Due to “bandwith” issues, this dense, graphics-laden micro-history of King Records from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s has been temporarily archived in order to make room for two epic Silver Spring, Maryland music history pieces: (1) a Track Recorders ‘re-boot’ that will be followed soon after by (2) a detailed history of Gene Rosenthal & Adelphi Records.
Stay tuned to this space for a link to “Rare & Unissued King Tracks” when it returns in all its magnificence to Zero to 180.
Podcasts are great and all, but nothing compares to the magic & excitement of live radio!
A recent exchange with WPFW radio’s Andrea Bray – at Andrea’s Fine Hats in DC just over the line from Silver Spring – unexpectedly resulted in an invitation to join her on the air this past Saturday to celebrate the musical legacy of Bill Doggett, whose career spans the more traditional blues, jazz, and swing eras into the new R&B and funk ushered in by his King Records labelmate, James Brown. Bill Doggett’s spirit turns 100 years today, and Doggett’s nephew, Bill Doggett II, joined us on the “The Andrea Bray Show“ from the west coast to inform WPFW listeners how an improvisation started by Bill Doggett’s bandmates in a Lima, Ohio hotel room became “the most important and first R&B instrumental of the early rock & roll era to cross over” into the pop market. “Honky Tonk” would show remarkable staying power as it entered the Billboard Top 100 chart on August 18, 1956 and – according to those fine folks at Ace UK – “stayed in the national pop listings for 29 weeks, peaking at #2 (naturally it went to #1 R&B).” Keeping it from the top spot, unfortunately, was that dastardly Elvis double A-side “Hound Dog” b/w “Don’t Be Cruel”!
#1 in zero to 180’s book
What great and glorious fun it was to chat up Ms. Andrea about King Records history, as we played “Honky Tonk,” examined the Bill Doggett legacy, and then followed the song with its funky ‘re-boot’ from 1969 (produced by James Brown) on which Doggett is backed by The J.B.’s – “Honky Tonk Popcorn“:
“Honky Tonk Popcorn” Bill Doggett 1969
Doggett II would point out that Nathan was initially opposed to releasing “Part 2” – a jukebox favorite, interestingly. According to the liner notes in Ace UK compilation, Honky Tonk! The King & Federal R&B Instrumentals: “The late Jim Wilson (King’s branch manager in Detroit) insisted, however, that [King A&R director, Henry] Glover must take credit for convincing Syd Nathan to release the record in two parts.” According to Greg Evans, in the June 1986 issue of Cincinnati Magazine, “[Doggett’s] biggest hit, the song his audiences still request, remains ‘Honky Tonk, Part 2.'”
Live radio is an improvisational dance, and the joint really got jumping when another former Cincinnati boy – a caller named Benjamin who grew up around the corner from King – phoned in and regaled listeners with stories of Cadillacs pulling up to the King studios, famous sightings (Ruth Brown, Johnny Ace, Hank Ballard, Tiny Bradshaw, JB, of course) and most of all, stealing items from the “pink ashcan” – rejected/warped King vinyl that played like new after attaching a silver dollar with a rubber band to the turntable’s tonearm!
Greg Evans would write his Cincinnati Magazine piece while Doggett was still performing (even though, as he playfully observed, “baby, that organ gets heavier every year”) and include numerous quotes from the Hammond master himself about the “tremendous operation” of Syd Nathan, who – according to Shad O’Shea (or ‘O’Shay’) “was the one single man who can be credited with bringing black music to the masses.” Doggett, for example, would note that “When I recorded for King, you could do a session at 2 in the afternoon, finish by 5 or 6, and have the records on a truck to the distributors by 8 the next morning. It was a complete, total operation.”
Zero to 180 with DC community fixture & national treasure, ms. Andrea Bray
Also worth emphasizing that Doggett’s relationship with James Brown in the 1960s was not strictly a one-way affair, as Geoff Brown would write in his biography of James Brown:
“Not surprisingly, after the success with ‘Mashed Potatoes’ in the guise of Nat Kendrick and the Swans, [King Records label owner, Syd] Nathan relaxed his views about recording the band on instrumental releases. ‘Hold It’, credited as James Brown Presents His Band, was the first, and a riff from the Bill Doggett hit would form the link he used to segue between songs in the breathless, non-stop Revue that seared across the States as he forged his reputation as The King of the One-Nighters.”
