Rockin’ ‘Round The Clock
“Let’s play a little game called ‘Little Jackie Horner’
Go over there and sit in the corner,
Gonna’ stick my finger in the pie,
When I pull it out, you’ll know the reason why.”
“Wasn’t That Good?”
King 4620 (A later version of the song by the Stray Cats would omit this verse)
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
When I began writing last week’s piece on Mr. Harris, I didn’t anticipate the flood of emails and comments it would bring. However, I guess anyone posting signs on his lawn proclaiming” The World’s Greatest Blues Singer Lives Here,” is bound to remain ”observable.”
Fact is, Wynonie was only one of the artists on King Records, founded by Syd Nathan, a frustrated drummer and dry goods merchant in Cincinnati, Ohio. According to the quickie bio at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Web site, around 1947, Nathan couldn’t ignore the sales figures in his store’s music department. For some reason, he was doing a huge business in used records. These “next-to-new” items were being bought primarily by transplanted southerners lured to the factories during and after World War II; the music being sold however, was (for the most part) the mainstream popular and big-band selections being produced on the coasts. His customers wanted the music that came from their world. Whites from Kentucky wanted Hillbilly, the blacks wanted blues and they both wanted gospel. Nathan went on to open a small record shop in the black section of town. Along with his black customers, Nathan also serviced steady stream of White Gospel singers, who would listen to recordings of the post-Dorsey quartets and then sing them on their own programs.
Nathan, a true visionary (in many ways, as we’ll soon see), bought a building and opened a record company. Nathan ran a small operation, much like other independent labels of the day. There were however, a couple of important differences:
None of the other record companies ran a full-service operation; their offices, recording studios, pressing plants, and distribution centers were often in separate parts of the country. Nathan ran all of them out of one building. He could record a song in the morning and within a matter of hours be shipping it to DJs across the country. Syd had no particular interest in any genre, he was out to make money, and as a result happily recorded music for white and black buyers. He began in 1947, with a hillbilly record by guitar genius Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones under the name “The Sheppard Brothers.” It didn’t set the world on fire (that would happen shortly), but broke even and then some. He decided to record some black artists. Had King Records been in New York or L.A., the legacy might have been far different, as a matter of fact, Cincinnati itself was a pretty conservative midwestern city, but across the river…
My Old Kentucky Whorehouse
Newport, Kentucky was known as “Sin City, U.S.A.”
The little (pop. 50,000) town across the bridge from Ohio, had three main industries:
2) Cheap whiskey
The name “Frank “Screw’ Andrews might not be a familiar one, but he was only one of several notorious mobsters that ran nightclubs across the river from Cincinnati. Long before Vegas had even been zoned commercial, Andrews, Meyer Lansky, and rest of “The Boys” were running twenty-four/seven, non-stop, in the most corrupt and brazenly hedonistic little town in the history of America.
As we’ve seen in numerous documentaries and books, environmental factors often play a huge role in changing popular culture. When Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and the rest of the Mississippi players relocated to Chicago, they realized that (among other reasons) the sheer noise level of the city necessitated plugging in their instruments to be heard of above the din. The result: Chicago Blues.
Likewise, in Newport, Kentucky, around 1947, the casinos, brothels, and “dance” clubs all needed music. Jazz musicians from both coasts began drifting to the “Tijuana of the Midwest,” knowing that there were gigs to be had. Legendary drummer Philip Paul, who played on hundreds of King Sessions, recounts leaving New York City and Buddy Johnson to play with Tiny Bradshaw. Bradshaw and his streamlined, hard-hitting band had a long-term house gig at The Cotton Club, the top black nightspot in the area. Bradshaw, another criminally forgotten figure in American music, was responsible for such tunes as “Train Kept A Rollin’” (yes, the same one as Aerosmith!) and for giving gigs to future jazz greats, including Sonny Stitt, and offering a first professional gig to a sixteen-year old trumpet player in 1942. Years later, Miles Davis would laugh when he recalled how his mother insisted he finish school first.
The patrons of the Newport casinos were almost all vets and working class whites and blacks from the South. They liked their music loud, fast, and unrelenting; “Moonlight Serenade” just didn’t cut it in Sodom and Gomorrah. There was no need, nor time for music to “getting acquainted,” you weren’t here to fall in love, you were here to kill pain, kick some ass, and engage in back-booth trysts you’d tell the boys at the local V.F.W. about, fifty years later. It was the land of screaming tenor players, with names like “Big Jay,” “Red,” and “Thin Man,” the designated Pied Pipers of Pleasure. Walking fifty-foot oak-topped bars, wailing “Flyin’ Home” for twenty minutes at a time, playing between the thighs of the shake dancers, challenging each other to winner-take-all cuttin’ contests, Satan himself, running on no sleep for the last week, Cakewalking down in Hell, while casino walls shook to the sounds of jacked-up patrons shouting “Hey!Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.” The war was over, and as the young folks these days say:
“It was on.”
Once again, “It” was ignored by, or simply unknown, to polite society, the elected (and well-compensated) officials on both sides of the Ohio River, made sure of that. What had once been called “Race” music was becoming even more primal and unrefined, many jazz players mocked it, and major record labels barely even acknowledged “it” as “music.”
But, night after night in Newport, Kentucky, on the bandstands, something was changing. The old songs were being played with a raw, brash attitude and new songs were being written. Drive-thru brothels, amphetamines, and twenty-four hour gambling weren’t spawning tunes with titles like “How Much Is that Doggie In the Window?” Even the music from five years ago was too square. The tunesmiths and musicians knew that if they wanted to keep their gigs, it was time to move from the relatively harmless, fun picture painted by songs like “Saturday Night Fish Fry” to the music being recorded by a cigar-smoking, asthmatic record dealer named Nathan in an old warehouse in Cincinnati. In 1948, Jerry Wexler at Billboard magazine, borrowing a description he’d heard from vocalist Sonny Til, came up with a name for this new music with the heavy back beat and raunchy lyrics. He called it: “Rhythm and Blues.”
The King Records Story Part Two
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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