When the announcement was made in Cleveland last October, it was a nice little moment for Cincinnati. Except, Cincinnati didn’t quite hear it. The imperial poobahs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame released this year’s list of nominees for induction into the Hall, and the J.B.’s were on it. The J.B.’s! Somehow the news didn’t make it into the Enquirer, and in general, the response was quiet.
Consider it a lost opportunity, because when he was 15 years old, Bootsy Collins, his brother Catfish, and a bunch of other guys from Cincinnati started recording for King Records in Evanston, backing James Brown in a band called the J.B.’s and making some of the most blazingly funky records humanity has known. It’s a small thing, the nomination, but it’s a tribute to music made here and a tribute to King, a cradle of American sounds. If we hear it.
This year, there’s been an upsurge of interest in the King story. A kaleidoscopic mural of James Brown, the king of King, has been painted along Liberty Street in OTR, and Mayor John Cranley has been a vocal celebrant of the label’s legacy since back when he was a city councilman. Cranley has stuck his neck out to help give the building at 1540 Brewster (one of the linked buildings that formed King) designation as a historical landmark. City council voted for historical protection, but the current owner, Dynamic Industries, wants to demolish it and is now in court suing the city and claiming the permits filed for preservation are purposely misleading and full of errors. Dynamic’s lawyer, Timothy Burke, says they are laced with “technical defects—and I’m being kind calling them technical defects—that I think hurt the city’s position very much.” (Burke, however, says he won’t be representing the company in the ongoing suit.)
Mayor Cranley and city council see the possibility for economic development in a revivified King, which would be good for Evanston.
It’s weird to get excited about a lawsuit over property rights and allegations of form futzing. But the very fact that the city is arguing for King preservation, and that it is in the news, has to be considered a step forward. At least people are talking about it. “This is our authentic history,” says Elliott Ruther, chief of development at Cincinnati State and a moving force behind the Cincinnati Music Heritage Foundation. “This town has often over the years struggled to figure out how do we brand ourself, define who we are? It’s always better when you start with something that’s real.”
Brewster boosters talk about what the city of Memphis has done with its musical legacy. How they turned a site by the demolished Stax Records building, where countless soul sides were cut, into a home for a performing arts program: the Stax Music Academy. And how they have kept the doors open to Sun Studio, where Elvis got his start. Indeed, it’s become a successful tourist attraction. But Burke isn’t buying it. “This is a big building,” he says of King’s former home on Brewster. “I know some folks have argued this could be just like Sun Records in Memphis—I gather it’s a block off Beale Street, very close to lots of other activity. This is not.”
Cranley and city council see the possibility for economic development in a revivified King, and hope that turning it into a destination would be good for the surrounding Evanston community, which hasn’t always had an abundance of good news. But one also takes away a powerful feeling that the mayor wants to honor the Cincinnati institution because it is just plain freaking wrong to ignore the legacy one day more. Which is why he tried to raise $2 million to buy the building via Issue 22, the parks levy on the ballot last November. Unfortunately for King boosters, the levy failed to pass.
So at least for now the building has historical protection. But there’s no money, and no developed plan, to buy and rehab the property. Which means that 73 years after King Records opened, 45 years since it closed, and a few months since a fall binge of hope that something could be done, the momentum to finally do something about King seems stuck. King once brought the funk, and now a less satisfying funk hangs over efforts to bring its legacy alive one more time.
In photos you can see what the recording studio in its heyday looked like: it was a high-ceilinged, bright room with a booth overhead, from which brassy, unkempt label owner Syd Nathan cast harsh judgment on the musicians before him. It was a beautiful space.
It is also long gone. To legally see how King looks today, it’s worth tracking down a copy of a video called “The Last Session on Brewster.” It was made in 2012 by Avondale native Danny Adler, who says he “found” a key to the building and let himself in. A fine guitar player and onetime leader of the band Roogalator (known slightly for the single “Cincinnati Fatback,” released on Stiff Records in 1976), Adler recorded a batch of old King songs in the space. He set down a chair, hooked up lights and a four-channel mixer wired to his car’s cigarette lighter, and jammed. The video screened here last year, and it shows just a little of the love musicians and music lovers feel for the place.
The sounds were unmistakable though the room was unrecognizable. Trash and chunks of the building lie scattered around. “It’s scary,” says Burke, who has visited the address. “The roof is collapsed throughout. It’s open to the sky in places. If there ever was a fire nobody should get on the roof to put it out. There are bats flying around.”
