Zero to 180 – Three Minute Magic

Discoveries of a Pop Music Archaeologist

Seymour Stein & King Records II

Henry Stone on Seymour Stein of Sire Records:

“When I left King Records about 1956 I guess, Seymour Stein ended up interning there with Syd Nathan.  He was a young kid.  He must be about 10 years younger than me, must be about 75, or 80 by now.

He fell asleep at my birthday party at the table.  He does a great imitation of Syd Nathan, loves to do an imitation of Syd.  I became pretty friendly with him through the years.  When he left King he was editor of Billboard for a while.

Syd Nathan, Seymour Stein & George and Susan Goldner

[L to R] George Goldner; Susan Goldner; Syd Nathan & Seymour Stein

He penned the charts for Billboard in New York.  I used to go up there and see him all the time.  And then I used to see him a lot when we went to Cannes, France for the music festival.  Every year they have that, they still do.  It’s called MIDEM.  It’s a big deal.  I was going there since the very beginning in the 70s.  I used to go there with my TK Productions.  I was a big man when I used to go there.

I had the biggest independent music company in the world, and they loved discos and dancing in Europe.  I used to hang out with Seymour there and he was just one of those real terrific real record guys.  He found Madonna ya know, and The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and he founded the Sire label, that was his, Sire Records.  I didn’t know him back in the King days.  Syd Nathan and I had already split up.  Syd used to talk about that son of a bitch Henry Stone.  I guess he respected me as a good record guy y’ know.  Seymour Stein’s a real good record guy too.”

Seymour Stein would be the one on the right

Seymour Stein & Madonna

Stein’s signings — as noted in the text that accompanies his Ahmet Ertegun Award from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or his (abandoned) acceptance speech for CBGB’s Icon Award) — reveal a keen ear for talent in contemporary rock and pop:   The Flamin’ Groovies, The Saints, The Rezillos, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Radio Birdman, The Dead Boys, The Undertones, The Pretenders, The Replacements, The Smiths, The Royal Crescent Mob, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, The Cult, Modern English, The English Beat, Madness, KD Lang, Depeche Mode, Aztec Camera, Everything But the Girl, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr., Barenaked Ladies, and Aphex Twin, along with the aforementioned Ramones, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club (implied) and Madonna.  Just as Cincinnati’s King Records helped give birth to 50s rock ‘n’ roll, this same scrappy indie label would then go on to play a significant supporting role in shaping modern ‘indie’ rock.

From Stein’s 2009 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air program we learn that it was at a listening party hosted by Billboard (Stein’s then employer) that the two great “record men” – Syd Nathan and Seymour Stein – first met.  Stein was just fourteen.  At these record listening parties, record company owners would get the opportunity to play new recordings for Billboard staff and thereby advocate for a more favorable review.  Stein told Gross —

I remember that session, you know, like it was yesterday.  And it was over fifty years ago.  Syd was there, and another record man was there, as well.  What I remember very clearly was, there were a large amount of records to listen to, and the last two or three were on the Jubilee label, and one of the reporters said, ‘I hear Jubilee Records is going out of business.  Why should we even bother with these records?  I’m sure Syd is getting bored here.’ 

Syd said, [imitating Nathan’s gruff, gravelly voice] ‘What if I wasn’t here – would you talk that way about me?  Listen to these records.’  And so the person said, ‘Boy, Jerry Blaine (the owner of Jubilee Records), must be a good friend of yours.’  And [Syd] said, ‘Oh no – I’m suing the son of a bitch!” [laughter by Gross].  And he said, ‘But what’s right is right.’

Stein, who dedicates his autobiography, Siren Song, in part, to “the incomparable Syd Nathan,” recounts his experiences fondly, first as a King intern and later as a young staffer in the A&R/publicity department”:

I was usually given various assignments, but some days Syd let me follow him around. As a boss, he spent a lot of time working his magic down telephone lines, fixing problems, and motivating the troops with his trademark brand of bull[dung]-intolerant humor. He always seemd happiest in the studio, either watching or producing, sometimes picking up the drumsticks to rattle out a rhythm. Occasionally, he wrote songs, usually the lyrics, because he had a sharp wit for catchy slogans and striking imagery. My favorite of his was “Signed, Sealed and Delivered,” a hit by Cowboy Copas. Syd was an entrepreneur, but you could see his love for music was the heartbeat of the enterprise.

