Sydney The King Of Kings
(& Federal… & Deluxe… & Bethlehem…& More…)
Sydney Nathan was the founder and driving force behind the King Records record label family group which included King, Federal and Deluxe – started up in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1943.
Nathan’s initial vision was to provide country music for a rapidly growing population of transplants from the South who came north to find employment after the Great Depression.
By 1945, Nathan expanded his vision to accommodate another newly arrived population, black migrants also coming primarily from the Deep South. Nathan’s first releases for this audience were placed on a label he would call “Queen” to complement his “King” country label.
Releases on Queen would continue until 1947 before switching his black artists over to a “race” series on the King label. The earliest of these releases (on 78 rpm format) were by “Swan’s Silvertone Singers”. His first real R&B non gospel artist would be Barbara Cameron first appearing on King 36801 with “Make Love To Me” and “This Time It’s Real”, released in October of 1947.
His “race” records were released on blue labels while his country artists were distinguished on his maroon label with each series carrying distinct numbering sequences.
Nathan purchased the Deluxe Record Company in 1947 a New Jersey based label which had formed in 1944. Nathan started off as part owner and then took over in 1949 moving the operation to Cincinnati.
Nathan’s next venture was to start up his Federal Records subsidiary in 1950. The initial scope of the label was to present West Coast artists but in time that distinction was dropped.
Nathan concentrated on Country and R&B but was open to other genres and thus was open to jazz, popular and gospel and more.
The King operation was pretty much self contained, with recording, master creation and record pressing operations all located in Nathan’s Cincinnati facility. Nathan was not adverse – much like the Chess brothers – to loading up his car with records delivering them for airplay to the radio industry.
For the first decade, the King operation did not venture into rock and roll. This would change when he released Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” a rock classic in 1956.
Nathan began releasing long plays in 1952 first on the 10-inch format.
Nathan would never sit still, picking up labels along the way including “Glory”, “Bethlehem” in 1960 and even forming his own ‘budget’ label – “Audio Lab” providing him with the opportunity to release many tracks of all genres which had not been previously released on the long play format.
Fortunes improved in 1956 when Nathan obtained a demonstration recording from a then unknown musician – James Brown. The singer was brought to Nathan’s attention by Ralph Bass who became an employee – The demo was called “Please, Please, Please” and Nathan hated it – Hated it so much that he refused to release it and fired Bass disgusted at the “stupid song”.
Over Nathan’s objections it would finally be released a short time later, rose high on the R&B charts (on Federal Records) and sold a million copies. Bass was hired back, and James Brown and the Flames would become the anchor for the King label family.
James would hang on with Nathan until 1963 before moving over to Mercury Records. Nathan was furious and filed suit to prevent to move to Mercury – He won in court and so James Brown would return – signing a fiscally more advantageous contract.
For collectors who have noticed that occasionally King record covers would appear with changes or different designs – this was due to short production runs at King, and a new run becoming the recipient of a new cover.
Nathan was not exempt from the payola scandal in 1960’s with some impact on his business. Nathan, like other non-composers, also indulged in the practice of providing himself with composer’s credits under various names on more than 200 recordings.
Beyond James Brown, the long plays from the King family of labels placing on the Billboard LP Charts were few and far between. Brown placed 25 long plays on the Top 200 charts between 1963 and 1971 (Brown’s total LP chart count was 51). After departing King Records, Brown continued to do very well on the Polydor label with 17 additional charting LP’s. Brown’s 1963 “Live at the Apollo” was Brown’s first hit LP and his highest ranking reaching number 2 on the Hot 200 LP charts. This would also distinguish the record as King’s top performing LP ever.
But LP sales were not really what King was all about. The family of labels released tons of singles and the targeted R&B and Country audiences responded with sales which would carry King and subsidiaries profitably up to the time of their sale.
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Bill Doggett, Little Willie John and Earl Bostic all shared one thing in common: None of these artists ever placed a single long play on the charts!
In 1968 Starday Records purchased King from Nathan. Album production slowed down considerably under new ownership and the hits nearly dried up. The catalog was again sold in 1975 this time to a company called GML out of Nashville.
Little Willie John
Little Willie John’s life took a bad turn starting in 1963 when he was let go by King Records. Known for his quick temper, John was involved in a altercation in which he killed a man with a knife – this coming after a performance in Washington State. John was temporarily released from Walla Walla Prison on appeal which failed. During that short time out of prison he would record tracks which would not be released for many years.
John passed away back in prison – cause cited as a heart attack. He died on May 26th, 1968 at the very young age of 30. Next to James Brown, Little Willie John was probably King’s most proficient artist landing on the Billboard Pop Charts 14 times from 1956 through 1961 with his highest ranking hit being “Sleep” (my favorite) which peaked at number 13. He charted 17 times on the R&B charts with “Fever” going to number 1 for five weeks in 1956.
Pressed and Priced!
In the early days, Nathan placed a rather unique catalog number system into practice for his early long play records – He would prefix his catalog numbers with a price reference – For example: Earl Bostic’s “Best of Bostic” (King 395-500), with “395” indicating a $3.95 sell price. What was not taken into account was prices changing while the LP was still in circulation on the market! Yikes.
Sydney Nathan was born on April 27th, 1904 in Cincinnati, Ohio and passed away in 1968 at the age of 63. Nathan was induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 and in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2007.