The first-ever Print Biography of a Legendary Indie Record Label
It’s rather surprising that a serious biography of King Records hadn’t emerged until this one. After all, King’s legacy takes no backseat to fellow post-World War II indie titans like Atlantic, Chess, and Sun. Like those and many others, it was headed by an outsized personality, the alternately gregarious and abrasive Syd Nathan. He instituted some progressive business policies: keeping his manufacturing in-house; establishing a nationwide network of promotion staffers; having an African-American as one of his staff producers. And alone among its peers, King recorded innovative music in two radically different genres, R&B and country—even to the point of having its artists record songs that were hits on the other side of the fence!
Any label that gave the world both James Brown and the Stanley Brothers would have more than earned its stripes (although Nathan initially balked at releasing Brown’s first song, “Please Please Please” in 1956, and the Stanleys had several years at various labels under their belts when they arrived at King in 1958). But in addition to those cornerstones of American music, King was the label where several major acts of the ‘50s did their best work: the Dominoes, Hank Ballard, Bill Doggett, Little Willie John and the “5” Royales on the R&B side; and the Delmore Brothers, Brown’s Ferry Four and Homer & Jethro on the country side. And, as with all the indie labels back then, dozens of other performers passed through for a couple of sides and maybe a minor hit or two.
But compared to other labels of the era (like the aforementioned three), the documentation of King’s legacy has been spotty. Due to a complicated chain of ownership following Nathan’s passing in 1968, no major American label ever had its hands on the King catalog to oversee a comprehensive reissue program (although Rhino in the US and Ace and Charly in the UK mined the vaults for highly sought-after collections). A massive two-volume King discography was published in 1985, but beyond that there has been only a documentary series Jon Hartley Fox produced for public radio station WYSO-FM in the mid-‘80s (full disclosure—WYSO at the time belonged to my alma mater, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio). Years later, Fox has finally committed the King story to print.
Fox is better at collecting and presenting the facts than arranging them into a dramatic narrative. Most of the book is a laundry list of virtually every artist who recorded for King, with brief blurbs for even the most obscure of the bunch, and longer passages for the cornerstone performers. The chapters which delve into King’s history and modus operandi contain some fascinating material; one wishes Fox would have spent more time teasing that stuff out instead of recovering long-forgotten artists from the corners of the attic. But Fox’s labor-of-love devotion to his cherished King sides may prompt R&B fans to seek out transitional country figures like Moon Mullican and Charlie Feathers, or get country listeners to discover how blues guitarist Freddie King inspired a bunch of English kids who would populate rock’s British Invasion.
Unfortunately, those whose curiosity is piqued by King of the Queen City are on their own; the book suffers from the lack of a basic discography. And a more nuanced and compelling case for King’s importance in the development of American pop music could easily be made, with more attention to what King did (achievements all the more remarkable considering that it was based in Cincinnati, hardly a musical hotspot) and less time spent on third- and fourth-tier performers. But Fox’s sturdy work convincingly asserts and reminds us of that importance, and it’s a reminder that’s been well overdue.