King Records "The King of Them All"
Sydney Nathan was born in Cincinnati on April 27, 1904 suffering from asthma and poor eyesight. He quit school in the ninth grade. During the Depression he tried many things: drummer in a local speakeasy, pawnshop clerk, a jewelry salesmen, amusement park concessionaire and wrestling promoter among other things.
In the late 1930's he opened a wholesale radio shop on West Fifth Street. He later sold the shop and moved to Miami to be near his physician brother David Nathan. There he opened a photofinishing business, but in 1939 Florida experienced snow and sleet which effectively killed the business. He then moved backed to Cincinnati where he opened a record shop in a poor neighborhood. It was here that he first thought of opening a record company targeting the hillbilly market.
In September, 1943 Nathan decided to start a new label, after he was advised to leave the business world because of health problems, to be called King Records. After a false start King was re-launched a year later with $25,000 borrowed from family members. the first records were pressed at the American Printing house for the Blind in Louisville, and sounded so bad that Nathan started a pressing plant along with the record company. In August, 1944 a five year lease was taken on a foot factory site at 1540 Brewster Avenue. Originally King Records was to be a country label. Independents labels faced problems: getting records pressed, distributed and getting paid. To avoid these problems along with recording studios, pressing plant Nathan had his own printing plant and distribution network. King Records was a self sufficient organization.
The Rhythm and Blues market was a wide open one after World War II that King Records pursued.
We saw a need," said Nathan. "Why should we go into all
those towns and only sell to the Hillbilly accounts?" Why can't we sell a few more
while we're there? So we got in the race business
In August, 1945 started Queen records and expanded into rhythm and blue.The first release was "The Honeydripper" by Bull Moose Jackson. Two years later Queen Records became part of King Records.
Queen had one hit Bull Moose Jackson's "I Know Who Threw the Whiskey In the Well, an answer to Lucky Millinder's 1944 hit "Who Threw the Whiskey?"
The last Queen record was by Earl Bostic, an artist who would assure the future of King's R&B, as well as it's uptown image.With the success of Bull Moose Jackson and Earl Bostic convinced Nathan sophistication was the key. Many of the first of King's recording artists were from the big bands .Earl Bostic, who recorded Queen's last record, was one of them. Bostic had played with Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton and written Gene Krupa's1941 hit "Let Me Off Uptown". He recorded 30 albums and was still with the King until his death in 1965.
From 1948 until 1951 King was the "King of Them All" in Rhythm and Blues. "I Love You, Yes I Do" climbed the pop charts in 1948 close behind a cover version by white bandleader Sammy Kaye.
Bull Moose's 1949 hit "Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me?" and Wyonnie Harris' "Bloodshot Eyes" were originally King country records. Nathan wasn't trying to cross over as much as trying to get maximum return on his copyrights and proving good songs knew no boundaries.
Wyonnie Harris was signed in December, 1947 and recorded "Good Rockin' Tonight" just before the recording ban took place. The song had a rock and roll swagger to it. No wonder Elvis Presley would sit on his bed listening to the radio and be transfixed .
Lucky Millender had been writing and working under the table for King Records since 1946, but wasn't signed until 1950. Millender was from Chicago and, in 1934 took over the leadership of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band even though he never played an instrument. He fronted Bill Doggett's band in 1938 and began his own band in 1940 with Doggett as pianist. Many of King's important artist like Henry Glover, Bill Doggett, Wynonie Harris, Annisteen Allen and Bull Moose Jackson came from Millender's band. In 1952 Millender gave up the music business to become a salesman for a distillery. He died in 1966 at age 66.
Sonny Thompson was signed in 1950 from Miracle Records. In October King bought the assets, including Sonny's catalog, from the IRS for $4700. Sonny only had a few hits with King, but became and important A&R man.
Tiny Bradshaw, like Millender, was in The Mills Blues Band and left in 1934 to start his own band. In that year he began recording for Decca Records. Bradshaw had majored in accounting at Wilberforce University. In 1954 Tiny had a succession of strokes. He covered "Short, Shorts" in his last session in 1958 and died that December.
Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and Oran "Hot Lips" Page also came from the big bands. Vinson was leader singer with ex-Ellington Cootie Williams from 1942 to 1945.. He signed with King after being out on his own for four years. His distinctive gnarled vocals were complemented by a grainy tone on his tenor sax. His bald head was a result of an accident with hair straightener.
Hot Lips Page had started in the twenties working with Bessie Smith, Count Basie and others before starting his own bands, big and small. His playing and singing paralleled Louis Armstrong. Page signed with King in 1953 and a year later died from a heart attack. He was 46.
The Dominoes recorded on Federal records, a King subsidiary begun in November, 1950
The squeals and sexual innuendo of "Sixty Minute Man" was a direct contrast to the way Ward ran the Dominoes. Group members were fined for drinking and carrying on. Ward was versed in classical composition and had studied at Julliard. "Sixty Minute Man" wasn't only the best selling R&B record of 1951 but, the highest charted R&B record of all time. Ward is best remembered for his selection of Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson as lead singers.
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were discovered at show in Detroit by Jimmy Otis. At that time they were known as the Royals and sang in the style of the Orioles. In the second session with Federal they recorded "Moonrise" which is generally considered a vocal group classic. Hank Ballard replaced Lawson Smith, who had been drafted into the army, by their third session in 1954. "Work With Me Annie" was written by Ballard on the train to Cincinnati. The band went from a four part harmony to rock and roll after Ballard joined the group. The group name was changed to the Midnighters after 5 Royales threatened legal action.
Many vocal groups recorded for King. The Dominoes, The Royales, The Swallows, The Platters, The 5 Royales, The Charms and others. Among the songs were "Think" and "Dedicated To The One I Love."