Recently, there’s been news from the former site of King Records in Evanston. The city wants to save the space at 1540 Brewster Ave., while its owner, Dynamic Industries, wants to tear it down.
King’s owner was Syd Nathan, a savvy businessman who had a profound impact on both American popular music and social progress. He opened King in 1943, producing country records, a genre to which major labels weren’t yet paying much attention. He soon found another market to crack – R&B. At a time when the music business (like pretty much everything else in America) was segregated, Nathan was a real pioneer, bringing black musicians into King to make what were then called “race records.”
The white musicians started covering the songs black musicians were playing, and vice versa, and this interaction helped give birth to rock and roll. Musicians of all kinds recorded at King until it closed in 1971. Since then, the building has fallen into disrepair and is in imminent danger of being bulldozed.
One big reason we can’t let this happen – 55 feet high, in fact – is the mural of James Brown on Liberty Street. The Godfather of Soul was King Records – nearly all of his most important records were made there.
When I perform my solo program, Bach and Boombox, I use a clip from his 1970 hit “Get Up.” When I ask the audience where it was recorded, only a few people know. That shouldn’t be.
When James Brown came back to town for a visit 20 years ago, he was very upset to see the King building in shambles. Cincinnati is where Brown rose to fame, and if we’re going to claim him as our own, we need to walk the walk here and restore King to a state he’d be proud of. And according to Mark Twain, we’re right on schedule!
It’s important to remember that Syd Nathan integrated his studio not just out of idealism, but also to make a buck. He saw an opportunity to expand his reach, and being a good businessman, he took it. It’s a nice reminder that art, social progress and the bottom line can coexist very nicely.
There’s a more recent local example of the artistic and social good a little money can do. It’s on Warsaw Avenue in Price Hill.
In 2012, then-City Council member Laure Quinlivan created the Cincinnati Artist Ambassador Fellowship program, offering small grants to city artists for community-oriented projects. I was fortunate to receive one of the fellowships and wound up developing both my solo program and a small business.
Violinist Eddy Kwon, who directs MYCincinnati, Price Hill’s marvelous free youth orchestra, used his CAAF grant to start the MYCincinnati Ambassador Ensemble. Eddy and six students created an original performance piece, based on their own experiences.
Watching this group’s performance was one of the most powerful musical experiences I’ve ever had. They played their instruments, and sang about being teased, bullied and even arrested. The group’s depiction of an incident involving Ziyad Tooles, the group’s bassist, was devastating. At age 13, he was accused of shoplifting a bottle of mouthwash (which he’d paid for), and was handcuffed outside his neighborhood Kroger.
I have visited MYCincinnati many times as a guest teacher, and always enjoy talking with Ziyad. He is an energetic, funny and inspired young man. Until that performance, however, I had no idea he’d been through something that awful. Recreating that incident through performance must have been both challenging and empowering for him.
Ziyad is now learning to conduct and has led several MYCincinnati performances. Whether he pursues music or some other career, I’m sure he will have an outsize impact, thanks in no small part to his experiences as a member of the Ambassador Ensemble.
What, you may rightly ask, does this have to do with King Records? The answer is that both Syd Nathan’s work and Eddy Kwon’s represent what great things can happen when you give musicians room to experiment and collaborate, and that it can be good business, too. MYCincinnati has been a big part of the recent revitalization of Price Hill, attracting new residents and businesses to the area, and the $6,000 (not a misprint) Eddy got from the city has been multiplied many times over, from empowering students like Ziyad, to the great publicity generated during the group’s 2016 tour to Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, the CAAF program only lasted two years before falling victim to budget cuts. Let’s bring these grants back – Eddy’s work shows that they are a great investment – in art, people, and the economy – and so, in that spirit, I propose we rename them for Syd Nathan.
Hard to believe, but it’s an election year again, and I urge you to press local candidates to support economic development through the arts, by restoring the CAAF grants, and by saving 1540 Brewster from the wrecking ball. Cities like Memphis and Nashville have reaped huge economic benefits from music tourism. We should join them. In a town that treasures both its history and arts scene, while always watching the bottom line, this is a no-brainer, people. Let’s get on up and #SaveKingRecords!