The King of Independent Record Companies: An Interview with Music Historian Jon Hartley Fox

As I fiddled with my Zoom settings, the man on the screen thought aloud about his backdrop. “In interviews everybody has their library behind them. I have an empty doorway. It’s kind of symbolic.” Thus began my conversation with music historian Jon Hartley Fox. Jon, with his white beard and charming southern drawl, seems to be displaced in time in some ways. He’s a colorful raconteur who could just as easily be smoking a pipe on a porch swing as answering questions in a socially-distanced interview. However, the wise southern gentleman of my imagination would be recounting folklore and herbal remedies rather than the history of King Records and his experiences working for independent record companies.

Jon hails from Dayton, Ohio – part of the region of southern Ohio that just barely squeaks into the Midwest and was historically influenced by Southern Appalachian culture. It’s also only 60 miles north of Cincinnati, the home of historic King Records. Here, Jon recounts his early interest in the record label. 

In 1982, while he was working at a radio station, Fox wrote a grant proposal to produce radio documentaries with an Ohio connection. This is when he began his deep dive into the history of King Records, as he was awarded the grant and thereafter narrated and produced a documentary radio series called “King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records,” which was distributed through National Public Radio. Recognizing that there was much more of King’s story to be told, he hoped that someone would write a book about the topic. Jon eventually realized that “someone” would be him, and his book “King of the Queen City” was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2009. 

King Records, owned by entrepreneur Syd Nathan, was one of America’s most influential independent record companies during its existence from 1943 through the early 1970s. In its early years it specialized solely in country music, but then branched out with subsidiary labels that were eventually re-enveloped into the parent King label. The first of these was Queen Records, founded in 1943 to specialize in rhythm and blues. Federal Records was another subsidiary of King, most notable as the label on which James Brown was initially released. Some of the other more well-known artists on King and its subsidiaries were Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Bullmoose Jackson, Joe Tex, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, the Delmore Brothers, Hankshaw Hawkins, and Moon Mullican. Jazz saxophonist Roland Kirk (later named Rahsaan Roland Kirk) had his debut album, “Triple Threat,” released on King in 1957. Steve Lawrence recorded an early album on the label and, later in their careers, so did the Platters and the Ink Spots. The incredible diversity of musical styles – country, rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz – is one of the things that set King Records apart from its contemporaries, especially considering that it was an independent label. “They just did so many different genres of American music,” Jon said. 

King was very innovative and progressive for the time, and that appealed to me. They were outsiders stuck in Ohio, of all places. Here they were, one of the coolest record companies in the world, and at one time they were the sixth largest independent record company in America. That always struck me as fascinating. Back in the olden days I had turned all this into a movie. I imagined a cast with Danny DeVito as Syd Nathan, the head of King, and Prince as Little Willie John.

I mentioned that I’m very interested in the particular mix of cultural factors that result in music phenomena happening in a specific place and time, and asked Jon if he thought that King Records could have only happened in Cincinnati. Noting that Cincinnati is often called “The most northern city in the south” due to its proximity to the Ohio River, which is often used to demarcate the boundary between the two regions, Jon thought that the city’s location was vital due to its multiple cultural influences. “There were a lot of southern migrants who had come to Cincinnati in the 1930s and ‘40s from Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Virginia,” Jon explained. The city was also centrally located between Chicago and New York, as well as between Detroit and Nashville, thus making it a travel and transportation hub. A couple of large radio stations added to Cincinnati’s influence, including WLW which, at 500,000 watts, was the most powerful radio station in the world for a time. The Billboard magazine, which is now known simply as “Billboard,” was headquartered there. These combined factors brought many good musicians to play in Cincinnati’s clubs and those in the surrounding area, which affected King Records in that Syd Nathan did not have to pay to bring people in to record. They were already there, perhaps with a weeklong club engagement, and would record at King during their time off.

King Records was not located in the heart of Cincinnati. It was in Evanston, in the northern part of the city. Fox thinks that King’s location off the beaten path was a benefit because it spared them the scrutiny that they would have had if located downtown. The racial integration at King, which Jon talks about in this clip, was a particularly sensitive issue in the late 1940s through late 1950s.

King was also able to break new ground socially and musically because it was a truly independent record company, largely self-reliant due to owner Syd Nathan’s desire to avoid paying other people for what he and his company could do themselves. Fox explained that King had thirty-three branch offices around the country through which they distributed and marketed their records exclusively, rather than relying on independent distributors. Jon describes Syd Nathan’s incentives for the company’s independence.

King’s independence meant that they could take chances. Syd Nathan “would try anything once,” Fox said. This meant that he would give new and unknown artists a try. If it worked they came back, and it didn’t matter if Nathan liked the music or not. Jon explains, “He recorded a lot of things that he personally hated, James Brown being the prime example. He couldn’t understand that at all and broke into the studio and threw a tantrum about it. But at the same time, it was happening in his studio. That times one thousand happened.”

