A recent Cincinnati visit allowed me the chance to verify that the former King Records complex is still standing. But for how long? Polly Lucke, Zero to 180’s West Coast correspondent, recently brought to my attention a battle over this city-designated historic landmark that pits the current owners (there are two of them) against an influential group of supporters (the city’s mayor being one of them), with Cincinnati’s taxpayers caught in the middle.
King Records circa 1966
This past summer there was reason for optimism. In August, 2015 the City Planning Commission had voted unanimously (1) to approve the application submitted by the Bootsy Colllins Foundation and the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation and (2) refer the matter to City Council, as reports WCPO’s website in an August 21, 2015 article entitled, “Support Grows for King Records HIstoric Preservation.” One parcel in the King complex remains vacant, while the other serves a warehouse – according to the Cincinnati Enquirer in an October 7, 2015 piece, “King Records Now a City Landmark” – and Dynamic Industries (owner of the vacant property) seeks a demolition permit in order to expand:
“Mayor John Cranley said Wednesday his administration is working to acquire the King Records property in good faith. Cranley, recalling his days on City Council, said King Records preservation efforts date back to 2008 after council approved a motion to work toward designating the properties as historic. The motion, he said, was approved prior to the owner purchasing the property and the buyer should have known the designation could eventually happen.”
Cincinnati taxpayers, thus, were given an opportunity to vote in early November whether to tack on about $35 a year per $100,000 of assessed home value (i.e., Issue 22, the “parks levy”) in order to generate enough funds to “transform” 13 of the city’s public spaces, including the King Records Evanston Pavilion (as well as the vacant Jewish Community Center in Roselawn, my old stomping grounds). As you may have inferred from the first paragraph, insufficient numbers came to the polls, sadly, to pass the new property tax. King’s future, therefore, is in limbo.
Harvin began her career as part of DC vocal group, The Jewels, who toured with the James Brown Revue in 1966 and did some studio recordings before Harvin’s singing partners grew tired of life on the road and returned home. Harvin would remain with the James Brown Revue for more than 30 years.
The Jewels, it turns out, would record one single each for Federal and King. More intriguing, however, is the Jewels 45 written and produced by James Brown and released on the obscure (and mysterious) Dynamite label, “Papa Left Mama Holding the Bag,” a playful rejoinder to Brown’s breakthrough funk of 1965, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag“:
In the early part of this century, reissue label, Hip-O, put out a comprehensive series of James Brown single releases that were issued from 1956-1981. Historians & researchers will no doubt be studying these liner notes in decades to come as they try to organize and make sense of the James Brown legacy, particularly given the volume of recordings issued over the course of his lifetime.
One thing I discovered by simply looking at the musician credits: those bongo drums sound unusual on “Let Yourself Go,” because bongos – believe it or not – were not part of JB’s pioneering percussion sound, generally speaking. According to the musician credits in this singles series that someone kindly posted on the Discogs website, I only see a handful of recordings (five by my count) between the years 1966-1973 that include the bongos.
Thanks to the missus, I am fortunate to own the 2-volume reference set, The King Labels: A Discography as compiled by Michel Ruppli. And yet I am discovering time and again that Ruppli’s discography is not authoritative as I had originally assumed. Thank goodness, therefore, for the input of other music fanatics and actual participants who were there when history took place. For example, if I simply relied on Ruppli, I might have continued to labor under the delusion that the Famous Flames backed James Brown on another great single from 1967 when, in fact, it was The Dapps.
James Brown & The Dapps (Les Asch holding horn)
My appreciation to Mitch Bowman, thus, for pointing me to James Brown’s “Funky Soul #1″ b/w “The Soul of JB” 45 originally released on King. Ruppli tells me that the A-side was recorded on August 17, 1967 in Cincinnati but has very scant information about its mate. Moreover, the B-side is attributed (wrongly) to “James Brown and the Famous Flames” and adds (incorrectly) “probably band without James Brown.” That’s about it for the historical details – only the year is listed, no musician credits – although Ruppli does add, intriguingly, that another composition of “unknown title” was recorded but remains (to this day?) unissued.
