Monday, July 30, 2012
King Records was an American record label, started in 1943 by Syd Nathan and originally headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. It now operates as a reissue label for its past material.
At first it specialized in country music, at the time still known as "hillbilly music." King advertised, "If it's a King, It's a Hillbilly -- If it's a Hillbilly, it's a King." One of the label's most important hits was "I'm Using My Bible for a Road Map" by Reno and Smiley. Very important recordings in this field were done by The Delmore Brothers and Wayne Raney featuring their close harmony vocals, harmonica, electric guitar and string band playing. The Delmores also did their country boogie material on this label which was a precursor to rockabilly. King ventured into the rockabilly genre and several King artists such as Bill Beach are in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Beach's song, "Peg Pants" also experienced success during the European resurgence of rockabilly in the late 1980s. Likewise, singer-pianist Moon Mullican recorded a country boogie style that was a precursor to piano-based rock 'n' roll. Major country hits on the label included "I'll Sail My Ship Alone", "Blues Stay Away from Me", "Chew Tobacco Rag", "Eight More Miles to Louisville", "Sweeter Than the Flowers" and "Cherokee Boogie".
The company also had a "race records" (Black) label, Queen Records (which was melded into the King label within a year or two) and most notably (starting in 1950) Federal Records which launched the singing career of James Brown. In the 1950s, this side of the business outpaced the hillbilly recordings. King Records was highly successful after the hiring of Ralph Bass and recorded R&B artists like Joe Tex, Valerie Carr, Roy Brown, Jack Dupree, Otis Williams & the Charms, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Ivory Joe Hunter and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. They also had a long legal battle with James Brown, after he repeatedly violated his King contract. King also bought out several other record labels, including De Luxe Records (in 1952), and Bethlehem Records.
One of the most successful features of the label was its encouragement of the mixing of the country and R&B sides of the label. Many of the label's country singers such as Moon Mullican, Delmore Brothers, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Zeb Turner covered many of the label's R&B songs such as "Grandpa Stole my Baby", "Rocket to the Moon", "Bloodshot Eyes", and "I Got Loaded". Also, some of the R&B artists also provided pure country songs such as Bubber Johnson's "Keep a Light in the Window for Me", which was recorded by Johnson and made famous by Moon Mullican. Likewise, R&B artists covered bluesy country artists' songs such as Wynonie Harris's covers of "Triflin' Woman Blues" and "Bloodshot Eyes".
During the 1950s, King also distributed their own line of portable phonographs.
King Records was unique among the independent labels because the entire production process was done in house. That included recording, mastering, printing, pressing and shipping. This gave Nathan complete control so a record could be recorded one day and shipped to radio stations the next day in quantities as few as 50. That's why non-selling King records became so rare.
When Nathan died in 1968, King Records was acquired by Hal Neely's Starday Records and relaunched as 'Starday and King Records'. The legendary songwriting duo Leiber & Stoller bought the label in 1970, but sold it soon afterwards to Lin Broadcasting which in turn sold it to Tennessee Recording & Publishing, owned by Freddy Bienstock, Hal Neely, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; who sold it in 1974 to Gusto Records. In 1971, James Brown's recording contract and back catalog were sold to Polydor Records. Since 2001, Collectables Records has been remastering and reissuing the King Records catalog. Several compilation CD's are available featuring King Recording Artist, specifically "King Rockabilly", released in 2004. King Records is now only used as a record label under the parent company, Gusto Records.
The former King Records headquarters at 1540 Brewster Avenue in Cincinnati is still standing and has an historical marker placed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.