Says UK’s Ace Records, who put out a compilation in 2012 bearing the same title as the 1969 funk track:
“The most obvious manifestation of [Doggett keeping pace with contemporary music trends] was his collaboration with James Brown and his JBs, who were incredibly tight on the top-side of the super-rhythmic ‘Honky Tonk Popcorn’. The popcorn was Brown’s dance rhythm of the year: he had made #1 R&B with ‘Mother Popcorn’, #2 with ‘Let A Man Come In And Do The Popcorn’. The B-side of the single was Doggett’s funk update of ‘Honky Tonk’, which worked even better than Brown’s own 1972 remake.
King then gathered up a bunch of recent Doggett recordings to make the “Honky Tonk Popcorn” album. It was marketed as a James Brown production but, other than the two single sides, it contained no cuts produced by Brown. Instead it featured a fascinating mix of grooves that evoke smoky clubs and juke joints. ‘Mad’ and a scorching version of Edwin Starr’s ‘Twenty Five Miles’ were released as singles.”
Hip hop fans might be intrigued to know that Pete Rock would sample the “Honky Tonk Popcorn” – JB’s scream, specifically – for 2004 “One MC One DJ.”
Bill Doggett II invites you to join the Bill Doggett Centennial celebration at his new website, where you can hear his uncle’s music, absorb some history, and sign the Guest Book:
Remember three years ago when Zero to 180 featured its first ‘Musical Roll Call‘ vis-à-vis Little Royal and his regal rail line, whose crew consisted solely of the finest and funkiest soul luminaries of the early 1970s including, incredibly, The Osmond Brothers? Of course you don’t — I barely do.
“Soul Train” would be one of two 45s released in 1972 on Tri-Us, a boutique imprint for producer Huey Meaux that was bequeathed, as well as distributed, by Starday-King. 90-second instrumental “Razor Blade” would be the B-side of Little Royal’s second single from that same year (although, the 45 label is way off — actual running time is more like two minutes and ten seconds):
“Razor Blade” Little Royal & the Swingmasters 1972
Most of Little Royal’s 1972-73 single sides (though definitely not all) would be packaged into a 12″ long-playing release Jealous that was issued in 1972 and then again in 1973.
Little Royal’s 1972 Starday-King LP
Kenny Smith, one-time host of Cincinnati’s local Soul Street TV program from 1969-71, (and featured in this Zero to 180 piece from October, 2013) would once welcome onto his show, Little Royal, who first sings the A-side (“Jealous”) and then dances the B-side “Razor Blade” in this vintage clip:
Thanks to the Stepfather of Soul (or is it Last.fm?) for pointing out that “Razor Blade” has a vocal counterpart: Sebastian‘s “Living in Depression” from 1975!
“Living in Depression” Sebastian 1975
Alert! DC music history blog Soul 51 (last seen in Zero to 180’s profile of Martha Harvin & The Jewels – “Who’s Left Holding King’s Bag?“) checks in with Little Royal, who lives in the DC area and first met James Brown, we are informed, at the Howard Theater in 1963.
Bill Doggett and his Hammond organ, in 1957, would breathe (via flute) fresh life into Tiny Bradshaw‘s “Soft” from 1952 – both versions released on King. Even though Doggett’s “Soft” would ‘only’ peak at #51, Billboard’s “Hot 100 Chart History” indicates this song to have spent 14 weeks on the chart – impressive staying power for an instrumental:
The song would endure into the 1970s. However, King Records would do a curious thing. On the one hand, King would reissue “Soft” as a single in 1971 – though as a B-side (!) – while just the year prior, the song had been deemed fit to serve as the title track of a Bill Doggett LP compilation. What gives? Perhaps the 1971 single was an attempt to give record buyers a “double A-side” release with two solid tracks and no filler, so perhaps I should lighten up a little.
1971 King LP — “Soft” as title track 1970 King 45 — “Soft” as B-side
It’s the Bill Doggett Centennial!
Bill Doggett, who recorded an instrumental in 1956 (“Honky Tonk”) that sold over 1 million copies — a ridiculous number, especially for King Records. 2016, therefore, means that “Honky Tonk” turns 60 (which is the new 40, anyway), and the artist who recorded it was (curiously enough) 40 years old at the time, as Bill Doggett was born exactly one hundred years ago. I have to confess: I didn’t figure this out on my own. This information would come directly from Bill Doggett II, nephew and namesake, who recently reached out to Zero to 180 in response to the precarious future of the original King Records historic site in Cincinnati:
“King Records and its building are to Cincinnati Music History what Capitol Records and its building are to Los Angeles and West Coast r&b and jazz. Preserving the building and turning it in to a restored TOURIST Destination will bring Tax revenue dollars and TOURISM. Think BIG….not small. THIS YEAR is The BILL DOGGETT CENTENNIAL 1916-2016 and THE 60TH Anniversary of the landmark KING Gold Record: HONKY TONK Parts 1/2.”