Thanks to P-Funk Portal for affirming Bowman’s assertion that his brother-in-law, Les Asch, and his fellow Dapps were the musicians who backed James Brown on this double A-side instrumental excursion. Gather around everybody for a musical fight, and hear for yourself as James Brown dukes it out with Les Asch on their respective instruments:
“The Soul of JB” James Brown & The Dapps 1967
Organ Solo: James Brown
Tenor Sax Solo: Les Asch
Guitar: Eddie Setser & Troy Seals
Bass: Tim Drummond
Piano: Tim Hedding
Drums: William ‘Beau Dollar’ Bowman
Trumpet: Ron Geisman
Alto Sax: Alfred ‘Pee Wee‘ Ellis
Tenor Sax: Les Asch
Baritone Sax: David Parkinson
Organ: James Brown
Producer & Arranger: James Brown
If I were in the producer’s chair (I see you rolling your eyes), I would have followed James Brown organ solo in the left speaker with Les Asch’s tenor sax solo in the right speaker in order to underscore the dueling aspects of this musical match. As it stands, both solos erupt from the west. Note, too, the writing credits that include Gladys Knochelman – would love to know her role in the creative process, as her name appears ever so infrequently in the epic story of James Brown.*
There’s no denying the global impact of the fresh funk created by James Brown and his various support players over the years, much of which was recorded in Cincinnati — note the impact felt as far away as Japan, as this web tribute to JB attests. Hey, check out some of the prices that Dapps singles command on Ebay.
Don’t believe the hype: The Dapps are the backing band here
Biff! Bam! Pow! This is the thirteenth bout tagged as a Musical Fight
Tony Oulahan would subsequently contact Zero to 180 to shed light on this piece’s playful reference to Gladys Knochelman’s artistic contribution to “The Duel”:
“So my grandmother was Syd Nathan’s assistant for most of her time at King records. She also was a copywriter at one point as well. She died close to 20 years ago. She had close relationships with James, his band and many of the other artists at King. She had a couple of engraved jewelry pieces that James gave to her. I wish I could say otherwise, but she had nothing to do with the creative process on the album. And from what I know it wasn’t James directly that gave her the credit. She loaned someone in his group some money and they couldn’t pay her back. They gave her this credit in lieu of payment. It could have been his manager or someone else in the band. I’m almost positive that it wasn’t James himself, I can’t remember exactly who it was.”
Years ago I remember being spellbound by a Mojo feature article that interviewed several of the musicians in TheFamous Flames who had toured Vietnam with James Brown in 1968 and played for a large number of very grateful soldiers right in the heart of the war zone. I quickly devoured this piece – and then filed it away with my other 20 years or so of music magazines … into the abyss.
Recently, in the course of researching SW Ohio’s glorious contributions to the history of funk and soul, I got to thinking — “Sure would be nice to put my hands on that article about that harrowing time James Brown and his band did a musical tour of Vietnam in 1968.” Fortunately, I got the urge to try an Internet search, and lo and behold – “July 2003” would be the Golden Ticket. One minute later, after a trip to the archives, I had the July 2003 issue of Mojo in my hand. What on earth had I been waiting for all this time?
Hats off to James Maycock, who tells this incredible story where music and politics would intersect spectacularly, with lives being put on the line in a moving demonstration of the American credo, E Pluribus Enum. How fascinating to find out, for example, that James Brown had offered to take his entire 22-piece band orchestra to entertain the US troops in Vietnam on his own dime – and yet the federal government, surprisingly (or not), said no. James Brown would eventually lobby LBJ himself at a Presidential State Dinner in May, 1968 — a direct consequence of Brown’s own heroic intervention in Boston in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination that kept untold numbers of people safe at home and out of harm’s way due to his insistence that his group’s live performance on April 5, 1968 be locally televised.
