King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records by Jon Hartley Fox (review)
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2010
- pp. 100-101
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS 100 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY J on Hartley Fox’s King of the Queen City explores the story of Cincinnati’s King Records and its owner, Syd Nathan, aiming it largely at fans of mid-twentieth century American popular music. According to Fox, King was one of the most important independent record companies in the United States from the late 1940s through Nathan’s death in March 1968 at the age of sixty-four. King’s importance was largely due to Nathan who started the company from scratch. Nathan enjoyed success because he was entrepreneurial and experimental and because he knew how to use his legendary personality—by turns rude and vulgar, gregarious and expansive—to extract the best from his staff and musicians. Nathan’s eye for profit and ear for what would sell led him to record a wide range of popular music and help give birth to rock and roll. Eventually, King’s stable of artists encompassed bluegrass greats like the Stanley Brothers to James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul.” This breadth made King unique among independent record companies and according to Fox, helped it influence the evolution of a range of popular music in this period. Nathan began as a music entrepreneur when, as a record store owner in downtown Cincinnati in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he discovered that he could sell records to both African Americans and whites and make a good profit doing it. He founded King Records in 1943 with a country repertoire, but rapidly expanded to R&B and the blues. Nathan also hired a racially integrated group of employees to do the daily work at his company. He said that he did this because he was “a Jew and I know what obstacles are. A Jew may have it rough but a Negro has it a lot rougher” (57). Nathan’s commitment to integration rose to the highest levels in the company. In a pioneering 1949 move, he hired Henry Glover, an African American musician , as his artist and repertoire director. Rather than pigeon hole Glover on the R&B and blues King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records Jon Hartley Fox Jon Hartley Fox. King of the Queen City:The Story of King Records. Music in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 280 pp. ISBN: 9780252034688 (cloth), $29.95. BOOK REVIEWS SPRING 2010 101 side of the company, Nathan also had him produce country and “rockabilly” acts. Moreover, Glover recorded white acts covering R&B and the blues, and black acts covering country and rockabilly because with a bit of rearranging the same songs spoke to both audiences and Nathan got double his money’s worth for songs he owned. Fox indicates that Nathan’s success at integrating his workforce came largely because Nathan purposely hired people who were willing to give integration a try, and because like much else in his business model he was willing to bully his employees to do what he wanted. Fox also argues weakly that Nathan successfully integrated King because Cincinnati’s unique status as a “border” town enabled him to draw on both black and white labor pools. He also claims vaguely that workforce integration was not possible in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, either because of the demographic makeup of these cities or racial attitudes or both. Despite these (and other) occasionally weak arguments, fans of King’s music will find this book a treat. Fox explores a broad range of artists who recorded for King as well as important aspects of Nathan’s story and the business end of King Records. Organized largely by music genre, most chapters are a series of loosely connected discussions of the artists who recorded for Nathan interspersed with a few longer narratives covering King’s more important artists . Fox gives his estimation of the importance of each of these and their relationship to the evolution of their genre. Although Fox covers King’s story with great breadth, the narrative often lacks depth. Dealing with so many artists does not allow Fox to focus on the more important ones nor to develop a nuanced interpretation about King’s importance. Perhaps part of the problem is the...