King Records facility gets financial support for ongoing restoration

King Records, the iconic Cincinnati label that produced several celebrated and legendary musicians from the 1940s into the early 1970s (including first-generation bluegrass acts Jimmy Martin and Bobby Osborne; Reno & Smiley; The Stanley Brothers [and Ralph Stanley after 1966]; Moore & Napier; the Green Valley Quartet (the Easter Brothers) and the lesser-known Bill Duncan), will receive support from PromoWest based at the Ovation Music Pavilion just over the river in Newport, Kentucky, for the revitalization of the former King studio in the Evanston district of the city.

According to a press release, PromoWest Productions’ CEO Scott Stienecker announced that the company will be donating $20,000 to the project.

In 2015 the King Records’ old, dilapidated studio/office on Brewster Avenue was named an historic landmark by the city, thus preventing its threatened demolition and, in April 2018, after fighting for more than a decade to save the property, the Cincinnati City Council approved a land swap with the then owner, Dynamic Industries. 

Led by Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and a united City Council, repair of the buildings has started with a new roof. Shortly before the pandemic began, King Records Legacy Committee was established to oversee the future of the King Records buildings for a new music-making and cultural center, museum, and more. A new non-profit organization, King Records Legacy, was formed in October 2019. 

Long-term aims include the provision of a museum, a studio, and community space. The Committee believes that there needs to be a “people’s history,” one that honors and respects all the musicians and other workers who helped create what King Records became.

It is hoped that the building will serve residents of Evanston (the district in which it is located), especially students, by offering music education, as well as being a source of community pride.

King Records was founded by Cincinnati record store owner Syd Nathan in 1943, and the label continued to issue new bluegrass music recordings until 1973. It was one of the first, and largest, independent record labels in the USA. 

Unlike other labels that tended to concentrate on one genre, King Records covered a variety of styles of vernacular American music, including Country (JE Mainer, The Delmore Brothers, Cowboy Copas, and Grandpa Jones, are just four examples); blues (an early signing was Lonnie Johnson); rhythm ’n’ blues music (such as doo-wop artists Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris); and western swing, as well as bluegrass music. 

Locally-born bassist Bootsy Collins and drummer Philip Paul, from Harlem, were King session musicians and both are ambassadors for the regeneration project. Another member of the King Records Legacy Committee is singer Otis Williams, also from Cincinnati. Collins went on to make a name for himself playing funk music.

Nathan’s greatest claim to fame was his association with the young Gospel singer, James Brown, who transformed soul music in the 1960s. 

Racially integrated – before it was required by law – King Records was one of the few recording companies to make a record from start to finish, all under one roof.

Queen, Federal, and De Luxe are all subsidiary labels within the King Records’ empire. 

In 2006 Nathan was posthumously inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. 

A Bluegrass Discography

These excellent 4-CD boxsets are still available, as are several smaller collections …. 

Various Artists 

  • Best of King and Starday Bluegrass (Gusto-2188)

Stanley Brothers 

  • The Early King Years-1958-1961 (King-7000)
  • The King Years 1961-1965 (Gusto-2180)

Reno & Smiley 

  • Don Reno & Red Smiley And The Tennessee Cut-Ups 1959-1963 (Gusto-2209)

Don Reno, Red Smiley & Bill Harrell

  • 1963-1972 Complete Starday King Recordings (Gusto-2176)

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.