Conversation with Terry Stewart
said by: Andrew Scott Campbell (M.Arch 19’)
“Music, it requires more than brawn. It requires a lot of heart. You gotta put love in there.” - James Brown
Every year, the Cincinnati Preservation Association hosts a Fall Forum Luncheon, where conservation-minded designers and local enthusiasts network and socialize over carefully curated plates of sweet and savory dishes while listening to the year’s invited speaker address current preservation ideas and issues. This year, for the CPA’s 23rd annual luncheon, Terry Stewart was asked to come out and speak about Cincinnati’s own King Records—the studio that played perhaps the most important role in developing and promoting American Country, R&B, and Rock n’ Roll music.
The CPA also hosts an event preceding the Fall Forum called the Student Roundtable, held at the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, and generously sponsored by the Maxwell C. Weaver Foundation. This event is much more casual than the luncheon—instead of mingling over curated three course meals, students mingle over slices of pepperoni pizza. With less people in attendance, each person is given the opportunity to ask much more direct questions of the speaker.
I was fortunate to be in attendance at both events, and to speak with Terry personally at the Roundtable. What he had to say—given his established positions as both the Director of Marvel Comics and as the CEO of the esteemed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as being a connoisseur of vinyl records in his free time—was illuminating to a music and Americana roots enthusiast such as myself.
Terry opened both speeches with notions of immense respect for the King Records label, remarking its importance in proliferating certain genres we take for granted today. He joked that all minor record label owners back in the day were a cross between lunatics and gangsters. That’s the kind of context it would take to understand the lively undercurrent music streams that brewed on backstreet city stages and in underground bars. But, and perhaps more importantly, that was also the kind of mindset it took to build a working business model out of the aspirations of musicians and performers.
King Records’ story starts with the entrepreneurial and eccentric Syd Nathan, a Cincinnati native. Syd began by dropping out of high school due to terrible eyesight and asthma. Only after working a series of two-bit jobs would he go on to open a record store focusing on selling used jukebox albums. For three years, he saturated himself in selling records. By 1943, he decided to produce them himself.
Initially, the aim of King Records was to sell what was then called “hillbilly” records, now known as “country” music. Syd would later recognize the potential of catering to the high demand of African American teenagers by selling “race” records, now called “rhythm and blues”. The “race” and “hillbilly” names—in contrast with their more ethnically sensitive modern names—were more than playful monikers. They reflected a culture of disparagement and disenfranchisement that was completely saturated in both Appalachian and black culture. Social conditions had forced Appalachian and black identities to not only shoulder racial and ethnic prejudice on a daily basis, but to also cope with a lack of cultural representation in the form of something so essential as music.
Syd, a Jewish man himself and no stranger to prejudice, was a pioneer in not only producing both Country and R&B albums, but also in his structuring of King Records as an enterprise. Employees of many races were incorporated throughout the business. At the time, it wasn’t common for African Americans, people of Asian dissent, and whites to work under the same roof at every level of production and hierarchy. In fact, many believed that such a racially integrated business model would not work well enough to survive, let alone thrive. Syd set out to prove such notions wrong, and was successful in doing so.
Beyond integrating King Records racially, Syd also took steps to integrate the studio vertically. Nearly all stages of record production were completed within the Cincinnati studio, including: recording the music, staging the house band, pressing the records, producing the outer sleeves, and shipping the finished products. Everything was done under one roof, which was an immense feat and a first for a record label of its time. Something about King Records struck a chord with musicians and record buyers, which would grow to become the sixth largest record company in America. King revolutionized the music industry by introducing bluegrass, R&B, motown, funk, country, and soul music on a mass scale.
As mentioned, King Records got its start in “Hillbilly” music, but what isn’t as well known is that it actually made its debut in Dayton, Ohio. The first record produced by King was that of the Sheppard Brothers’ “The Steppin’ Out Kind” and “You’ll Be Lonesome Too”. Terry points out the shoddy sound quality, characterized by a lack of high and low ranges of audio and a scratchy, even fuzzy, sound.
It wouldn’t be long before King moved on from country to a more rockabilly motif. Wynonie Harris’s cover of Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” is commonly credited—and contested—as the first rock and roll record in history. Harris’s 1948 version would go on to lead the Billboard charts for over six months, and the song would later be covered by Elvis Presley.
In the fifties, King Records grew an affinity for double entendre songs, which were often banned from radio stations and from being sold to young people around the country. When Terry prompted “Sixty Minute Man” by The Dominoes at the Fall Forum, the punch line in the chorus was met with bursting laughter from the crowd.
And, of course, no discussion about King Records can go without including its biggest star, James Brown. Syd Nathan apparently overheard the recording of James Brown’s first record Please, Please, Please and stormed into the studio shouting “This is the worst piece of shit I’ve ever heard in my entire life!”—he even nearly stopped the production. Producer Ralph Bass pleaded with Syd to keep the record, threatening to quit if the album didn’t sell one million copies. Luckily for us, Brown sold a million albums, Bass kept his job, and King Records was granted an incredibly talented and prolific artist for years to come.
Before going defunct in 1975, King Records’ last big release would be another James Brown record, Super Bad. Released in 1971, it featured hits like “Super Bad” and “Let It Be Me”.
King Records is an important cultural artifact not lost on the the city of Cincinnati—unlike so many other important structures and historic contexts—and we are lucky that many are willing to fight to maintain the structures that housed such a momentous enterprise. Thanks in large part to overwhelming public support, the King Records building was bought by the city of Cincinnati in a nine to zero city council vote. The building was preserved, along with Cincinnati’s ties to musical and social diversity.
When Terry Stewart talks about King Records, he speaks reverently on the impact the company has had on America and the world. By his contention, he believes Cincinnati held perhaps the best claim in providing a home for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He admits that Cleveland won the project, in part, because of overwhelming public interest and proactivity with revenue streams. But Cleveland has earned its famed museum because of its rich history in the development of rock and roll, considering it was home to icons like Alan Freed and Bruce Springsteen.
Terry is glad to acknowledge the good work done in Cleveland in the name of musical preservation and honor, and that it could stand as precedent for how King Records could be treated here in Cincinnati. What he outlines is the importance of narrative. In the context of such important institutions, stories told through the eyes of famous icons, remains of unique artifacts, support of a vast musical collection, and ripples of cultural legacy are irreplaceable.
King Records could not have existed outside Cincinnati, and Cincinnati would not be what it is today without King Records. Terry Stewart, and many like him, believe that the conversation around historic preservation needs to also be a conversation around a shaped culture. This may seem obvious, but the role history plays in our daily lives is linked not only by old buildings and music, but also by refreshed ideas and feelings. They flow together towards what we know, who we are, and what we take for granted. Preserving a space, even an important one, isn’t strictly about understanding the space as it was. Preservation is also about reflecting how we live in and around the ideas espoused by such a space and those who utilized it. In that way, those ideas and their housing structures never become stale.
Thanks again to the Maxwell C. Weaver Foundation for sponsoring the Student Roundtable, and to the Cincinnati Preservation Association for all the work they do. For more information on preservation events and efforts in and around Cincinnati, visit the CPA’s website: