Catching up: A review (of sorts) of the book King of Queen City
A digression, by way of scene and consciousness setting. Here in Eastern Kentucky we got our share of the sheer hell which descended upon my old home in Middle Tennessee. I mean not to complain — a dear friend has posted photos of her home floating down the Harpeth River — but the family bookstore/coffeeshop was two feet under water Sunday night two weeks ago.
We had seen the water coming, had taken precautions (moved books up a shelf or two, and such), and missed obvious things (next time just unplug the damn’d computers and put them up out of harm’s way). And then worked like dogs for three and a half days, with more volunteers than we could properly thank — strangers and friends and people I don’t even like — pulling out the refuse and putting back the pieces.
And then the whole family — our seven-year-old, pulled from school, her uncle, her grandparents, her great grandmother; eight of us all told — headed for a previously scheduled retreat to the outer banks of North Carolina. From the water to the water, by way of recovery. Which worked, actually, and I don’t even eat seafood. Nor, normally, drink wine which comes in a box.
In the middle of the grieving and the leaving (sorry, channeling my lost friend Claire O. for a minute there, and, no, I was not she, I’m not that clever) there wasn’t much time to select beach reading. So I trusted to luck, and grabbed from the stack of books I feel guilty not having read — there are many such stacks everywhere in our house, which is a good thing — Jon Hartley Fox’s King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records, a 2009 publication in the University of Illinois Press’s long-running series, Music in American Life.
All by way of saying I’m writing a poor kind of review by the standards once near and dear. A reflection. A response. An acknowledgment of work which needs acknowledging (and I know it’s come up here once or twice before, at least peripherally).
Mr. Fox’s work on King began as a series of documentaries produced for National Public Radio in the 1980s. He subsequently, if I have understood correctly, went to work in some capacity for the corporate entity which now controls the King archives, save for the James Brown recordings, which Brown harvested himself during contract negotiations at the height of his fame. Respect Mr. Brown.
King, by way of setting its place in the ferment, was one of a series of independent record labels which sprung up after World War II. The other course-changing survivors are better known, and were more focused enterprises: Sun, Chess, and, later, Atlantic. It is Mr. Fox’s charge to argue that King (headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, run by the unknowable legend Syd Nathan, should be mentioned and honored same as those others. More than, even.
In a business sense, Fox’s case is simple: Nathan created (because, for various reasons, he had to, much as apparently I have to descend into parenthetical statements tonight) a fully functional, fully integrated national recording enterprise in a way that nobody has done before or since. He built his own recording studio, mostly because he was such a difficult man that he was thrown out of the only functioning studio to which he had access in Cincinnati. He built his own pressing plant, because it was the only way to get his product to market. He had his own printing plant, because. And regional sales offices. And.
And his main man, his key employee, was African-American, named Henry Glover. Found and produced tons of people, from country sessions to James Brown. King operated with an integrated staff at a time when, as Fox notes, major league baseball was barely integrated, integrated in only the most token of fashions.
Fox’s second point is that King, unlike its best-known competitors, was an eclectic label, not known for a particular sound, simply known for getting to market. And so there was country (the Delmores, the Stanley Brothers, Homer & Jethro, who were also the house band). And gospel (ah, the Swan Silvertones). And doo-wop. And soul. And rockabilly. And a host of neo-jazz proto-rock instrumentals. And whatever else Nathan thought the people he served might buy.
Funny kind of beach reading, I suppose.
Fox makes his case, mostly. I wonder, however, had James Brown not recorded for the label, would it be so fondly remembered? Not to take anything away from the Delmores, nor even from Little Miss Cornshucks (who at least gets her name mentioned). Repeated notations about figures who are are (and, more commonly, are not) in various halls of fame…well, not the measuring stick I’m hunting for.
Fox runs against several problems. He was able to borrow interviews with Glover, but Nathan died in the late 1960s, and was unavailable for comment. As were most of the protagonists, time Fox finally got to the book. By way of compensation or predilection he has organized the chapters thematically, beginning with the best-known artists and then working down to a few paragraphs discussing lesser-known obscurities. Until one catches the rhythm of the thing, that’s a bit jarring, for there are no transitions. And he wanted a little tighter editing, to my ear, simply because certain ideas and examples repeated, as if this were a TV show and we readers needed to be brought up to speed again. Maybe we do; I prefer to trust to memory, and y’all know how faulty that can be.
The other problem…is that I was at the beach without a computer or a stereo, and I kept wanting to HEAR the music Fox writes so joyfully about. Much of which, I suspect, is not in print. Partly because the folks who own the masters now have not seen their value, or have not seen the value in letting others exploit them, or have seen too much value in the masters and not let anybody else have at them. Fox, who worked there, is delicate on the subject.
But it’s a fine book, regardless, written with love and care by somebody who knows the business and the music, and hasn’t lost his way. I only hope the King tapes weren’t lost in the great Nashville flood of 2010. And that my wife doesn’t notice if a few extra packages show up in the mailbox these next few weeks.