The Day Otis Williams Saved King Records

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In 2015, King Records gets lavish praise from pop music fans and scholars. They celebrate the Cincinnati-based label, which started in 1943 and closed up shop here in 1971, and they note the many great country and r&b hits that paved the way for everything that followed. One of the earliest breakthrough stars at King was a student from Withrow High School, Otis Williams. In 1952, Williams and the group he named, The Charms, had one of the first pop hits for the label, “Hearts of Stone.”

Williams went on to write more songs, sang them and had more hits, before eventually leaving King. He still lives in Cincinnati. In the years that followed his time on King, he would sometimes complain about how little he was paid by King founder, Syd Nathan. Williams has pointed out how he helped build the great label, and was never allowed to get his fair share.

Which makes what happened July 27 at a Historic Conservation Board hearing all the more remarkable. It was a hearing to debate the possibility of giving historical designation (and protection from destruction) to the complex of buildings on Brewster Avenue in Evanston. An application for historic designation was inspired in part by an owner of one of three buildings affected having recently filed for a permit to demolish his structure.

At the hearing, the lawyer for the owner, Timothy Burke, argued that the historic designation request was fatally flawed by mistakes, most of all because it allegedly misstates the actual address of the buildings today comprising the King Records footprint. The confusion has been known to students of King for years; the three buildings share some walls to form the whole complex, and though Syd Nathan used one address, some of the actual property is on other lots that have not always had the same owner since King closed in 1971.

Citing that inaccuracy and others on the application, Burke demanded that his client be allowed to do what he wanted with the building.

What followed was a roll call of King supporters: Mayor John Cranley, local music fans, radio people, and elderly King hands like Philip Paul and Jimmy Railey, talking about the importance of what happened on Brewster, and how Cincinnati was only now waking up to the history it gave birth to. “The Twist” was a King release; James Brown, the Delmore Brothers, Lonnie Mack, Nina Simone and others all recorded for the label. (Full disclosure: as the author of a biography of King’s most important performer, I have written a letter in support of preservation.) Then, near the end of the list of speakers, Otis Williams came to the small table.

He spoke of graduating high school and getting an offer from both the Reds and from King, and pondering which to take. He tracked his recording career a bit, and then reached deep. “What I’m really trying to explain to you is, the artists that made the work that was renowned all over the world—it came out of King Records,” he said levelly. “This is our legacy, of Cincinnati…” He paused, and started to cry.

“Those King guys need to know somebody cared. You just need to know, don’t take that land…” He stopped again, and in a shaky voice declared “I’m not a well man right now, but with my last breath I’ll still say, recognize these people. They changed the world for you.” Patricia Collins, Bootsy’s wife, came up and draped an arm around Williams.

“This is our legacy,” he said. “I was born and raised in this city, I know…everybody loves King Records and you’re gonna throw it away? Why? Because of a number on a piece of paper? ”

He was gently walked away from the microphone. Williams’s time was up.

The lawyer for the owner was given a short rebuttal period, and he did the best he could. “Look, I do understand that great music happened at that site,” he said. “But it’s equally important from an educational and historical standpoint to recognize that you don’t mess with private property rights unless you do it with extraordinary care.”

After that, the panel quickly deliberated. Regarding the address confusion, member Don Driehaus said “We’re here as a historic board, not as a zoning board.” And then by a 5 to 0 vote, the panel gave the former King buildings, whatever their proper address, historic designation.

The next step is for the city planning commission to weigh in, and then full protection will go to City Council for a vote. King is not yet landmarked. And if it receives protection, there will be no simple method for its supporters to turn a largely wrecked set of structures into a suitable site—whether it is to be for education, as some want, or as a tourist attraction.

Still, it was a huge step forward for those seeking to preserve King Studios. And it might not have happened but for the clarity and power of one of the earliest artists on King.

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