Once, that building was a vibrant fixture in a thriving working class neighborhood. Then came the I-71 freeway, which cut through this African-American quarter, and the neighborhood never recovered from its “urban renewal.” Across the street was a park and a baseball field; lore has it King musicians played ball there during breaks. Today the ball field is gone and King sits alone, visible to commuters en route to and from downtown.
In talking about the business that gave the world “The Twist” and “Mother Popcorn,” The Delmore Brothers and the Collins brothers, boosters use a phrase: sacred ground. It was employed at a hearing before the historic conservation board in July, and again in October, when the city council voted to approve historic protection. (Disclosure alert: As the author of a book on James Brown, I have written a letter in support of the Brewster renovation.)
But what do you do when sacred ground gets trampled? One thing that made King unique was its business model—almost everything a record company does was done in one big place in Evanston. Unfortunately, today various groups hoping to share the legacy with the city aren’t operating under one roof. There is a preservationist contingent, including the Bootsy Collins Foundation and the Cincinnati USA Music Heritage Foundation, calling first and foremost for saving as much of the original building as possible. Then there is the King Studios Board, comprised primarily of Evanston community leaders, which wants to move the legacy of King several blocks away by building a King Studios Experiential Learning Center in a business district on Montgomery Road. Then there is Xavier University, which is verbally supportive of saving the Brewster building and more actively supportive of development on Montgomery—Xavier has breathed life into the King Studios Board.
In 2009, the board got the city to move $950,000 in unused capital funds so that property could be bought on Montgomery. Nothing much has happened with it since. “Obviously we haven’t really started a fund-raising campaign—we need to do that first,” says Tom Fernandez, an architect at design firm SHP and a member of the King Studios Board. “We at one time were shooting for the 75th anniversary to have a facility open. Funds have to be raised—we’ve acquired some of the property but we may need to acquire a little more.”
Give Xavier credit: they’ve applied for grants and put together a program for teaching subjects in public schools by using the story of King as a model and starting point. That’s not nothing.
This is a very Cincinnati story. There are tangled connections behind the scenes, and at some point everybody involved has done business with somebody on some other side. Democratic Party head Timothy Burke, working as attorney for Dynamic Industries, has opposed King supporter and Democratic mayor Cranley. Elsewhere there are fears of backroom deals, including a suspicion that Xavier, which has long had its eye on the Brewster property so close to campus, has established its own dialogue with Dynamic Industries. There are the inherent social tensions of a discussion that has sometimes seemed to pit a feel-good landmark project against a community center in a community that could use one. Then there’s the problem of having to do something—whether it’s refurbish a messed-up building or build a new one—with nothing.
The failed parks levy was the city’s most recent idea for raising money. Xavier is using its enthusiasm and the King heritage story to engage in community outreach, without spending much. Still, there is one person in the whole saga who would be perfect for squeezing money out of stones, butting heads, and pushing this project forward: If only Syd Nathan were still alive. The founder of King was a stout, stogie-chomping, profane, volcanic, and creative entrepreneur who built possibly the first racially integrated company in town. He made unity where there was the opposite. From the time he founded King in 1943, he focused on building a broad coalition for the sake of producing hit records, and the profits that could follow. He put white hillbilly pickers in the studio with R&B cats; he employed African-American decision makers from the top on down; he was bullish about not letting squabbles get in the way of business. “We give everybody an even break,” he once said. “This is because I’m a Jew and I know what obstacles are.… At King we pay for ability and that’s what we get. Our people get along fine together, and we aren’t fooling when we say we don’t discriminate.” We could really use Syd today.
In the absence of money and Syd, at least people are talking about pooling their goals. There is an emerging consensus that the best possible ending would be saving the building on Brewster, building the Experiential Learning Center, and connecting the two with a cultural walk that might lead folks to get to know Evanston.
“I think really they are a complementary, single project,” says Liz Blume, director of Xavier’s Community Building Institute. “We hope the Montgomery site gets built, the Brewster site gets renovated, and we could put a really cool interpretative walkway between the two. Then it suddenly gets a lot realer.”
“It needs to be a ‘both/and,’ not an ‘either/or,’ ” says Tom Fernandez.
All it will take is several million dollars. Until then, a modest proposal: How about a moveable tribute to Cincinnati history? What used to be King’s front porch is now a freeway overpass. So let’s erect a vacuum-molded statue made from melted vinyl of Syd Nathan in all his glory. His Coke bottle glasses could look down on commuters the way he once looked out on Lonnie Mack and Cowboy Copas. The chili stains on his loud checked tie (which was itself way larger than life) would say One of us. Arms outstretched, one hand could point to where the Center might stand, the other where the Brewster renovation should be. A vivid reminder of a piece of Cincinnati history that deserves recognition.
Illustration by Francesco Bongiorni