Reflections: The King of Queen City

Sunday, October 4, 2009 at 8:45pm

Unless you happen to be a record collector, historian or hardcore music fan, chances are you’ve never heard of Syd Nathan. He wasn’t a politician or social activist in the traditional sense, and no one has ever to my knowledge attached any ideological label to his beliefs.

Yet he was a revolutionary figure and innovator in some key areas, and a person whose example should be closely studied by those in many other fields.

Nathan was the founder of King Records, an independent label in Cincinnati that began in 1943 and was extremely vital to the development of American R&B, country, blues, bluegrass, black and white gospel and even jazz into the early ‘70s.

But more importantly than just their great records, Syd Nathan did something unique for the time not only in musical circles in business across the board: he hired all types of people and gave them key positions regardless of skin color, ethnic origin or nationality.

Long before such terms as workplace diversity and affirmative action became buzzwords sure to ignite debate and controversy, Nathan had black executives like Henry Glover producing sessions by white acts and whites like Ralph Bass producing R&B. He had “hillbilly” singers cutting songs previously done by R&B types and honking jazz saxophonists covering country boogie and western swing numbers.

He also marketed all types of music to multiple audiences, and thought nothing of releasing a blues or black gospel album alongside a country or Cajun record.

Nathan’s groundbreaking business practices are outlined in a superb new book, King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records, by Jon Hartley Fox. In it, Fox traces Nathan’s contention that people were far more alike than different back to his days operating a used record store in Cincinnati.

In Queen City, Nathan saw white and black customers buying all types of music. Though he wasn’t naïve enough to assume that there were large amounts of crossover buying, Nathan decided there was enough commonality to make money cutting albums in these various styles and then cross-marketing.

Nathan initially hedged his bets, starting King as a country and bluegrass label, and a secondary outlet Queen for blues, black gospel, R&B and jazz. But he soon decided he could do better with one joint venture, and began to integrate the companies and mix the assignments of his executives. He didn’t do this because of lawsuits or government pressure or citizen demand, but because it made good business sense.

Nathan also didn’t believe in tokenism.

When Glover was producing Stanley Brothers records, he was in charge, just as when Bass handled James Brown sessions. That doesn’t mean Nathan didn’t stick his nose in at times, or make dubious decisions about songs being released because he also had a big ego and often felt he knew as much about music as the performers. Still, he ultimately trusted his executives to do the right thing, and his promotion of Glover to a senior A&R position predated Quincy Jones’ rise in the industry during the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Ironically, others who later followed Nathan’s example have gotten more glory and notoriety.

Berry Gordy took soul music and marketed it to general audiences, while also employing whites, blacks and Asians in key roles. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton in Memphis forged a union of black performers and both white and black musicians to make Southern soul and blues with a country tinge.

Such artists as Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter and Brook Benton came to Nashville and made hits backed by white musicians, while other pioneering types ranging from Ted Jarrett to Buddy Killen and Porter Wagoner (who produced a classic Joe Simon record) also ignored conventional wisdom about color and enjoyed spectacular results.

But as Fox’s book shows, Nathan led the way. Sadly, Fox’s volume documents the lack of acknowledgement and respect given to King Records in its own city. Even though Nathan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, the King Records complex isn’t yet on the National Register of Historic Places.

Music City’s long relationship with King Records, dating back to its sale to Nashville-based Starday in the late ‘60s following Nathan’s death at 64 and continuing on to its current relationship with Gusto, is also detailed in Fox’s book.

Still, the role Syd Nathan and King Records played in helping change the landscape of popular music and influencing attitudes should not be underestimated or overlooked. He proved success could be achieved by focusing more on commonalities and gifts than differences and background.

Comments may be sent to rwynn@nashvillecitypaper.com