When Sun Records’ founder Sam Philips died late last month in Memphis, he was rightly hailed as the man who discovered Elvis Presley and one of the progenitors of rock-and-roll music. Earlier this year, and 412 miles to the northeast, another of rock’s forefathers was remembered for his contributions to music’s contemporary canon.
Syd Nathan, a Cincinnati native who died in 1968, founded King Records in his hometown 60 years ago. The label’s pioneering racial integration and its potent mix of country twang and rhythm-and-blues is celebrated in a tribute CD, which was released nationally in April.
"Hidden Treasures: Cincinnati’s Tribute to King Records’ Legacy," features new renditions of cuts like "Good Rockin’ Tonight," "Train Kept a Rollin," "The Twist" and "Cold Sweat" by Cincinnati artists including native Bootsy Collins and British transplant Peter Frampton.
Today these songs are associated not only with the original artists (Wynonie Harris, Tiny Bradshaw, Hank Ballard, and James Brown) but also the singers and rock acts, including Elvis Presley, the Yardbirds and even Madonna, whose covers made many King releases enduring hits.
When "Hidden Treasures" was released in Cincinnati last year, Terry Stewart, the president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said that three cities, other than the Hall’s home in Cleveland, "can rightfully claim the title of the birthplace of rock and roll: New Orleans, Memphis and Cincinnati. And Cincinnati because of King Records."
King’s founder makes for an unlikely music mogul. An observant Jew and high-school dropout, Syd Nathan suffered from severe near-sightedness and chronic asthma. But he was one of those indomitable characters, many of them Jewish, who shaped the independent music business after World War II.
Independent labels like Sun, Chess and Atlantic staked out their own styles and niches. Nathan’s aim was to create a broader audience for "race music" (any genre by black artists) and "hillbilly music" (as country music was called): genres that were being ignored by the mainstream entertainment companies.
"It’s interesting how things come together," said Robert Beemon, the host of Cincinnati radio’s classic R&B program "You’re on the Air with Mr. Rhythm Man." Nathan’s "motivation was just to make money, he wasn’t any sort of musical or racial pioneer."
Yet King, which Nathan founded in 1943, was the first label to integrate not only musical styles, but also its artists and employees.
The city on the Ohio River provided fertile ground for Nathan’s enterprise. Cincinnati swelled with the northern migration from the South and from Appalachia. "It had this melting pot of black and white people and, of course, black and white music," Beemon said.
African Americans flocked to local nightspots like the Cotton Club, which served as a way station for jazz and R&B musicians from around the country. Country music fans could tune in to two powerful radio stations that drew celebrity appearances.
Legend has it that Nathan started his record empire when he received payment for a debt in the form of 300 used juke box records of "hillbilly" hits. When they sold quickly, he saw a moneymaking opportunity.
Zella Nathan, Nathan’s wife of 17 years, tells the story differently. In the early 1940s, she said, Nathan owned a retail store with a mail order record-business. In wartime, record distributors neglected small operations like Nathan’s, so he decided to press his own discs.
Eventually, the King Records building, housed in a former ice house, grew to become a mammoth and self-sufficient facility outfitted for recording, record pressing, administration and distribution.
"The only thing that wasn’t actually done in that place was the paper insert that the record went in," Beemon said. "You could record a song [Monday] morning, and somebody could buy it on the West Coast on Thursday."
With many white men in the armed services, Nathan drew his labor force from African Americans, Chinese and Japanese workers, and many women from the Kentucky mountains.
"One of the things he had on this application for work was, ‘Do you object to working with a person of a different religion or race," Zella Nathan recalled. "If you put yes, you were not hired." By 1950, King employed 400 people.
"We pay for ability," Nathan is known to have said. "And ability has no race, no religion, no color."
Decades before the success of the civil rights movement, King employed African Americans at all levels, with some black executives even managing white Appalachian bands. Henry Glover, one of King’s top A&R men, owned part of the business: an unheard of achievement for an African American at the time.
Black and white musicians played together as well. "We all got along great," said Philip Paul, a longtime session drummer for King and its other labels, which included Federal, Deluxe and Bethlehem.
According to Beemon, as part of his "cross-pollination of hillbilly and race music," Nathan owned the copyrights to many of the songs he produced: even taking composer’s credits in some cases. "He figured he could get more bang for his buck to have country artists and rhythm-and-blues artists record the same song, often with the same players."
Examples include "Bloodshot Eyes," recorded by R&B star Wynonie Harris and former Hank Williams sideman Hank Penney, and "Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me?" recorded by country artists Wayne Raney and both Bullmoose Jackson and by Little Willie John, who had a hit with the song "Fever" (later covered by Madonna on "Erotica").
Some called Nathan a tyrant, but he escaped the criticism later leveled at other of the era’s record executives, who have been accused of exploiting artists. Even a brush with payola, the disc jockey payoff scandal of the 1950s, has not significantly tarnished Nathan’s reputation.
"He had to have a hand in everything," Paul, who estimates he played on some 350 King records, recalled recently. "It was great at the time because he knew where he was going, and we didn’t."
Ultimately, however, Nathan’s micromanagement meant that no one was qualified to succeed him after a third heart attack proved fatal.
"Really it wasn’t a family business," said Nathan’s grandson, James Engelhardt. "And unfortunately the legacy kind of died with him." In 1971, King Records was sold and its catalog of songs combined with others.
"Hidden Treasures" was envisioned in part as a way to revive Nathan’s legacy.
The project was launched by the Inclusion Network, a Cincinnati-based non-profit organization, begun in 1993 by the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation, that promotes equal opportunity for people with disabilities.
The network’s board president, Neal Mayerson, and Dale Rabiner, the founder of the Cincinnati’s J-Curve Records, also saw the project as a morale-booster for a city still reeling from the riotous civil unrest sparked by a police shooting in 2001.
Mayerson said that 10,000 copies of "Hidden Treasures" have sold in Cincinnati alone, with proceeds going to the Inclusion Network. The bands on the CD are local stars, with some tracks mirroring King Records’ stylistic hybridization.
Philip Paul, for example, performs a duet with rock guitarist Peter Frampton on Freddie King’s 1960 blues original "Hide Away." (Paul released his first solo CD, "It’s About Time," this week on his 78th birthday.) Another track, "Good Rockin’ Tonight," features the African American blues singer Sweet Alice Hoskins with the Dallas Moore Band, which Mayerson described as "a kind of redneck biker boy band."
Promotions for "Hidden Treasures" portray Nathan as a social progressive who "had a sense and later a dream that music and the music industry could be different, could be more inclusive." But Mayerson denies any attempt at revising history.
"We’re not calling him a saint," Mayerson said. "But there are facts about what he did. He did what he did, and it was inspirational."
"Hidden Treasures" is available at record stores nationwide and at www.inclusion.org. "You’re on the Air with Mr. Rhythm Man" can be heard Saturday nights from 6-9 p.m. on www.wnku.com.