While there have been temporary exhibits in recent years on our music lore at the public library and the Contemporary Arts Center, there has never been a permanent historical display.
There is one now — in the lobby of the new Bootsy’s restaurant downtown (631 Walnut St.), easily accessible to even the casual passerby.
It features two glass cases with some 50 items, surrounded by guitars and pictures on the walls. One case is dedicated to King Records memorabilia, the other has items Bootsy Collins has taken from his “musical closet.”
When Collins partnered with Jeff Ruby on the restaurant, which opened late last year, the funkmeister had always planned to feature some sort of exhibit that would focus on King Records, the seminal Cincinnati studio where Country and R&B creatively coexisted.
“I got my start there,” Collins says. “I just have to give my props to King. And we wanted to make a statement. King belongs to us in Cincinnati. It was here. It did what Motown did, what Stax did, what Sun did. But we don’t recognize King enough for what it was.”
Collins, who grew up in Evanston near the old King studio on Brewster Avenue, landed there as a teenage session player along with his brother Catfish. They would be noticed by King’s mega-star, James Brown, who asked them to join his band in 1969.
Collins says the major credit for the King exhibit goes to Brian Powers and Nicole Kelsch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Kelsch did the installation of items that Powers had managed to accumulate — pictures, album covers, King promotional materials — as a result of the library sponsoring a King seminar and photo exhibit in 2008.
From 1943 to 1971, King Records had a huge influence on American popular music, a legacy often little known in this town and even lesser known outside of the city. The studio, founded by Syd Nathan, would give the music world landmark recordings in Bluegrass, Rock, R&B, Blues, Doo Wop, Country, Soul and Funk. Artists ranged from the Stanley Brothers and Cowboy Copas to James Brown and Hank Ballard.
The Bootsy’s exhibit works best at simply visually illustrating King’s diversity. The display will hit you that whites and blacks — from seemingly divergent musical genres — were making music together at a time when the country was still vastly segregated. It’s quite striking to see the Country/Pop faces on record covers by the likes of Ruby Wright, Bonnie Lou and Cowboy Copas sitting in a display next to the more earthy look of Arthur Prysock, Little Willie John, Wynonie Harris, Brown and Ballard.
“You can see how everyone is recording under this one roof with different kinds of music cultures. That’s pretty amazing,” Collins says.
Out of that musical stew would come Rock & Roll. Some of the items in the exhibit:
• A vinyl 45 of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” sits on a turntable with needle ready. One almost wants to reach out and hit the play button.
• There is a little magazine called Record Roundup, which King published for four years starting in 1946, written by employees — sort of an early fanzine commenting on the music scene.
• Several period pictures feature session players and artists in the studio. Often seen presiding over the sessions is Henry Glover, the producer, talent scout and musician credited with King’s creative success.
• One curious King flier about its artists touts the genres of “Hillbilly, Pop and Sepia.” Sepia?
Check out some of the memorabilia in our slideshow
“That’s an old term used to described ‘race’ records,” explains King historian Randy McNutt, who has just published a picture book on the studio. “It dates back many years before King’s time, to the days of the old-time record industry after the turn of the 20th century. King was merely using a term that had been applied many times in the past. By about 1950, however, the word had nearly faded from record business trade ads.”
The items from Bootzilla world range from one of Collins’ trademark Mad Hatter hats to a vintage space bass. There is a Bootsy doll designed by Snoop Dogg and a fiddle signed by Charlie Daniels. Collins also has several gold albums on the wall from projects he has worked on as a producer, songwriter or player for the likes of Beyonce, Snoop and Kid Rock.
One quibble with the exhibit is it could use some explanatory materials for the items on display, which would be helpful for the uninitiated. One does need to bring a working knowledge of the studio’s history to appreciate some of the memorabilia.
But on a visceral level the exhibit makes a powerful point, even to an uninformed observer: There was some true musical magic going on at that studio. As Powers puts it: “I’m hoping people come in and say, ‘Wow, I never knew this about Cincinnati. There was some music that happened here.’ ”
When asked if he has a favorite item in the exhibit, Collins simply points to a blown-up picture of the King building at 1540 Brewster Ave. and says, “If that building hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you.”
Read Rick Bird's November 2008 tribute to King Records, "The King of Them All."