“Honky Tonk”: Promotional video from Bill Doggett Productions
Browse Doggett’s many releases from the 1950-1970s and beyond at Discogs.com
Interesting to learn that the Canadian Sweethearts (who later signed with A&M and Epic) had passed through Cincinnati’s King Records briefly in the guise of Bob & Lucille.
King’s Syd Nathan would lease two tracks from 2 different Bob & Lucille 45s that had been released in the late 1950s on tiny Hollywood-based Ditto label and package them as a King single in 1962. “Eeny-Meeny-Miney-Moe” is the A-side and a classic rockabilly track:
“Eeny-Meeny-Miney-Moe” Bob & Lucille recorded Dec. 1958
Even more interesting was the decision by Starday-King in 1973 – long after Syd Nathan had passed – to reissue this 45. Could it possibly have been in response to resurgence of interest in 1950s roots rock that George Lucas’s American Graffiti (also released in 1973) helped ignite? (*See related “Roots Rock Reawakening” addendum in prior Zero to 180 piece that features “Seven Deadly Finns” by Brian Eno).
I am stunned to discover that Marie “Queenie” Lyons’ playful retort to the Isley Brothers – “Your Thing Ain’t Good Without My Thing” (answer song of sorts to “It’s Your Thing“) and an obvious candidate for an A-side – would remain an album-only track from 1970’s Soul Fever on DeLuxe, an imprint of Starday-King Records (from King’s post-Syd Nathan era):
“Your Thing Ain’t No Good Without My Thing” Marie “Queenie” Lyons 1969
Billboard would award the Soul Fever LP “Four-Stars” (albums with “sales potential within their category of music and possible chart items”) in its October 10, 1970 edition.
Michel Rupli’s The King Labels: A Discography does not say whether this album was recorded at King’s Cincinnati studios – although many suspect it was. Soul Fever, sadly, would be Marie “Queenie” Lyons’ first and only album release.
‘Soul Fever’ back cover – with liner notes by WLAC’s Bill “Hoss” Allen
Things I learned about Marie “Queenie” Lyons from reading Hoss Allen’s liner notes:
Hails from Archibald, Louisiana but moved to Ashtabula, Ohio at a young age.
First performed professionally in 1963 at the Club Castaway in Geneva, Ohio.
Served as vocalist in 1964 with The King Curtis Band in New York City.
Performed with Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, The Coasters, Jerry Lee Lewis, and – her idol and inspiration – James Brown, among many others.
One of the funkiest soul LPs ever to drop, according to Noah S. Guiney
Buckeye Beat says that Lyons is still active and that Queenie’s Lounge, her bar in Ashtabula, Ohio (as of 2014) – is/was still open for business.
Harvard Crimson’s, Noah S. Guiney, is aghast that Marie “Queenie” Lyons “was left cruelly unappreciated for so long” due to “a combination of small-label politics and a miniscule marketing budget” and demands that music historians sit up and take notice of this miscarriage of justice.
Here’s a tuneful country rocker from 1970 that sure sounds like a radio hit:
“Louisiana Woman” Swampwater 1970
And yet this rather obscure debut from Linda Ronstadt’s backing band would be released by none other than King Records – with notable rock artist, Cal Schenkel, responsible for the distinctive (for King) cover photography. King would also issue two singles from this album, and one of them would reach #72 on the country chart (according to this 45Cat contributer).
John Beland: Guitar, Resonator Guitar, Piano, Vocals Gib Guilbeau: Fiddle, Guitar, Vocals Thad Maxwell: Bass, Vocals Stan Pratt: Drums Roger Jannotta: Strings John Wagner: Producer
“These guys are real good, but I hope nobody buys their album ’cause if they get to be famous, I won’t have a backup group.” – Linda Maria Ronstadt [album jacket]
John Beland (a.k.a., Bill Murphy) posted the following piece on Amazon.com:
“Long before the Eagles..there was Swampwater, Linda Ronstadt’s pioneering first solo band, led by the team of myself & Gib Guilbeau, the same duo that would later breath life back into the nearly defunked Flying Burrito Brothers 10 years later. Swampwater was one of the first true country rock bands to emerge in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Blending my love for tight harmonies and twanging LA Bakersfield telecaster guitar stylings with Gib’s one of a kind pure country vocals and driving cajun fiddle, Swampwater helped pave the way for acts like the Eagles and many others that followed.