His greatest strength, however, was distribution. By about 1952, even major companies didn’t have the kind of regional operations Syd had — thirty-four branches coast to coast. In small cities like Birmingham, Alabama, just one staffer would cover an area from a store in a bad neighborhood. He’d take orders, pack boxes, and, once a week, fill his car with records and stop anywhere he saw an antenna by the side of the road. In bigger cities, there’d be two — an inside and an outside man. In New York, three. I don’t doubt they all slipped payola into the pockets of disc jockeys, but it wouldn’t have been big amounts. Most of these small-town jocks were music nuts living on scraps. In those days, nobody was doing it to get rich.

Even Syd was no Rockefeller. He owned his nice house in Cincinnati, he had a condo in Miami, and he’d bought most of the buildings that King operated from. He was careful with cash and always invested his winnings into real estate or affiliate companies run by people he believed in. I remember him explaining on one road trip that although he could easily afford a Cadillac, a top Buick had the same standard of engine but was almost half the price. He was always plainly dressed in old suits and didn’t seem to care about gold watches, fancy restaurants, or any of the glittery trappings you’d associate with a record mogul.

The same year that (future) music mogul Seymour Stein inked the liner notes for a Columbia collection of classic country hits culled from Cincinnati’s King label, Stein also composed text to accompany a corresponding compilation of King rhythm & blues hits that likewise would enjoy release on almighty Columbia’s hallowed red label, as one his earlier Sire Productions:  18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits from 1967.

LP of King R&B Hits –

Remixed for stereo and issued on Columbia

King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits-cover-a

King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits - french vanilla cover

Cover also available in lemon custard

This album would be reconstituted the following year as Soul Fever: 16 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits and marketed overseas to the UK, Germany, Israel, and India.

Not owning my own copy of 18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits means having to make do with a lo-res scan of the back cover provided by Discogs — and employing my image viewer’s magnification tool — in order to make out (just barely) Seymour Stein‘s original liner notes for the 1967 Columbia LP [with additional info in brackets] + streaming audio for all song titles listed —

*                    *                   *

The past twenty-five years have seen rhythm-and-blues music emerge from the twelve-bar blues of the early 1940s to the position it now enjoys as the strongest force in contemporary pop music.  One of the main factors in the dynamic growth of rhythm and blues has been the activity of the small, independent record labels in the field.  If one were to go back over the past twenty years and check the number of hits and the hit consistency of the recording companies involved in R&B, then the King Record Company of Cincinnati, under its president-founder Sydney Nathan, would head such a list.

In the 20’s and into the 30’s, rhythm-and-blues music was known around the country as either “sepia blues” or “race” music.  In New York it was referred to as Harlem’s Hit Parade.  “Race” records were produced for consumption in Negro markets in the South and North.  They were rural in style and lacked the polish of today’s records.  Although many great artists recorded during this era — Lonnie Johnson, Bill Broonzy, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Big Boy Crudup and Peg Leg Howell, for example — almost none of these records reached the pop record buyers.

During the early and middle 1940’s, a number of small independent labels sprang up around the country.  Many of these either issued mostly, or exclusively, rhythm-and-blues recordings.  However, the term R&B had not yet been coined and therefore was still referred to as “race” music or “sepia blues.”

Columbia ad

Record World

June 7, 1969

One of the earliest artists to emerge as a top R&B star was Bullmoose Jackson.  A native of Cleveland, Jackson, whose real name is Benjamin, was a member of an early blues group, the Harlem Hotshots.  Bullmoose was discovered by Lucky Millinder, top R&B bandleader, who formed the Buffalo Bearcats to back Bullmoose in his club dates.  It was Millinder who brought Jackson to the attention of King Records.  His rise to fame was phenomenal:  his first five records records all sold in excess of one million, and all reached number-one on the “race” charts.  His biggest hits were “I Love You Yes I Do” [1947], “All My Love Belongs to You” [1948], “I Want a Bowlegged Woman” [1948], “Little Girl Don’t Cry” [1949], “Big Ten Inch Record” [1952] and “I Wanna Hug Ya, Kiss Ya, Squeeze Ya” [1955].

One of the earliest blues artists, dating back to the early 1920’s, is Lonnie Johnson.  He was brought out of retirement to record his biggest hit, “Tomorrow Night.”  When the recording was made, Johnson was past seventy.

Wynonie Harris, who had recorded for Aladdin prior to signing with King, enjoyed almost instant success with the label change.  His first release, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” [recorded December 28, 1947 at King Studios], was a remake of the original Roy Brown hit.  It was an immediate smash and reportedly sold in excess of a million copies.  Another million seller for Harris was “Bloodshot Eyes” [1951], a Country and Western song which was a big hit first for one of King’s hillbilly artists [who goes by the name Hank Penny].  This was probably the first time a Country tune had been popularized by an R&B artist, and Nathan recorded it almost twenty years [eleven, by my count] before Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” smash.  Harris’ other hits included “All She Wants To Do Is Rock [1949], “Lovin’ Machine” [1951] and “Good Morning Judge” [1950].

