Rocking Cincinnatis R&B Cradle


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King Records employees in the labels shipping department in the 1950s, early on were proof King adopted an integration policy, and some management positions were occupied by African-Americans.

Among the artists on the King roster were the Stanley Brothers, top; James Brown, center, who cut Papas Got a New Bag for the label; and the saxophonist Earl Bostic, above right, with Kings owner, Syd Nathan.

King started as a so-called hillbilly label in 1943; moved into race music the onetime name for what became rhythm and blues around 1945; and attempted in ways great and small to merge both audiences until it essentially shut down a few years after the death of its owner, Syd Nathan. It never achieved the household-name status of Stax or Motown, but the crowd wants to change that.

Its an appropriately eclectic mix of folks dressed in country and R&B styles from 40 years ago. Theres a septuagenarian African-American man in an ermine coat and felt bowler. Theres a bouffant-haired woman with a hard twang leaning on a walker. Theres even a guy with mutton chops who looks like a rockabilly werewolf.

That would be Billy Davis, onetime guitar player for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. And like many of those assembled today, he recorded for King, the independent label where Charlie Feathers cut One Hand Loose and the R&B singer Little Willie John cut Fever. King is where The Twist was first laid down, by Ballard, and where Wynonie Harris made Good Rockin Tonight.

Now Cincinnati is rediscovering a landmark it barely knew it had. The occasion is the unveiling of a historical marker, financed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, celebrating the site as a historic address. Also announced at the event were plans to establish a King Records Center, including a recording studio, in the neighborhood. (Later this year the University of Illinois Press will publish King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records, by John Hartley Fox.)

Enough about New Orleans, Memphis or Nashville, and other, better-celebrated cradles of popular music. For Cincinnati, its star time.

While no single city has naming rights as the birthplace of rock n roll, the elements that made rock n roll the blend of country, blues and the big beat were being created at King Records, said Larry Nager, former pop music editor for several Cincinnati dailies and the author of the book Memphis Beat. Whether it was the big-voiced jump blues of Wynonie Harris or the hillbilly boogie of Moon Mullican, these were the records that the first generation of rock n rollers were cutting their teeth on.

For about a decade, musicians, fans and local politicians and businesspeople had been working on their own to elevate Kings profile. This place is holy, sacred ground, said John Cranley, a former city councilman, who had started an effort to preserve the structure while in office. In recent years theyve joined together to meet, and to watch their efforts reach a critical mass, in part because of the citys nationally publicized racial problems.

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