Tuesday, December 7, 2010

King Nathan

by Jesse Jarnow

"The record business is not a freak business. It is the same as being in the coffin business, or a funeral parlor..." - Syd Nathan

At an industry dinner, Goddard Lieberson--the president of Columbia Records for nearly 20 years--once introduced an associate as "that rare combination, a practically unknown combination, I would say--a charming, cultured witty man, an astute businessmen... and a gentile." Lieberson was clearly not referring to Syd Nathan, founder and "Chief" of King Records.

Like Hollywood, the early record world--and especially the independent corners of it--was littered with Jewish entrepreneurs--Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, Morris Levy at Roulette, the Chess brothers in Chicago. All have their own rightful claims on pieces of rock history, and their own lore to go with them. Levy, born Moishe Levy, was the onetime owner of Birdland who died in 1990, a later-indicted Mob buddy who pirated John Lennon demos after personally borrowing the tapes from Lennon.

What distinguishes Syd Nathan of Cincinnati's King Records isn't merely that he established the first self-contained indie record company, which included A&R, studios, pressing plants, a publishing company, a groundbreaking branch system, and that everybody from Motown to Matador owes him a debt. And it's not even the groundbreaking catalog that integrated early sides by James Brown and the Five Royales with hillbilly favorites like the Delmore Brothers and Moon Mullican. It's that Nathan was batshit enough to record an LP documenting himself straight babbling about it for two generous sides. For anybody interested in a field recording of the archetypal shyster Jewish bastard record company swine, look no further, Syd Speaks is primary source material.

"Boys, this is something I should have done five or six years ago," Nathan croaks just after the needle-drop, and one can almost hear the saliva gumming the cigar to his lower lip. "Unfortunately, you or other people may disagree with me 100%, but somebody has to be the chief, and I am elected as the chief. I'm spending my money, not yours, therefore, unless I change my ideas, then it has to be as you will hear on this record." He sounds like Waring Hudsucker in the Coen Brothers' Hudsucker Proxy, from big-headed intonation to his comedic rhetorical dead ends. "I'm more Dutch than I am Jewish!" he declares later.

In one version of the story, Nathan got into the biz because--when he was working as a radio salesman--he was paid a debt in the form of 300 used 78s, which he turned for a profit, and smelled dollars. It was a scent singed permanently in his nose.

"Nathan once congratulated one of King's most successful country artists, "Cowboy" Copas, for refusing to pay $50 for the rights to a song he discovered on one of his scouting forays down to Nashville. "You did the right thing, Copas; ain't no song in the world worth fifty bucks," said Nathan. (That might have been a shortsighted view: The song was "The Tennessee Waltz." from Music Man: Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records, and the Triumph of Rock'N'Roll by Dorothy Wade and Justine Picardie.

Nathan was an almost literal cartoon character. "A nose like Porky Pig and two Coca-Cola bottles for eyeglasses," a former employee once described. But like a semitic, penny-pinching Mr. Magoo, he accidentally became a civil rights pioneer in the bargain.

King Records, founded in 1943, was the launching point and melting pot for R&B singers like James Brown and Country and Western artists like the Delmore Brothers. Brown and the Delmores had a common attraction for Nathan: they sold records. But it went deeper than that. Though black artists were initially confined to the Queen imprint, they merged with King proper and Federal Records by 1947. Later, the label encouraged its country artists to cover songs by its R&B roster, and vice-versa.

Nathan's staff was likewise fully integrated at every level, including top A&R man Henry Glover, who signed artists (including Hank Ballard), oversaw sessions, and contributed several hits. (In 1976, he arranged the horn section for The Last Waltz.) During the World War II-driven labor shortage, King's several hundred employees included whites and blacks, alongside Chinese, Japanese, and Appalachian immigrants. Nathan needed people to do the work and he saw no reason why they couldn't. Pallbearers at Nathan's 1968 funeral included James Brown and protege Seymour Stein, whose supply of Nathan anecdotes should someday fill a proper biography. (Indeed, the recording of Nathan helming an A&R meeting in 1954 is rumored to be a Stein bootleg.)

King disappeared after Nathan's 1968 death, swallowed into the industry afterlife of bone-picking licensing deals. It lives on in the music, of course. If there is a lesson to be found, it's the value of a focused craziness able to see the big picture. "Some wild deals are being made by record companies and we know it," Nathan observes on Syd Speaks. "We don't intend to compete with some these crazy damn deals that are being offered. And we never will compete with them ... We can all be smart enough to eat DAMN WELL, if we are smart, patient, and observant."

"The day will come when I pass on, and maybe King will be better for it, I don't know," Nathan concludes later. "I'm going to wait, because I don't have any contract with God. I'm just going to wait and see what happens. In the meantime, it's got to be done, boys as we see it here. And if you don't want to do it that way, then the best thing to do is say, 'I disagree, I will not concur, and give me my hat' and I'll give it you and Godspeed."


"Syd Speaks (Part One)" mp3
by Syd Nathan, 1964.
from an in-house promo for King Employees

"Syd Speaks (Part Two)" mp3
by Syd Nathan, 1964.
from an in-house promo for King Employees

"Syd Nathan Addresses an A & R Meeting" mp3
by Syd Nathan, 1954.
available on King R&B Box Set

"Blues Stay Away From Me" mp3
by The Delmore Brothers, 1949.
available on Blues Stay Away from Me

"Blues Stay Away From Me" mp3
by Lonnie Johnson, 1949.
available on A Life in Music Selected Sides 1925-1953

"Think" mp3
By The "5" Royales, 1957.
available on It's Hard But It's Fair: King Hits and Rarities

"Think" mp3
By James Brown and the Famous Flames, 1960.
available on Star Time


This is the seventh of eight posts at the Boogie Woogie Flu, in which eight Jewish writers will discuss the works of other Jewish artists for eight consecutive days in celebration of Hanukkah.


rusty beltway said...

Hot Damn!

As a fan of "Hillbilly-Sacred-Race" music, there's only 2 record labels that have never let me down. One is Starday, and the other is King.

Five years ago I was visiting my mom, out in the sticks, and made a run to the RiteAid drug store. While laughing at the selections on the CD rack, I spotted the purple King logo on one of them. It was Little Willy John's Greatest Hits. (With the original version of "Fever" later made famous by Peggy Lee.)

I bought it without blinking, or thinking.

Cowboy Copas is another fave of mine. (Went down in the airplane w/ Patsy Cline, doncha know.) Never heard the Tennessee Waltz story. "No song is worth $50bucks." Classic.

Retro Hound said...

I love learning about these indie label guys. They were all pretty interesting. I've got a few King records, but can't remember the artists. I need to make a list so I know what I have.

Anonymous said...

Great write-up. Amazing how such a sleaze could put out such gems! Thanks for another illuminating post. W.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Thank you. Ted, I'm so glad that Daily Pixel is back.