The Label That Would be King
Myth says rock ‘n’ roll was created at places such as Sun Records, when they crossed blues and country. But deliberate stylistic amalgamation was hardly the only way these streams met. As several recent releases remind us, there was, for instance, the more haphazard, less self-conscious approach fostered by Cincinnati-based King Records.
No one’s lining up for “I’ve Been to the Legendary King Records Studio” T-shirts at the former icehouse which was home for that extraordinary independent label; the building, in fact, is a ruin. But King’s role in shaping popular American music was every bit as significant as that of Sun or Atlantic.
King was founded in 1944 as a hillbilly label by Sid Nathan (1904-1968), a fast-talking, jelly-jar-bespectacled, cigar-chomping, asthmatic 375-pound department store operator who had fully equal passions for making two things: music and money. This combination was enough, it seems, to take him treading where others feared.
The nearby “Boone County Jamboree” radio show (celebrated on the 1997 Bloodshot tribute Straight Outta Boone County) gave Nathan access to a country stable that included Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers and Hank Penny; he quickly added Moon Mullican, Wayne Raney and Hawkshaw Hawkins, plus emerging bluegrass masters the Stanley Brothers and Reno & Smiley.
The war economy had brought both white and black working-class audiences to Cincinnati, and King stepped up to serve both. Ties built to the local, jumping Lucky Millender Swing Band alone would bring such stars to King (and blues subsidiary Federal) as Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown, Bull Moose Jackson, Big Jay McNeely and Tiny Bradshaw. Most importantly, the Millender ties brought King the arranger, producer and songwriter Henry Glover (1921-1991).
A graduate of Alabama A&M who’d left grad school to play trumpet, Glover became crucial in establishing sounds and songs at King. Nathan hired him — as the first black A&R director at a white-owned record company — to work with both R&B and C&W artists. There has never been the slightest suggestion of paternalism or condescension in Nathan’s then unique, partner-like dealings with Glover; both wrote key songs under their own names and pseudonyms and worked to maximize use of the King publishing catalogue.
In practice, this meant something extraordinary — that country artists would record King R&B hits, and vice versa. That’s how the Stanley Brothers came to record Hank Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time”, how Wynonie Harris found Hank Penny’s “Bloodshot Eyes” and Moon Mullican’s “Tremblin’,” and how Bull Moose Jackson scored with Wayne Raney’s “Why Don’t You Haul Off And Love Me”.
Glover told R&B chronicler Arnold Shaw, “You couldn’t sell Wynonie Harris to country folk, and black folk weren’t buying Hank Penny — but black folk might buy Wynonie Harris doing a country song.” Twang harmonica cat Wayne Raney reported that he brought to the Delmores a guitar riff taught to him by Glover, and together they turned it into “Blues Stay Away From Me”. That Delmore Brothers country classic would itself be King-covered by blues great Lonnie Johnson, whose own King single “Tomorrow Night” would later be interpreted by Elvis and Dylan.
These records worked because Nathan and Glover looked for similar qualities in all of their artists, regardless of style or background — a special ability to handle rhythm (whether Moon Mullican or Big Jay McNeely), and the ability to hold people with a story (whether Roy Brown or T. Texas Tyler).
If none of the resulting recordings were paradigm-shifting hybrids, many were very good country or R&B records with special edge and flavor. If no Elvis emerged for King, a fresh kick from across the tracks was added for a variety of adventurous artists.
The recent reissue from the UK label Ace, King Hillbilly Bop ‘n’ Boogie: King/Federal Roots Of Rockabilly 1944-56, shows what the King approach actually accomplished. The CD puts together 26 R&B and jump-influenced cuts by King country boogie era artists that presage the later rockabilly sound. It’s a revelation to hear Grandpa Jones, no less, taking off with electric-backed boogie in 1946, or Bill Carlisle’s “Rockin’ Chair Money” (covered later by Hank Williams), or Redd Stewart’s “Brother, Drop Dead”. They’ve got the jump spirit and some of its content, but they’re unabashedly country records.
Mullican’s pre-Jerry Lee Lewis, post-western swing twang piano pumping is found on the new twofer from Proper Records, I’ll Sail My Ship Alone, and unstoppable jump king Wynonie Harris’ turns on country songs can be heard anew on the inexpensive Proper box set Rockin’ The Blues and the Ace disc Lovin’ Machine.
Nathan initially doubted the staying power of a Georgia artist hipster that producer Ralph Bass found for him, because this kid wasn’t exactly singing; he just kept shouting, “Please, please, please, please!” It worked out. James Brown, who’d change our notions of rhythm and had much to say about racial dignity and identity, was a huge King artist. He’d wind up owning a large chunk of the company, and talked like a true King veteran when asked to comment on the emergence of rap, with its mixture of strong rhythm and storytelling: “You know, Buddy Holly and I were doing that a long time ago.”
Maybe the most fitting new King salute is Hidden Treasures: Cincinnati’s Tribute To King Records’ Legacy. Acts as diverse as the Ass Ponys, Peter Frampton, Bootsy Collins and Blessid Union Of Souls offer up engaging new takes on King R&B and country hits for the benefit of the Inclusion Network (www.inclusion.org), an organization that fosters inclusion of people with disabilities into work and community life. As the liner notes say:
“The King Records story is one of people with different life experiences working together to produce something that would not have been possible if they had not come together”.