The beginning of King Records in Cincinnati and how the Appalachian Migration had a hand in it

by Brian Powers

Brian Powers is a librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and is an authority on local music history. He has organized King Records Month, a month-long celebration of Cincinnati’s renowned studio. Throughout September, events will be held throughout the city to celebrate King heritage.

Between 1943 and 1971 Cincinnati’s King Records revolutionized the process in which music was recorded, manufactured, distributed and promoted. Nearly 250 hit songs were recorded and more than 150 million records in the Jazz, Country, Bluegrass and Rhythm & Blues fields were manufactured. Much of the music it recorded reflected the nation’s changing times. The whole operation was the brainstorm of Sydney Nathan, who started the company in the mid-1940s using musicians from WLW Radio.

Nestled in Cincinnati, Ohio, bordering between the North and South, King Records was positioned perfectly to capture the diverse musical palette of post-war America. Within just a few years in the 1940s, Syd Nathan and his employees created the six largest record company in America, the largest of the independent record labels, and a leader in both the country and R & B markets.

At the turn of the century, Cincinnati, nicknamed the Queen City of the West, had a proud tradition of fine art and culture with a booming entertainment district. Between World War I to World War II, a dramatic change to the city’s demographics would occur as two groups from the South, Appalachians and African Americans, migrated to Cincinnati for factory jobs.

Along with two dozen breweries , Cincinnati was a leader in the production of soap, machine tools, playing cards, pianos, sporting goods, theatrical posters, office furniture, laundry machinery, text books, women’s’ shoes, men’s wear, work clothes, caskets, and liquor.

Larry Sunbrock fiddle contests at Music Hall, Cincinnati

The 1930s saw the beginnings of a slow migration of Appalachians to the Queen City. Like the African Americans from the South, they came for the many factory jobs. Soon entrepreneurs recognized a demand for entertainment from these new arrivals. Local promoter Larry Sunbrock began to stage fiddlers contests in the early 1930s at the Music Hall in the downtown neighborhood of Over The Rhine, once home to the large German immigrant population. By the early 1940s Over The Rhine would became the home base of the urban Appalachians, arriving from Kentucky, Tennessee, Eastern Ohio and West Virginia.

Appalachian-Related King Records Month Events

Below are the King Month events specifically related to Appalachians. The full schedule is here:

Saturday August 26th, 7:00 PM  | Cowboy Copas Festival.
Grand Ole Opry star and Ohio native Cowboy Copas was King’s first breakout star in 1946. The Adams County Historical Society will present the 10th annual Cowboy Copas Memorial Concert at the community center in Blue Creek, Copas’ home turf. Food will be served and a cake auction will be held.
For more information, call Mary Fulton (937) 587-2043 or Lynne Newman (937) 587-3358 | Jefferson Community Center, 8996 Blue Creek Road – Blue Creek, Ohio 45616

Sunday August 27th, 7PM | Around Cincinnati – King Records Month
Host Lee Hay speaks with librarian and music historian Brian Powers about the upcoming events taking place all around town for King Records Month in September. Also, Cameron Cochran will stop by for a discussion with John Kieswetter about the history of steel guitar in the Midwest and its importance to music. He also talks about his upcoming shows at the Public Library of Cincinnati and the Woodward Theater.
WVXU, 91.7 FM

Saturday September 2nd, 2:00 PM | Cameron and Chuck.
Join Cameron Cochran at Shake It Records in Northside as he sits down with his steel guitar mentor Chuck Rich to swap stories and tunes.  Chuck Rich was the steel guitar player for WLWT’s The Midwestern Hayride TV show and worked with many of Cincinnati’s most influential musicians including Zeke Turner who played on the infamous “Lovesick Blues” session at Herzog Studios with Hank Williams and on  many King Record recordings.
Shake It Records, 4156 Hamilton Avenue, Northside | Free

Wednesday, September 6th, 7:00 PM | Poor Rambler: Ralph Stanley at the Crossroads.  Bluegrass historians Fred Bartenstein, Mac McDevitt, and Joe Mullins discuss the first solo recordings done by Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley in 1967 in Cincinnati for King Records, following the unexpected death of his brother and music partner Carter Stanley in December1966.   The album marked a new beginning in Stanley’s career. Main Library, 800 Vine Street, Popular Library Program Space, Downtown | Free

Sunday, September 10th, 7:30 PM | Comet Bluegrass Allstars play King. Enjoy a Cincinnati tradition of Bluegrass Sunday and burritos as the Comet Bluegrass All Stars continue their annual tribute night to King’s Bluegrass artists.
The Comet Bar, 4579 Hamilton Avenue, Northside | Free

Tuesday September 12th,  8:00 PM- 10:00PM |  King Square Dancing. In the early 1960s King Records put out a series of square dancing albums that included instruction booklets. Be one of the first 50 to arrive for the Northside Square Dance and get a compact disc of a King square dance album along with the instruction book. This dance night happens monthly on the second Tuesday in the Tavern’s famous back room.  A collection of talented players called the Northside Volunteers provides the live music along with a guest caller.  Northside Tavern, 4163 Hamilton Avenue, Northside | Free event but donations encouraged for traveling callers

Thursday September 14th, 4 PM – 5 PM | King of the Airwaves. WMKV radio host Mike Martini will speak with music historians Randy McNutt and Brian Powers about King’s connections with local radio and television programs. Syd Nathan started the company by recording radio performers from the WLW’s Boone Country Jamboree in the 1940s. Later in the early 1950s, Syd signed talent from WLWT’s television program The Midwestern Hayride. Hear recordings from Grandpa Jones, Merle Travis, The Delmore Brothers, Bonnie Lou, Lonnie Innis, and Charlie Gore.

Saturday, September 16th, 2:00 PM | Midwestern Steel Guitar:  Jerry Byrd and the Sound of Country Music.
Jerry Byrd recorded with Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, and Red Foley while also having his own successful career as a recording artist. As a member of the house band for WLWT’s Midwestern Hayride TV show in the 1940s and 1950s, Jerry played on numerous recordings as a session player at King Records. Join Cincinnati Steel guitarist, Cameron Cochran, as he pays tribute to one of the masters, along with guitar slinger Harold Kennedy and bassist Chris Douglas.
Main Library, 800 Vine Street, Reading Garden Lounge, Downtown | Free

Sunday, September 17th, 7:30 PM | HAYRIDE!: A Tribute to Cincinnati’s Country Music Variety Show. Cameron Cochran will be collaborating with his Country band, The Midwestern Swing and the Comedy sketch writers, Future Science, to recreate Cincinnati’s long running Country Music Variety show, The Midwestern Hayride. The show will be recorded for a future podcast.
Woodward Theater, 1404 Main Street Over the Rhine | 7:30 | $10 Admission




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *