning, Williams had access that the session men didn't have. The session men dropped into the King studio for four-song, three-hour sessions (“anything over that is overtime,” Williams said, “and Syd didn't like overtime”).
Williams, on the other hand, had the run of the place, moving about freely, including going upstairs (“walking up the steps,” Williams calls it), gaining and giving counsel. He knew which artists were being booked for studio time and which songs they were going to record. Williams is the one person still around who knows how King Records worked.
So it was natural when Nathan called and asked him to listen to “Please Please Please.”
"Sure, sure, put it on," Williams told Nathan.
When the song was over, Nathan asked the phenom what he thought.
"It's a hit," Williams answered. “I've never heard anything like it before.”
"How can that be?" Nathan asked. "He keeps repeating the same thing over and over again, 'please please please.' But I'm going to listen to you and Henry Glover (King's talent-recruiter and developer, aka ‘A&R Man,’ which stands for ‘Artistic and Repertoire’), because he told me the same thing. That's two against one."
All the while, the former champ Charles was either hanging out at his home in Avondale, doing morning road work in Eden Park and afternoon training at his gym at 401 Clark St. (“Ezzard Charles Health and Athletic Club,” not far from where he grew up with his grandmother and great-grandmother on Lincoln Park Drive, now Ezzard Charles Drive). On some evenings, Ezz would catch the musical acts at the Cotton Club at Sixth and Mound from his perch upstairs with the light man.
“Up there, we didn't have to look over anybody's heads to see the show,” explained Billy Means, who did morning runs with Charles, worked his corner and attended shows with him.
Charles was no musical slouch himself, good enough on upright bass that he would occasionally be invited up on stage to sit in with jazz groups, including some of the greats in New York City at the Birdland Club when Ezz was top of the world in the early 1950s.
The jazz composer George Russell even cut a song for him, "Ezz-thetic" (when else – March of 1956), “Ezz-Thetics” being a footnoted-phrase on the mural's championship-belt-like icon.
It all serves to remind us what a remarkable musical and athletic stew there was in Cincinnati in the late 1950s, not only when James Brown and Ezzard Charles and Frank Robinson and Oscar Robertson were here, but also when Cassius Clay (later, adopting the name of Muhammad Ali) drove up from Louisville to fight fellow young touted amateur Billy Joiner at the outdoor Parkway Arena on Central Parkway before Clay headed for the Olympics in Rome to win his own solid gold.
If there's a script/soundtrack writer out there, go heavy on Brown's “Please Please Please” (1956), “Try Me” (1958) and “Night Train”(1961), because they were all big hits while Ezz was still in town (he moved to Chicago in 1963 to take a job with Gallo Wine).
Actually, go heavy on anything from Brown's great “Live at the Apollo” album (1962), which also includes “I'll Go Crazy” and “Think,” a cover of another King group, the Five Royales, with instrumental backing from Brown's “Famous Flames” that presages Brown's seminal funk groove later in the decade.
This from my longtime friend and Brown aficionado David Lowery in the Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman:
“In the deep woods of Southside Virginia, where I grew up, the only radio station I could bring in with any consistency and clarity was WLAC, in Nashville, Tenn. On my tiny Japanese transistor radio, I heard the full-bore soul sponsored by Ernie's Record Mart ... I ordered a lot of 98-cent records from Ernie's in the early '60s, including James Brown's 'Think' and 'Try Me.'
“Growing up on black music in Klan country was a little strange, but I wasn't alone. Some of my friends were as deep into it as I was, and eventually the disconnect between our love of black music and the racism around us changed us forever. It didn't happen overnight, but you couldn't love the music like we did and hate the people making it.”
For me, that says it all.
Two great performers, Brown and Charles, attracting black and whites alike to their performances in 1956 and beyond.
And now, hopefully, doing the same with their murals.
ArtWorks is having another party for the public Saturday, dedicating the Ezz mural at Republic and Liberty from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
It's just around the corner of Kaze Japanese restaurant at 1400 Vine in the old “Paint” Building in what is now the ultra-hip Gateway District. In the late 1940s, it is where dreams of a different kind were hatched on the second floor. It is where Ezz trained just after World War II and three years later was crowned heavyweight champion of the world.
Ezz was living the high life while the orphaned Brown – his mother left home shortly after having him at 16, and his largely absent father wasn't able to have much influence on him; basically, he was “raised” by an aunt who ran a brothel in Augusta, Ga. – was in the Georgia Juvenile Reformatory for three years for armed robbery.
A juxtaposition that serves only to make for a better murals story.
Baby, let me take you by the hand,
Baby, baby, let me be your lover man.
Baby, please don't go.
– James Brown in “Please Please Please,” King Records, 1956.
John Erardi has covered Cincinnati sports for 30 years. He is a two-time Associated Press Ohio Sports Writer of the Year and co-author of six books on the Reds, including "Big Red Dynasty" and "Crosley Field." His most recent book is "The Mud Daddy Chronicles," a memoir of 30+ years of fishing trips.