Who would have thought that a record label in Cincinnati, whose lifespan is short in comparison to others in the music industry, would produce 461 hits? King Record extensive history of great achievements, along with their contribution to popular culture, has made the music industry, and the city of Cincinnati legendary.
A high school dropout with asthma and poor eyesight, Syd Nathan was unsure of his calling. In the late 1930s, Nathan opened Syd’s Record Shop on West Fifth Street in Cincinnati. The shop was moderately successful, primarily profiting off of mainstream pop hits. It was during this time Nathan lent a jukebox operator $6, a loan that would forever change his life. Instead of the money, the operator offered a plethora of hillbilly, western and race records from his jukeboxes at two cents a platter. Deciding he could make more, Nathan sold the records, making eighteen dollars. He soon became tired of selling things and moved out of the city. However, when bad weather ruined his business, he came back to Cincinnati and opened another shop, this time in a mainly black neighborhood on Central Avenue. Chance brought him to a radio store, where the owner wanted out of the music industry. Luckily, Nathan was able to convince the owner to hand the store to him, and with money cumulated from his family, he began his own company, King Records.
When first starting, King Records solely made hillbilly music because of its popularity amongst radio listeners and customers. This trend changed once Nathan opened Queen Records, a subsidiary of King Records, that was solely for R&B artists. The success of Queen showed Nathan that R&B, and in particular race records, could be profitable, so he began featuring more of the genre and more black artists on his label.
Hank Ballard (November 18, 1927 – March 2, 2003) was an R&B singer and one of the first rock n roll artists to emerge onto the scene in the 1950s. He had hits such as “Annie Had a Baby” and “Annie’s Aunt Fannie,” and was the original writer of “The Twist” before the popular Chubby Checker version was featured in several dance clubs.
Little Willie John (November 15, 1937 – May 26, 1968) was a successful R&B artist who is known for hits such as “All Around the World” and “Fever.”
Shirley Scott (March 14, 1934 – March 10, 2002) was a jazz organist. Mainly garnering influences from gospel and the blues, she played soul jazz with her husband until its decline. She was also a pianist and played the piano with a trio in the 1990s.
James Brown (May 3, 1933 – December 25, 2006) was a musician, dancer, and producer, and bandleader. He is often credited to be the “Godfather of Soul” and the starter of funk music. Brown had hits such as “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud.” He was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
King became a distributor for other independent labels by the early 1960s, since radio airtime was becoming harder to obtain, bring many major artist labels to their door.
However, the popularity of Kings Records was shadowed by Nathan’s declining health. Almost two months before his retirement, Nathan died of a heart disease complicated by pneumonia on March 5, 1968. After, King was sold to Starday Records, and Brown contract and catalog, a big economic gain for King, was leased to Polydor.
King Records changed American music, giving the world a variety of different genres, most notably R&B, Rock n Roll, soul, and funk, but also bluegrass and folk. The record label is known for pushing its stars to the limelight, most notably James Brown who would go to be revered within the music industry. King’s innovation, as well as its artistry, helped shape the recording industry and make it one of the most profuse record labels of all time.