Another consequence of King’s independence was that they were able to capitalize on the popularity of songs with rather blatant sexual innuendo, such as “Work with Me Annie” by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and “Sixty Minute Man” by the Dominoes – both of which were released on Federal Records – and Bullmoose Jackson’s “Big Ten Inch Record,” which was released on King. These and other risqué songs on the King labels were not official hits because they were either banned by the FCC for their suggestive lyrics or strictly kept off of radio playlists for the same reason. However, as Jon explained, King was able to bypass this problem because they distributed many of their records to jukeboxes. 

Although Fox never worked for King Records, which went out of business in 1975, his interest and admiration for the label did inform his decision to spend his career in the music business working only for independent record companies. Those for which he worked include Vetco Records in Cincinnati, Flying Fish Records in Chicago, Sugar Hill Records in Durham, North Carolina, and Gusto Records in Nashville. The latter, while not a particularly inspiring or interesting job for Fox, did end up as a critical part of the puzzle because they owned the King archives. Jon did enjoy working at the others, as he liked the kind of music they released. 

In the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was doing this, bluegrass and blues were not on major labels – all kinds of musics that I like. So if I wanted to work with them, that kind of dictated that I go to one of those independent companies. Also, I didn’t want to have to promote the current flavors, especially some I hated. You know, I couldn’t imagine working at some pop labels and having to flog everything with equal enthusiasm when you probably don’t feel that way. But at a place like Sugar Hill, I liked the music we were putting out and I was proud of it, so it was easy to promote it and talk about it.

In addition to his work for independent record companies, Jon worked for a music trade organization, the International Bluegrass Music Association, and twice won their award for Best Liner Notes of the Year. He has contributed to the “Oxford Encyclopedia of Country Music,” “The Bluegrass Reader,” and has a chapter in a recent book entitled “Industrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy.” He is also working on another book, this one about mandolinist Tiny Moore. Moore played electric mandolin in two of Jon’s favorite bands – Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Merle Haggard and the Strangers. He noted that this project is very different than working on the King book because, although Tiny Moore passed away in 1987, many of the people associated with him are still alive. Furthermore, fewer people know of Tiny Moore than of King Records, and Jon likes the idea of highlighting this less-celebrated musician who was nonetheless highly influential to his contemporaries and generations of musicians since. When reflecting on whether the book will have a large audience, Jon said, “I don’t think many people will be attracted to it, but I think those who like it will like it a lot. As Lester Bangs famously once said, ‘If this is the kind of shit you like, you’ll like this shit.’”

Jon and I briefly discussed the country music scene in California after World War II. California’s most well-known impact on country music is what is referred to as “the Bakersfield sound” which, most famously, includes Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. As opposed to the Nashville sound, the Bakersfield sound was less produced, more electric guitar-oriented, and largely avoided the orchestral backings that Chet Atkins introduced in Nashville. The Bakersfield sound developed in the 1950s, but country music was hopping in California even prior to that. For example, “The King of Western Swing,” Bob Wills, moved his Texas Playboys to California in the 1940s. 

With such a thriving dance hall scene in the state, I wondered what put an end to it. Jon explained that it was television: “TV killed the scene dead.” For example, at Wills’ Point in Sacramento, which was opened by Bob Wills and managed by Tiny Moore, business dropped to a fraction of what it was within just a month of the first area television station going on the air. But Jon said that in the 1940s “the West Coast from San Diego to San Francisco was probably the hottest music region in the country in terms of live [country] music and dancing.”

Jon’s vast musical knowledge, both gained and expressed in over forty years of working in the music industry and in his post-retirement writing projects, made me reflect on what a music historian really is in this day and age when social media posts and blogs about music, like this one, are a dime a dozen. It was a treat to be reminded of the difference.

Hear Jon Hartley Fox interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and read an excerpt of his book “King of the Queen City.”

Buy Fox’s book at an independent bookstore.

6 thoughts on “The King of Independent Record Companies: An Interview with Music Historian Jon Hartley Fox

  1. Well done, again. What a great guest, with all that lived, firsthand experience too. I appreciated your line of inquiry on “why Cincinnati?”, plus the Bangs quote was a treat. Great stuff

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fine blog and interview Pam. I didn’t know that Bob Wills moved to California. Last October I did an Instagram post about Syd Nathan and Freddie King. I guess I should buy the book so I can learn about other outrageous stunts by Syd.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I always liked the soul artists on the King and Federal labels. I had Little Wille John, The Five Royales, Hank Ballard & The Midnghters in my collection. Facinating to read more about the history of the label. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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