Celebrating King Records

ckr01Remember The Twist? How about Chubby Checker? Hank Ballard? Just about everybody will recognize the first two and two out of three ain’t bad — unless you’re from Cincinnati. Cincinnatians should know it was Hank Ballard and the Midnighters who first recorded the song that made Chubby Checker famous. They should know because that version was released by Cincinnati’s King Records. The Twist was a regional hit for the Midnighters and it got them booked on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. They didn’t make it and Clark got a fellow named Ernest Evans to lip-synch to Ballard’s recording then recorded and released an identical version with Evans using the name Chubby Checker. Why did Ballard miss his Bandstand session? Various stories have been told but the man in the photo above says Hank was in Atlanta with a lady. He should know. He’s Phillip Paul who played drums on The Twist and 400 or so other King recordings.

ckr02ckr03Not all of those were hits but many were. Several, in fact were major milestones on the route of rock and roll. Paul drummed on Little Willie John’s Fever, Tiny Bradshaw’s Train Kept a Rollin’, Wynonie Harris’ Good Rockin’ Tonight and Freddie King’s Hide Away. Today those song titles are more familiar than the artists’ names because they have all been covered over and over but, as he was with The Twist, Phillip Paul was there at the beginning; There when the originals were recorded. And he’s still “there” today, playing every Friday and Saturday at The Cricket in downtown Cincinnati. He was there Sunday, May 31, in Washington Park providing some “good rockin'” and good stories as the opening act for a reading of a new play about King Records.

ckr04That play, Cincinnati King by KJ Sanchez, tells the story of King Records largely in the words of people, including Paul, who were part of it. Many of the words are from the nearly fifty interviews conducted by Sanchez. Others come from recordings and printed material. The story of King Records is really the story of Syd Nathan. Nathan owned King and ruled it with an iron fist that usually held a cigar when it — the cigar not the fist — wasn’t in his mouth. He did things his own way and, more often than not, he did them himself. He started with a record store. When labels started gouging him for records, he started his own. When his “style” created problems with recording studios, he built his own. When pressing plants sent inferior product, he built his own. Eventually King did it all including designing and printing its own packaging.

ckr05ckr06Partly because of Cincinnati’s half-north half-south location, Nathan’s store did a good business in “hillbilly” and “race” records and that’s what his record company initially made. Those names have been replaced by country, bluegrass, blues, rhythm & blues, and a few other genres. King’s stable included Grandpa Jones, the Stanley Brothers, Cowboy Copas, Bill Doggett, the Delmore Brothers, Moon Mullican, Charles Brown, and on and on. Of course, the biggest star ever at King was James Brown. Nathan’s independent and demanding ways irritated just about everybody at some point and “The Godfather of Soul” was just as independent and just as demanding. The two were like oil and water but they made each other a lot of money and even managed to occasionally look like great friends at an award ceremony or some such.

ckr08ckr07Just as the musicians that King recorded were a mix of black and white, so, too, were the other employees. In time, King’s employment application included a question about whether working with a person of another race would be a problem. It’s said that Nathan would sometimes hire someone who answered “yes” then make a point of assuring that the new employee was put in the situation they thought would be a problem. Syd Nathan didn’t solve all the race issues in the world but maybe he did his share.

This concert and reading was part of the OTR Performs Series and a Cincinnati Fringe Festival Special Event

Phillip Paul turns 90 on August 11. The city of Cincinnati has proclaimed the preceding Saturday “Phillip Paul Day”. Look back at this article’s first picture. To me, that sure looks like a man who is enjoying himself.

The World is Singing in Cincy

The Seventh World Choir Games are happening in Cincinnati right now. Austria, South Korea, Germany, and China have previously hosted the biennial event but this year it’s our turn. The opening ceremony was Wednesday, competition started Thursday, and I got a small taste of the event on Friday. I could have prepared for my visit a little better but I had a great time anyway.

World Choir Games CincinnatiThere are ticketed events, which include the big opening and closing ceremonies, and there are free events. The competition is divided into Open and Champions. The Champions participants are selected by a panel while any choir that meets certain requirements can enter the Open competition. Tickets can be (or at least could have been) purchased for specific events and there are daily Competition Flex Passes available. A Flex Pass will get you into any of the competitions “as seating is available”. Part of my poor planning included deciding on Friday that I was going on Friday. For some reason I thought I had to get my Flex Pass at the Aronoff Theater ticket office which opened at 10:00 or exactly the same time as the day’s first concerts. I had picked a Folklore Champions Competition to attend first. By the time I got my pass and walked to the venue (and discovered that I could have bought my pass there), the choirs and been performing to a packed house for half an hour. The doors opened briefly between each performance, a few people exited, and their replacements were allowed in. I evaluated my chances of getting in before it was over and they weren’t all that good. I slipped away and sought out the shuttle running between the venues. The shuttle stop was near where the choirs entered and exited. A group from the Czech Republic came by then some stragglers from a group that had apparently included some “down on the farm” material in their performance. One trustworthy member had been entrusted with an abundance of their props.

