Earlier this year, dozens of volunteers roamed Cincinnati, haunting record stores, clubs and coffee shops. The group was seeking stories about King Records, the legendary record label that made its home here in the Queen City. Months of investigation and writing has finally culminated in a new piece of documentary theater premiering as a staged reading later this week at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The first draft of this new play, called Cincinnati King, will take a close look at the background, work and legacy of King Records founder Syd Nathan and his influential business.
“We hope people who are unfamiliar with King Records will leave (the reading) having learned more about a business and a time in our city’s history,” says Blake Robison, artistic director of the Playhouse in the Park. “And for those who are familiar, we hope they’ll enjoy hearing the story from other perspectives. The best thing any piece of theater can do is pose questions about who we are today.”
In the late 1930s, Syd’s Record Shop was one of the most successful record stores in the Queen City. In 1943, owner and Cincinnati native Nathan tried to establish a small record label, intending to produce Country music. After it failed, Nathan, who left school as a teenager, refinanced and started over. His company, King Records, would go on to become one of the most influential record labels in the history of American music, launching many careers, including The Delmore Brothers, Cowboy Copas, Moon Mullican, Hank Ballard and, most notably, James Brown. For two profitable, productive decades, King Records recorded, mastered, printed, pressed and shipped all of the albums it produced — essentially reimaging how music was made and distributed.
King Records was a revolutionary presence in the music industry at the time, and not just because the company was pressing its own vinyl. Nathan, the company’s helmsman, employed both blacks and whites, making King one of the first racially integrated businesses in Cincinnati. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Nathan was inducted in 1997), Nathan wanted to sell Country and old-timey music to a mostly white audience who had moved to the Midwest from Appalachia.
But he also saw an opportunity to sell Rhythm and Blues records to urban African-Americans who had relocated to Cincinnati from the South. In working with artists from both genres, Cincinnati’s King Records gradually blended and mixed the two sounds, making enormous contributions to the birth of new musical hybrid: Rock and Roll.
Robison commissioned KJ Sanchez, one of the Playhouse’s new associate artists, to create Cincinnati King. Sanchez is the founder and CEO of American Records, a theater company devoted to making productions that chronicle contemporary life and experiences.
“New work speaks to our contemporary experiences most immediately,” Robison says. “It draws a line between the past and the present in our public consciousness and it does so in a contemporary voice.”
Sanchez has been making theater for about 20 years, beginning as an actor and then as a director. She became involved with Anne Bogart’s SITI company where she says she learned a great deal about how to create devised work. Sanchez’s own American Records now specializes in creating theatre from interviews, community stories, research and found text. Sanchez travels extensively, delving into cities and neighborhoods and communities, asking questions and then making new plays from the answers.
“Theater is different from a movie or a TV show or a book,” Sanchez says. “It’s a wonderful way to address things that are vitally important and reflect it right back to the community. Theater is a coming together. You sit shoulder-to-shoulder and you watch something that just yesterday walked off the sidewalk, something to go with our lives.”
The Cincinnati King project began as a focused investigation into the history of King Records. Sanchez worked with Playhouse board and staff members, drama students from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and community volunteers. Each volunteer was sent out into the community to drum up as many memories of King Records as they could find. Volunteers were trained in simple interview techniques that would help them get the best stories from their subjects without coloring or influencing the content. Sanchez said she instructed her story-finders to be compassionate nonjudgmental listeners.
“The key factors are to be a good listener,” Sanchez says. “And don’t go fishing. Don’t go in knowing what you’re looking for. Cast as wide a net as possible… and see what bubbles up.”
Many interviews lasted anywhere from a half hour to two hours. Then, each volunteer transcribed the recording before handing it off to Sanchez, who read, reviewed and culled the raw quotes into drama. Currently, the main body of the play is comprised of interviews with about 20 people from across the Tristate, who have memories of King Records and Syd Nathan. Those 20 interviews, culled from dozens more, totaled somewhere between 40 and 50 hours of recordings. Additional material was also gleaned from the Cincinnati Public Library’s own collection of information on King Records as well as Nathan’s own recordings of himself, books and newspaper clippings.
At the reading, audiences can expect a healthy dose of local history as well as the rare opportunity to interact with a piece of theater that is still in progress. Sanchez says she is truly amazed at the impact and the reach King Records had in just those few short years.
“Little Willie John … was the first person to record the song ‘Fever’ (with King Records) that Nancy Sinatra made famous,” Sanchez says. “The song started with Little Willie John and then it went to Peggy Lee and then it went to Nancy Sinatra. But that song, that famous song, got its start in Cincinnati.”
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park hosts a free reading of CINCINNATI KING Saturday at the Thompson Shelterhouse. Reservations are required: 513-421-3888.