Ivory Joe Hunter, who in the mid-Fifties was a top artist with hits like “Since I Met You Baby” and “A Tear Fell,” was, in the late 1940’s, one of the leading R&B artists.  His biggest hit was “Jealous Heart” [1949], a Country tune written by Jennie Lou Carson and originally recorded by Al Morgan.  Other hits by Hunter include “Guess Who” [1949 – with Russell Procope on alto sax], popularized years later by Jesse Belvin on Victor, “Don’t Fall In Love With Me” [1948 – also with Procope on alto sax (Ruppli)] and “Too Late” [1950]

During the late Forties and early Fifties, Earl Bostic clicked with hit after hit.  Biggest of these were “Flamingo” [1951] and “Sleep” [1951], both million sellers, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” [1952] and “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” [1951].  Bostic has passed away, but his amazing style is preserved in his many bestselling albums which live on as a legacy to his great talent.

Sonny Thompson, the great soul organist who was later to achieve fame as a record producer, recorded “Long Gone” [1951], one of the all-time R&B instrumental hits.  It is from this melody that the dance the Hucklebuck was derived.

In the early Fifties, vocal groups emerged as the major artists in the R&B field.  Among them were the ‘5’ Royales, the Midnighters and the Dominoes, all King artists.

In addition, thanks to Paul Ackerman, music editor of Billboard, the terms “race” music and “sepia blues” were forever replaced by his term “rhythm and blues” [wait — didn’t Jerry Wexler, former Billboard scribe, coin the phrase?].

Billy Ward, a former spiritual singer, formed The Dominoes from among the best talent available in Detroit.  Ward wrote and arranged most of their hits.  Lead vocalist with the group was Clyde McPhatter, while Jackie Wilson sang bass.  Their biggest hit, the controversial “Sixty Minute Man” [1951], was the biggest R&B record recorded up until that time, and sold in excess of two and one half million records.  Quite naturally, it was voted the number-one record of 1951.  “Sixty Minute Man” was followed by hit after hit, including “Have Mercy Baby” [1952 – with McPhatter], “Do Something For Me” [1950 – also with McPhatter], “The Bells” [1952] and “That’s What You’re Doing to Me” [1952].

One of the ‘5’ Royales‘ big hits on King was “Dedicated to the One I Love” [1957].  The tune, written by group members [actually credited to Lowman Pauling and King executive, Ralph Bass], became a big hit years later in versions by the Shirelles and the Mamas and the Papas.

Far and away the most powerful group in rhythm-and-blues history is The Midnighters.  Their leader, Hank Ballard, is probably one of the most prolific songwriters ever.  Originally, the group was named The Royals, but their name was changed to the Midnighters when King acquired the ‘5Royales.  That was done to avoid confusion.  As the Royals, the group enjoyed three moderately big hits, “Every Beat of My Heart” [1952], recorded years later by Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Moonrise” [1952] and “Get It” [1953].  1954 was certainly memorable for Ballard and the Midnighters, for it was then that they achieved something unprecedented and probably something never to be matched — one of the biggest records in rhythm and blues that year, “Work With Me Annie.”  In 1958 the group recorded a dance tune which did not get much attention until two years later.  It was Ballard’s own composition, “The Twist,” which developed into the biggest dance craze of the past twenty-five years.  No other artist in the field of rhythm and blues has had as many hits or as many million-selling records as Hank Ballard.  Hank’s great hits include “Finger Poppin’ Time” [1960], “Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go” [1960], “Kansas City” [1959], “The Hoochi Coochi Coo” [1960], “Continental Walk” [1961], “Coffee Grind” [1960], “In the Doorway Crying” [1957] and many others.

One of the most interesting King discoveries in the Fifties was Otis Williams and the Charms.  The group, all from Cincinnati, were playing softball across the street from the King record factory when Nathan, in need of a group to record a hot tune he had just heard from the West Coast, asked the boys if they would like to audition.  From that invitation resulted the million-selling “Hearts of Stone [1954].  The group followed with hit after hit, including “Ivory Tower [1956], Gum Drop [1955], Ko Ko Mo [1955], Two Hearts [1954], That’s Your Mistake [1956] and “United [1957].

The Platters, who will be remembered as the greatest group to emerge from rhythm and blues, made their disc debut back in 1953.  “Only You (And You Alone) [1955] and “Tell the World” [1954] were their big successes.