“This album was recorded in 1970 between tours with Linda Ronstadt, who we were backing up at the time. Our unique harmonies blended so well that we were often hired as a vocal back up group for other L.A recording artists such as Larry Murray, Johnny Darrell, Arlo Guthrie and others. The album was recorded in two days on a 4 track studio in New Mexico and listening back 24 years later its amazing in its simplicity, honesty and originality.
“At a time when others were rocking it up on the Sunset Strip, we were combining west coast California country music with influences from our heroes like the Byrds, The Dillards, Hearts & Flowers, the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers. Our arrangements and stylized guitar riffs would coincidentally be mirrored in the early records of the Eagles. Just listen to “River People” and then to “Take It Easy” a few years later.
“This is a must album for any true collector of country rock. I’m not ashamed to say that Swampwater was well ahead of its time. Gib and I would reunite 10 years later to work together in the Flying Burrito Brothers, landing that band its first chart hits ever. But this is where is all began with us with this honest but very important little album in 1970. Linda Ronstadt & Clarence White wrote the liner notes too! I’m damned proud of what we did back then. Swampwater was the best band I ever played in. Heck, I’d join them again in a Hollywood minute. John Beland a.k.a. Bill Murphy – 2004”
Triple Threat – the debut album by jazz multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk – was originally released on the King label in 1956, rereleased on Bethlehem as Third Dimension, and on the Affinity label as Early Roots. Kirk on tenor sax, stritch, manzello, & siren (!), with James Madison on piano, Carl Pruitt on bass, and Henry Duncan on drums.
Title track “Triple Threat” recorded in New York City on November 9, 1956
Rare James Brown single – “The Drunk” – was released in 1970 on King subsidiary, Bethlehem. Unfortunately, no audio recording available yet on the web, which is a shame since the song features rhythmic propulsion by William Hargis “Beau Dollar” Bowman. Egon notes in his well-researched audio essay about the outsized influence of short-lived drummer for James Brown, “Beau Dollar,” who would also be a King recording artist in his own right:
“Recorded one year after ‘Mother Popcorn’ in May 1970, ‘The Drunk’ is supposedly Bowman’s last recording for King. Since Stubblefield and the rest of Brown’s classic ’60s band – with the exception of drummer John ‘Jabo’ Starks – had either left Brown’s employ or been fired by this point, [James Brown discographer, Alan] Leeds postulates that Bowman – the only drummer in Cincinnati that could have pulled off this beat – played on this David Matthews-penned instrumental. Matthews’ overall assessment of Bowman is clearly illustrated on this single: ‘Beau was the best white funk drummer in Cincinnati … This single was his heaviest, and a fitting swan song.'”
From Michel Ruppli’s The King Labels discography we learn that “part two” is what ended up being issued as the A-side while “part one” remains unissued to this day. Both parts recorded on May 20, 1970 at King’s Cincinnati studios. Musical fight: 45Cat lists “The Drunk” as the A-side while Discogs deems it the B-side. Both sources agree that its backing track – “A Man Has to Go Back to the Crossroads” – charted on July 18, 1970 on Record World’s “Singles Coming Up” chart, peaking at #110.
One more James Brown-related historical note: Troy Seals, hall-of-fame songwriter (and one-time member of The Dapps who wrote “Two Old Cats Like Us“), once played guitar on an April, 1967 recording session at King’s Cincinnati studios that resulted in “Why Did You Take Your Love Away from Me”:
LP-only track: “Why Did you take your love away from me”
An artist by the name of Scoopie Brucie released his lone single on King Records, 1972’s “The Whole Thing,” a country novelty tune “with lyrics based on the tagline of the old Alka Seltzer ad campaign. The vocal style apes that of Jerry Reed, even working in titles of Reed’s songs ‘When You’re Hot, You’re Hot’ and ‘She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft’ into the lyrics” (says Discogs) backed with “Ya’ll Come.”