World Choir Games CincinnatiWorld Choir Games CincinnatiI rode the shuttle to Fountain Square where a free Global Village concert was in progress. That’s a choir from China on stage in the picture. In addition to the full slate of scheduled activities, impromptu musical outbursts can occur just about anywhere at anytime. The energetic group performing in front of the Rock Bottom Brewery is the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus from Red Hill, Pennsylvania.

World Choir Games Cincinnati - India

Bombay Cambridge School Choir, India

World Choir Games - Norway


World Choir Games - Wisconsin

Vocal Point, Galesville, WI, USA

World Choir Games - Poland

Vox Juventutis, Poland

World Choir Games - Australia

Hunter Singers, Australia

World Choir Games - Denmark

Morten Boerup Choir, Denmark

In the afternoon, I easily made it inside for a Popular Choral Music Open Competition at the Aronoff. The theater’s size might be partly responsible for the large number of unfilled seats but I’m sure that the perceived quality has much more to do with it. These may not be the hand-picked cream-of-the-crop choirs of the Champions Competition but they’re pretty darned good. I thought that all six choirs I heard were very good, four were great, and that outfit from Poland was something above excellent.

I have, of course, absolutely no qualifications for offering anything close to a real evaluation of these groups.  I can’t even make an untrained comparison between the Open and Champions Competition since the Popular Choral Music Open Competition was the only competition of either sort I actually saw. It started at 1:00 and ended about 3:15. I wandered back to Fountain Square and even popped into Rock Bottom Brewery for a cold one. Yes, I had just been sitting in air conditioned comfort for a couple of hours but at 100+ it doesn’t take long to get hot. As I sipped, I did something I should have done much earlier and looked a little more thoughtfully at the schedule. A Champions Competition was slated for 3:30 just a few blocks from the Aronoff. Had I headed there when the Popular Choral Music thing ended, I could have at least been in line when the doors opened. I walked on over but the line that existed at 4:15 was clearly enough the keep the event filled and then some.

Cincinnati 105 degreesThe official temperature in downtown Cincinnati was a record breaking 104 Fahrenheit. As I walked back to Fountain Square, I snapped a couple of pictures of the kiosk at the bus plaza. It showed a solid 104 and I got a picture of that. Then, just as I was lowering the camera, a 105 appeared and I grabbed another shot. On the next cycle it was back to 104. Maybe it was just showing off for the camera. I have evidence of a 105 reading but, to be honest, I couldn’t tell the difference.

Fountain Square - CincinnatiWashington Park - CincinnatiTemperature has certainly been a big story around here lately. Keeping residents and visitors safe is a real concern that Cincinnati is taking seriously. Although a big reopening celebration is a couple of weeks away, there was a ribbon cutting and dedication at the totally reworked Washington Park and its several fountains were clearly appreciated. The park is near Music Hall and the School for Creative & Performing Arts which are both being used for the Choir Games. Some large misters are operating on Fountain Square and, of course, there is always the Tyler-Davidson Fountain itself.

Maybe it was the heat that kept me from thinking clearly and organizing my day better. The Games are here through next week so maybe I’ll try again. Haphazard bouncing around was certainly enjoyable but actually hearing at least one Champions Choir seems like a worthwhile goal.

Philip PaulOddly enough, the World Choir Games were not the reason I first marked July 6 on my calendar. I marked it when I heard that a favorite musician would be visiting Cincinnati and playing on the square. This isn’t him. This is a favorite musician but he doesn’t have to visit Cincinnati; He lives here. This is 86 year old Philip Paul. Remember Tiny Bradshaw’s Train Kept a Rollin’ or Hank Ballard’s The Twist or Freddie King’s Hideaway? All those recordings and a whole lot more had Philip Paul’s drums on them. He was pretty much the session drummer for King Records during their heyday. He still performs on weekends at the Cricket Lounge. When I realized that hanging around to see that out-of-towner would keep me in the area and that actually seeing him would keep me from the late Choir events, it seemed a perfect time to see the Phillip Paul Trio again. It’s good jazz from a rock ‘n’ roll and blues legend who happens to be a really nice guy, too.

Patrick Sweany - Fountain Square - CincinnatiThis is the guy I’d marked my calendar for and was hanging around to see. Patrick Sweany is originally from Ohio but now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. In a way, I think the move may have been good for Cincinnati fans. Patrick occasionally returns to the Alliance, Ohio, area to visit family and play a few gigs in the ‘hood. Since Cincinnati is along one of the possible routes, we get to see him now and then, too. His music is a little bit blues, a little bit roots, a little bit soul, and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.

Patrick Sweany - Fountain Square - CincinnatiPatrick Sweany fan - Fountain Square - CincinnatiStrangers may have been fooled by the perfectly combed hair and the shades that you can only buy in Nashville and then only with a prescription from your manager but us regulars know what happens when the music starts. And it looks like those great tunes and nothing-held-back performances may be winning over some new Cincinnati fans, too.