Another great success story is that of Little Willie John, who was discovered at the age of seventeen by Nathan.  His first record, “All Around the World [1955], was an immediate best seller.  “Fever” [1956], one of his subsequent records, sold in excess of one million and was voted by Cash Box magazine the number-one record of 1956.  The tune has since been recorded by Peggy Lee and The McCoys.

Bill Doggett organized his first band in 1938, after he had played with Jimmy Gorman’s orchestra.  Although he had already enjoyed a great career, including a stint as arranger and pianist for the original Ink Spots, and also did much work with Lionel Hampton, Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald.  It was not until 1956 that Doggett reached the height of his fame.  His “Honky Tonk” holds a still-standing record* of four-million sales [*although “Stars Wars Theme/Cantina Band” by Meco remains, according to Guinness, “the only instrumental single to reach Platinum status by the Recording Industry Association of America” with sales in excess of two million], the highest of any rhythm-and-blues instrumental, and the record, now more than ten years old, still sells today.  2022 UPDATE = Zero to 180 has since discovered that none of the hits from the King canon are RIAA-certified because of Syd Nathan’s unwillingness to pay annual fees to RIAA, who would then be able to scrutinize the label’s notekeeping]. 

Freddy King is one of the greatest blues artists to be discovered in recent years.  His recording of “Hide Away” in 1961 was one of the biggest instrumental hits that year.

James Brown was discovered by King Records founder Sydney Nathan [Ralph Bass, actually] in Macon, Georgia, and was immediately flown to Cincinnati [via station wagon, one thousand miles from Tampa] to record his first record “Please Please Please” [1956], which was to become a number-one hit, and he hasn’t stopped since.  Brown is one of the most successful performers in the history of R&B.  A list of some of his hits during the past ten years would take more space than is available.  They include “Try Me” [1958], “Lost Someone” [1961], “Bewildered” [1961], “Good Good Lovin’” [1959], “I’ll Go Crazy” [1960] and many more.

In the mid 50’s and early 60’s, Joe Tex recorded “Another Woman’s Man.”  But it was not until “Hold What You’ve Got” in 1964 [for Dial] that Tex achieved the popularity he deserved.

Otis Redding was discovered by Nathan in Georgia and recorded his first session in King’s studios in Macon, Georgia.  One of the sides was “Shout Bamalama.”  Like Tex, Redding achieved fame on another label, Volt, with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Mr. Pitiful,” for example.  However, both artists were first discovered and recorded by King Records. 

This album commemorates the development of rhythm and blues in the past quarter century.  All eighteen selections here are performed by the original artists who made them famous. 

A Billboard Special Merit Pick

May 31, 1969


Another Womans Man” – it bears noting – is from Joe Tex‘s first ever recording session, which took place in New York City for King Records in September, 1955:

“Another Woman’s Man”

Joe Tex (1955)

Musical personnel (according to Michael Ruppli’s The King Labels:  A Discography):

Vocals:  Joe Tex
Electric Guitar:  Mickey Baker
Piano:  Andy Gibson
Tenor Sax:  Dave Van Dyke
Bass:  Unknown
Drums:  Specs Powell

“Another Woman’s Man”- would be issued by King on LP only:  (a) The Best of Joe Tex from 1965 (its first time on wax!), as well as (b) Rhythm and Blues: 18 All Time King Hits from 1968 (whose running order, curiously, duplicates 18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits).

Joe Tex LP-b
King Rhythm & Blues - All Time King Hits-b



Seed Money for Sire —


Bob Mehr‘s well-researched Trouble Boys:  The True Story of The Replacements provides some illuminating details about Seymour Stein’s fascinating roller coaster ride in the record business, as detailed here in this passage about the source of Sire’s seed money:

In high school, Stein spent summers in Cincinnati apprenticing under King Records owner Syd Nathan [1957-58], whose biggest star was James Brown.  Stein eventually would work for King full-time [1961-63], learning every aspect of the business at the company’s one-stop operation.  Back in New York, he became an assistant to record man George Goldner in 1963, then in 1966 broke off with producer-writer Richard Gottehrer.  Their label’s moniker scrambled the first two letters of their first names – SE and RI – to get Sire.

Each put up $10,000 in seed money.  Stein’s funds had come from Beatlemania’s 1964 height, when Capitol Records in Canada sold a selection of Beatles singles not available in the United States.  Stein had spirited a mass of the records out of the country, then offloaded them to US wholesalers, making a small fortune in a week.  “The statute of limitations has passed,” said Stein.  “But that’s where my share of the money came from.”

Seymour Stein would later acknowledge Sire as a tribute to “Syd Nathan and King Records,” as reported by Kevin Stapleford in 1998 for Album Network‘s “120 Influential People As Chosen By a Panel of Their Peers.”  

