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A Royal Revival for King Records

Appreciation for pioneering Cincinnati-based label continues to grow

By Steven Rosen · November 17th, 2010 · Music
For years, Rock historians have said the reason Cincinnati’s King Records doesn’t have the enduring public regard that, say, Detroit’s Motown or Memphis’ Sun labels have is because it didn’t have a readily identifiable sound. King recorded too many kinds of music — even too many kinds of R&B, its greatest strength. In other words, it valued quantity over quality. For every James Brown or Hank Ballard classic, there was less distinguished stuff like “Gibble Gobble” by Willie Wright & His Sparklers or “Do the Ginger Snap” by Little Bobby Moore.

But now an alternative theory is emerging — that it’s the breadth and depth of its Americana material that made King (and its affiliated family of labels, especially Federal) so great. And everywhere you look these days, people are paying tribute to King.

For instance, in a recent interview Neal Sugarman — co-owner of Brooklyn’s red-hot contemporary-Soul Daptone label, home of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings — said an obscure King Records band, The Dapps, partly inspired label’s and band’s names. William (Beau Dollar) Bowman & The Dapps backed James Brown, Hank Ballard and Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis on King recordings in the late 1960s, during Funk’s formative years.

“We were very well aware of The Dapps,” Sugarman said. “It’s a cool name. It means something dapper.”

Nashville’s Gusto Records, keeper of the King archives, has just issued the four-disc King R&B Box Set, an updated, remastered version of a 1996 boxed set on now-defunct Highland Records.

Meanwhile, reissue labels around the world keep digging through the archives to put out ever-more-obscure King material in ever-hipper packages. An excellent brand-new example comes from Spain’s Vampisoul label, R&B Hipshakers Vol.

1: Teach Me to Monkey. It goes way, way deep into King/Federal archives to come up with upbeat, danceable (and non-hit) R&B songs like “Mom, Won’t You Teach Me to Monkey” by Little Emmett Sutton, “Where You At Jack” by Little Mummy, “Mr. Astronaut” by The Drivers and the aforementioned “Gibble Gobble” and “Do the Ginger Snap.” (It also has lesser-known cuts by better-known King acts like Freddy King (“Texas Oil”), Hank Ballard (“Broadway”), Charles Brown (“Regardless”) and Johnny “Guitar” Watson (the strange modeling-as-dancing song called “Posin’ ”).

While this is a Spanish release, it’s curated by one of the U.S.’s top R&B aficionados and record collectors, DJ Mr. Fine Wine of New York radio station WFMU’s “Downtown Soulsville” show. After Vampisoul contracted with Gusto, he was able to access Gusto’s King vaults in Nashville to search for obscure material. (A second volume will come out early next year; two others are in the works.)

“There’s just so much of this kind of dancey R&B stuff; it’s incredible how deep King goes,” Mr. Fine Wine (Matt Weingarden) says in an interview. “Such depth and variety. I’m discovering new stuff all the time.”

An even more impressive sign of the ongoing interest in King is the issuance this month of the entire Federal recordings of the still-active Chicago Blues/Soul singer/writer/guitarist Syl Johnson. They’re part of a massive four-CD/six-LP boxed set, Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology, from one of the U.S.’s premiere archival labels, The Numero Group.

Johnson, whose long career includes such late-1960s/early-1970s (non-King) R&B classics as “Come On Sock It Me,” “Different Strokes,” “Dresses Too Short,” “Concrete Reservation” and “Is It Because I’m Black?” began his career with Federal, the King subsidiary run by Ralph Bass. He recorded two songs — “Teardrops” and “They Who Love” — in Chicago for Bass in 1959. He then cut 12 more tracks on three trips to Cincinnati from 1960-1962. Twelve of the 14 tracks were released as singles, but Numero has included all 14 in its box. The reissue label even went so far as to create artwork for an imaginary Johnson album on Federal, My Gift, that looks very convincing.

I interviewed the 74-year-old Johnson, a colorful storyteller, recently about his King days for the current issue of Blurt magazine.

“There was this (Chicago) label, Veejay, and I was there making a session with (Blues star) Jimmy Reed,” Johnson recalls. “He used to be a drunk and we’d wait on him to get his whiskey and stuff and we’d be sitting round the studio. I was showing how I could sing and somehow Vivian Carter (the label co-owner) heard me and said to (her brother) to get this young boy to sing. He told me to write a song, put it on a dub and bring it.”

But as Johnson walked down South Michigan Avenue (home of Chicago’s vibrant Blues scene) with the recording, he saw a King branch office.

“And there was a guy there named Ralph Bass and I gave him my dub — it was a song called ‘Teardrops,’ ” Johnson says. “And he wouldn’t let me go. He said, ‘We’re King Records, a big company. We have James Brown.’ ”

So he recorded it properly for King subsidiary Federal, which released it, and a new career was born.



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