Pee Wee King‘s ace western swing outfit – The Golden West Cowboys – once backed country comedian, Minnie Pearl, in an August, 1946 recording session [possibly] at Cincinnati’s King Records (says Prague Frank – although Randy McNutt, in King Records of Cincinnati, states 1947 to be the year Syd Nathan “built a recording studio in back of the loading dock” – hmm) that yielded exactly one single, “In the Shadow of the Pine” b/w “On Top of Old Smoky.”
Randy McNutt weighs in on the controversy: “The Minnie Pearl recording could not have been recorded at the King Recording Studio as we know it. It didn’t open until the fall of 1947. Perhaps the King guys were using some equipment there and recording by then. I don’t know. I know they had been experimenting early on with various kinds of recording equipment. The Pearl record was cut in August and September of 1946, but the location is not given in the company log, according to the King Labels, A Discography. It could have been done anywhere–perhaps even at the Bucky Herzog studio in Cincinnati. I’d be interested in knowing where.”
Simon & Garfunkel‘s first 45 – their #49 hit from 1957 (sung as ‘Tom & Jerry‘) that in no way resembles the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Suzie – was leased by Syd Nathan in 1958 and reissued as a King 7-inch, “Hey, Schoolgirl.”
Similarly, in 1963 King would lease the tapes to Slim Dusty & His Bushlanders version of 1960 Australian hit – “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” – that would hit big three years later in the US:
On a limited budget – as always – this would be the closest King could come to actually getting a piece of The Beatles during their initial burst of fame:
From Nilsson’s brilliantly sung end credits for 1968 cinematic bomb, Skidoo, we learned that the film’s director, Otto Preminger, once essentially paid $7,600 to appear on an episode of TV’s Batman. How interesting then to learn that Cincinnati’s King Records has its own – albeit indirect – connection to television’s Caped Crusader: Frank Gorshin‘s 1970 King single, “Turn Around, Look at Me.”
Gorshin, who played Batman archenemy, The Riddler, playfully voices numerous stage and screen characters in the course of laying down his vocal track, the highlight easily being his classic “you dirty rat” villainous gangster — click here to dig the groovy sounds.
archnemesis — and King recording star
“Turn Around, Look at Me” was composed by Jerry Capehart – probably best known for having written “Summertime Blues” and “My Way” for Eddie Cochran – and was originally a Top 100 hit for Glen Campbell in 1961. The following year, The Lettermen (who, as Jay Warner points out, “would earn the dubious distinction of amassing more records that hit the Billboard ‘Bubbling Under’ chart without crashing the Top 100”) would just bubble under at #105 with their version of the song. However, six years later The Vogues would revive the song and hit the Top 10 with their 1968 remake.
Ruppli’s 2-volume King discography points out that Gorshin recorded several other songs for Starday-King (such as “Love Slave” and “Part of My Life for Awhile”) that remain in IMG’s vast vault of master recordings. Five years after Frank Gorshin’s attempt to mine new commercial territory with the song, Esther Phillips would release a version on Kudu, the “soul jazz” subsidiary for Creed Taylor’s CTI label.
Son’s of Funk – i.e., Fred Wesley & the JBs – with a 1972 single release on the King label:
Is it really true – as YouTube contributor, BuckeyeCat2002, recalls – that “this James Brown / Fred Wesley cut was given to King Records as a going away present by James Brown?
As it turns out, both parts of this rare soul 45 would be included in Ace’s top-notch collection of King Funk, and Dean Rudland’s CD liner notes affirm that this two-part instrumental recording by The JBs was, indeed, “given to King as a favour by James himself a couple of years after he had left to go to Polydor.”
Even though the artist on this track is but one of several amusing variant names for Fred Wesley & the JBs, it is fascinating nevertheless to discover that this 45 would be the only one to be released under the name, Sons of Funk.
Brown’s last release for King would be “Soul Power (pt. 1),” which reached #3 on the soul chart and hit the US Top 40 (#29), as well as UK Top 100 (#78) in 1971. The Collins brothers, Bootsy and Catfish – neighborhood kids who lived close to the King studio – played as part of The JBs on “Soul Power,” an epic 3-part soul tune that was, curiously enough, recorded in Washington, DC.
Brown’s first single release for Polydor meanwhile – “Escape-ism (pt. 1)” which was written by Brown’s arranger & bandleader, David Matthews – would hit Top 10 R&B (#6) and Top 40 (#35) in the US.