Beatles 45 Canada-aa
Beatles 45 Canada-bb

Q:   Why do these Canadian early Beatles 45s look peculiar to the American eye?

A:   Capitol US — incredibly — declined to release the Beatles’ first four 45s!


The Beatles … Released on King Records?!

As far-fetched and fantastical as it may sound, had Syd Nathan’s negotiations with EMI’s Len Wood gone the other way, the first four Beatle singles could have all been released on King rather than Tollie (“Love Me Do“), Vee Jay (“Please Please Me” & “From Me to You“), and Swan (“She Loves You“).  As Seymour Stein recounted in a piece that he penned for Cash Box‘s March 15, 1980 edition entitled “Sire Records Expands Through Its Lengthy Involvement With the British Music Scene” —

Moving on from Billboard to King Records, the Cincinnati-based home of James Brown and other R&B greats, I came in contact with Len Wood, then managing director of EMI, King’s UK licensee.  At one meeting, he and Syd Nathan, King’s fiery founder, were heatedly debating King’s attempt to secure an option on all EMI repertoire it it was passed on by Capitol.  Nathan did not succeed, but it was not until several years later that I realized how important this option could have been.

When I heard the Beatles’ first Parlophone record, “Love Me Do,” I was not overly impressed.  Their follow-up, “Please Please Me,” was one of the most exciting records I had heard during the early part of 1963.  I was really surprised, months later, to see the record released on Vee Jay, as I felt certain Capitol would see the potential for America, especially since by that time, “From Me to You” and “She Loves You” had followed it to #1 in Britain.

It was only Vee Jay’s subsequent bankruptcy and EMI’s wisdom in licensing “She Loves You” to Swan Records as a one-off that eventually secured the Beatles for Capitol.  But Capitol was to continue passing on acts even after the Beatles breakthrough.  They basically released those artists from the Brian Epstein stable like Cilla Black and Peter and Gordon, allowing the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, the Hollies, and the Animals to go elsewhere.  Decca, having virtual control of its American company, saw to it that London released product by the Rolling Stones, Zombies, Moody Blues and the remainder of its roster.  Pye, having no U.S. company of their own, would send their releases each week to the various labels they represented.  At that time (1964), I was working with George Goldner, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at Red Bird, and I remembered their scrambling with Warner Brothers for rights to Petula Clark’sDowntown.”  

Gathering organized by EMI –

King’s April 1961 European licensing tour

[L to R:  Richard Dawes; Hal Neely; Syd Nathan; & Leonard George Wood]


Stein elaborated further in a 2016 interview with Music Ally:

I had built up a relationship with EMI when I worked for King.  EMI distributed King in most territories outside of America – or licensed the music.  I met one of the heads of the company, LG Wood.  He told me that if I ever needed anything I could always come to him.

The Beatles were turned down twice by Capitol.  They would have been gone forever if it hadn’t been for EMI’s American lawyer who was very smart.  Vee-Jay had it first and they had it for three or five years.

They put out ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’.  And they didn’t pay any royalties.  There were very few royalties to pay but they didn’t pay them.  When EMI heard ‘She Loves You’, the third record, they said this would be the smash that broke them.

Capitol, believe it or not, turned it down again even though ‘Please Please Me’ had been a hit in England – which ‘Love Me Do’ was not.  Their lawyer, a guy called Paul Marshall, was one of the smartest men I ever knew and he told them to let him handle it.  He took it away from VJ as they were bad and didn’t pay royalties.

He called up Dick Clark in Philadelphia who owned pieces of labels and had his own label called Swan Records.  He said, “I’ll give you this record without an advance and a low royalty – but no follow ups.  In exchange, you can break the band.”  That’s exactly what happened.  Capitol got them back from ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ onwards.

Is it ironic that Syd Nathan’s former intern – rather than Nathan himself – found a way, ultimately, to cash in on the Beatles’ early success (see Seed Money for Sire above)? 

It is also curious that an indie label notable for helping to birth rock ‘n’ roll released, paradoxically, few examples of 60’s-style “beat group” rock records, aside from the odd release by The Beehives, The Exports, The Impacs, The Viceroys, Tonni Kalash, Mickey Baker, Them, and Keith Murphy & the Daze, one of King’s last signings while Syd Nathan was still alive, according to Murphy.

One that got away —

King’s closest link to The Beatles


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One Response

  1. Very interesting! Saw Stein just this 2017 year at the Grammy Museum where he talked along with L A Reid. I recorded for King in May 1968. May have been one of the last people okayed by Syd Nathan. Keith Murphy and the Daze.

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