JB & Boston Mayor, Kevin White – Boston Gardens – April 5, 1968
Maycock reveals the political machinery at work:
“The trip was the outcome of James Brown persistently pushing the US authorities for offical consent to tour. ‘I’d been trying for a long time to get the government to let me go over there. I offered to pay all my expenses. But for some reason they didn’t want me to go. I don’t know if they thought I would be too political.’ Like an increasing amount of the American public, Brown was also conscious that a disproportionate number of Afro-Americans were being drafted.”
JB’s stylist, Marva Whitney, grappled with vietnam’s heat & humidity – to no avail
Thus arranged (or so they thought), Brown’s 22-member ensemble began their musical tour in Korea, with the understanding that the whole orchestra would press on to Vietnam. But with the escalation of hostilities, Brown was given word that only a 6-member musical crew would be allowed to continue at that point. How moving then to discover that, while most of the group was only too happy to bow out of the tour, Tim Drummond (a “playing cat” as Brown would characterize him) immediately jumped at the chance:
“I said, I want to play Vietnam, because I want to show people back here that black and white can get along.”
Ultimately, Brown would carry out his musical tour of Vietnam with these six band members: Clyde Stubblefield (drums), Tim Drummond (bass), Jimmy Nolen (guitar), Maceo Parker (saxophone), Waymon Reid (trumpet) & “esteemed funky diva” Marva Whitney. As the writer points out, “Bob Hope retreated to the safety of Bangkok in neighbouring Thailand after each of his shows, but as Drummond points out, ‘We were in the thick of it.'”
By way of illustration, Tim Drummond would recount:
“So we come in 20 feet off the ground where the Viet Cong were sleeping. They only moved at night … Right where we had just [crash] landed, here comes the Viet Cong who were coming after the plane. We’d woken them up. [The US] were bombing the Viet Cong, who were coming after the plane thinking we’re still on it. That was a real toe-tapper!”
Marva Whitney describes the preceding “white-knuckle emergency crash”:
“The pilot said, ‘Everybody get out! And I mean move it! We’re in the marshes, the doors open, no time for a ladder. Would someone give me a helping hand? Forget it. It was every man for himself, including me. I had to jump from the plane.”
Clyde Stubblefield (out of view), James Brown & Maceo Parker
Being in a war zone meant having to be ever alert and strategic in your actions – Drummond describes one particular situation:
“In my hotel room, the window was facing the president’s palace. It had a sign on it saying, ‘Don’t open the blinds with the light on behind you at night, you will be shot as a sniper.'”
These seven musicians (appointed honorary Lieutenant Colonels for this tour) would play three performances a day, often in the sweltering 120+ degree tropical heat. According to Drummond, “That was the best the band ever sounded, stripped down like that. Oh, we got tight! Man, I wish we had recordings of that [stuff]! We were smoking!”
James Brown & the Famous Flames “Let Yourself Go” 1967
[Check out Brown instructing 2nd drummer, John “Jabo” Sparks to hit an accent on the snare each time JB emits a grunt (*note: video since removed – above mix differs).]
Brown claims that it was Hope himself, interestingly enough, who would clinch the Vietnam tour at the May, 1968 State Dinner: “[He] told some of the USO people, ‘If you’re going to get anybody to perform for the troops, James Brown is the man.” The sad joke at the time was that “Armed Forces Radio Network offered two kinds of music: country and western.” Soul offerings were rather limited at the military PX — says Maycock:
“Prior to Brown’s 1968 visit, the United Service Organisations had brought over to entertain soldiers were generally insipid country and western troupes. Drummond admits, “We’d call them ‘Tex Nobodies’ – meaning they were country singers who hadn’t made it!”
Compared to previous USO offerings, these shows were clearly a huge deal for the soldiers – Drummond says they easily outdrew Bob Hope (over 40,000 at one show, he claims). According to Brown, “Dug out of the side of a hill, around the rim, at the top, tanks were pulled up like at a drive-in. Guys were sitting in their hatches looking down on the show.”
And yet the surreality of the bitter warfare, coupled with the rampant drug use among the soldiers, would induce serious cognitive dissonance amongst the musicians. Maycock writes: “Indeed, the musicians were understandably uptight, although they concealed their feelings from JB. Marva: ‘They weren’t going to let the boss man see.'”
Whitney remembers, according to Maycock, “some GIs just wanted to touch her hand. Others confided in her. Marva says, ‘The fellas with the less education were put on the front lines — “We’re in trouble over here!” They would say that.'”
Several months after returning home, Whitney would be completely thrown by an unexpected moment of post-traumatic stress:
“I’m walking down New York City, shopping. All of a sudden, I start shaking and can’t stop. I’m going into shock. I know it.” Brown himself would later say, “I don’t know how I made it. God was carrying me all the time, it was like footprints in the sand.”
One final quote from Maycock’s riveting piece of history underscores music’s special ability to nourish the soul and bring people together in peace and fellowship (from Vietnam veteran and musician, Dave Gallaher):
“Tim Drummond being there did more good than anyone might realize. Because of the hostilities that had developed racially, I think James showing up with a white musician put everyone on a little bit of notice about cooling out. Showing that a white man could get in there and play that music. I think it was very timely.”
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.
Of course, no discussion about Cincinnati in song would be complete without a reference to the city’s storied indie label that helped give birth to rock & roll music – King Records.
September 14, 1967 may not be a date that registers strongly in Cincinnati local history, but it should: for on this date, James Crawford recorded a mighty slice of James Brown funk – “Fat Eddie” – at King’s recording studios on Brewster Avenue:
“Fat Eddie” — co-written by Crawford with James Brown and Bud Hobgood — was the B-side of “I’ll Work It Out” and released by King in October, 1967.
A member of the James Brown Revue for several years, Crawford is one of several artists who were so mesmerised by the Great Man’s personality and success that they attempted to make their vocal styles indistinguishable from the real thing. He came from Toccoa, Georgia where he sang with a young Bobby Byrd in the Gospel Starlighters, and where he may have started his involvement with JB. Crawford never really mastered James’ crude “rasp”, having a naturally purer tone to his voice, but his sense of timing and dynamics are straight Brown. No doubt the presence of Brown sidemen like Nat Jones – not to mention James’ own production skills – reinforced this tendency.
He cut some funk/boogaloo tracks of course, like “Much Too Much”, “Help Poor Me” and “Honest I Do” but also recorded some really cracking ballads. “Strung Out” was the first, a simple but very effective song. A great plodding bass line, piano triplets and subdued horns back Crawford up as his voice cracks with emotion – lovely. “Stop And Think It Over” is another first rate performance, over a stop/go structured ballad, with minor keyed chord changes and a sympathetic string section. Think Brother James on “Man’s Man’s World” and you’ll be in the right territory.
“Hooray For The Child Who Has It’s Own” is fine deep soul as well, the “climbing” horn chart and arpeggio piano giving Crawford room to show his abilities. “I’ll Work It Out” may just be the best of the bunch though. For my money it’s his most committed and emotionally compelling effort, and the backing is just magic, with the guitar and horns meshing to superb effect.
This blog’s first post is a tip of the hat to my hometown, Cincinnati, and the record label that recorded the rhythm & blues and hillbilly bop that helped give birth to rock and roll, King Records.
In 1965 King’s most famous and influential artist, James Brown (along with The Famous Flames) ushered in the new funk with the landmark 45, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” That same year Steve McQueen starred as “The Cincinnati Kid,” a professional gambler in 1930s New Orleans, who challenges the reigning poker champ to a big match in a film that featured music composed by Ray Charles.
The following year saw the release of a tune also bearing the title, “Cincinnati Kid,” but musically and lyrically being something else altogether. Instead Prince Buster, one of the leading lights of the Jamaican rocksteady sound, slyly calls out praise and respect to the “real” Cincinnati Kid – James Brown – (without actually naming him) in a particularly funky track for 1966 that clearly shows the influence of the new sound being laid down in a recording studio on Brewster Avenue (that still stands) in the Evanston neighborhood of Cincinnati across I-71 from my old high school. The Cincinnati-Kingston connection. There you have it – listen for yourself: