James Brown Makes History at King Records in Cincinnati
Posted October 25, 2021
Topics: African American History

By Matt Benz, Manuscripts Curator

Several years ago, a colleague and I were talking to a patron in the Archives Library of the Ohio History Center.  She was telling us about growing up during the 1960s in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Evanston, near where King Records was located on Brewster Avenue. As a little girl, she could see employees working in the King record pressing plant, and on one occasion, was invited in to watch as James Brown was recording with his band in the studio.

Of course, being a very young girl at the time, the patron couldn’t remember much about her experience, but the story nonetheless fired my imagination. As a fan of rhythm and blues and a bit of a fanatic when it comes to soul music, I couldn’t help but wonder what that must’ve been like, being in that recording studio, watching a genius of modern American music at the height of his creative powers. Now, to most people, a single recording session might not feel like the stuff of history, but I feel that even to be there for just a moment, to get only the briefest of glimpses, I would still count it as an amazing experience, and yes, a true history making moment.  I have one such moment in mind, one brief recording session that changed popular music forever.

A son of the deep South, James Brown perhaps doesn’t seem like an obvious choice to be included in a blog dedicated to Ohio history, but through King Records, an independent record company based in Cincinnati, James Brown will forever be a part of Ohio’s rich musical history.

Started in 1943, King Records was the creation of one man, Syd Nathan. A native of Cincinnati, Nathan was a true character: all at once abrasive and abusive, charismatic and charming.  A loud, shrewd and sometimes crude businessman whose coarseness was leveled by his sense of humor, Nathan could inspire frustration and fury, love and loyalty, all seemingly in equal parts.

Born in 1903, Syd Nathan was cursed since childhood with bad health, including failing eyesight and asthma, but he never let his physical shortcomings hold him back, and he pursued potential business opportunities relentlessly. In 1938, Nathan was still finding his way as a business man when he decided to try his hand at selling records.  At his store on Central Avenue, Nathan initially catered to the Black residents of the neighborhood, stocking blues, jazz, and gospel records. When he began selling hillbilly and country records, the store attracted white customers with the same Southern roots as the Black community.

Through his country music customers, some of whom were musicians employed at local radio station WLW, Nathan was inspired to make records himself. In 1943, he recorded up-and coming country stars Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis at a small studio in Dayton. The records didn’t sell, but Nathan was committed. King Records was here to stay.

In 1944, Nathan moved his still mostly aspirational operation to 1540 Brewster Avenue. It was at this location that he would build up one of the most successful, influential and innovative record companies of the post-war years.

While King Records started with white country and western acts, Syd Nathan embraced what author Peter Guralnick called “musically integrationist policies” and wasted no time adding Black rhythm and blues-based acts to his roster. This was in keeping with Nathan’s progressive views on race: King Records was a quietly non-segregated company, with white and Black staff working together equally throughout the organization.

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the company released not only country and rhythm and blues records, but also bluegrass and western swing, blues, jazz, gospel and pop. Many of these artists and the music they recorded for King would influence and change the course of American popular music, including The Delmore Brothers, Homer and Jethro, Ohioan Cowboy Copas, Moon Mullican, Tiny Bradshaw, Little Willie John, Wynonie Harris, The “5” Royales, Billy Ward and The Dominos, Freddie King, and Hank Ballard and The Midnighters.

And then there was James Brown.

In January of 1956, James Brown and his vocal group The Famous Flames signed to Federal Records, a subsidiary of King set up in 1950 to release mainly rhythm and blues records. In February the group entered King’s studio on Brewster Avenue for their first recording session.  However, the mood soured as Syd Nathan loudly and profanely made it clear that he hated the first song, titled “Please, Please, Please.” He only allowed it to be recorded after an angry argument with producer Ralph Bass. The song went on to be a hit when it was released in March, but Nathan remained unconvinced of Brown’s potential. It wasn’t until 1958 when Brown had his next hit with the ballad “Try Me” that he would begin to earn Nathan’s respect. From that, the two men would go on to forge a deep friendship, despite an increasingly frustrating and bitter business relationship.

In the 1950s, most of Brown’s songs stayed within the musical framework of the era’s R&B sound. But slowly, his musical vision came into sharper focus. His 1960 hit “Think” is a good example of this. Setting aside the more relaxed sound of the original version by his label mates, the “5” Royales, Brown revved the song up with a propulsive and insistent beat, driven by hard-hitting drums and punctuated by wild saxophone. His arrangement was basically the start of his deconstruction of 1950s R&B, taking the essential pieces and hardening them into a radically different sound. The sound of James Brown.

James Brown’s star was ascendant from 1958 onwards, pushed by a relentless touring and recording schedule. From 1958 to 1967, over fifty singles would be released under his name, most of them on the King label, and fifteen albums, including the legendary 1963 album The James Brown Show Live at The Apollo. Emerging as a star at the same time that soul music, a rich melding of blues, rhythm and blues and gospel, became the dominant sound of Black America, James Brown was an undeniable force in the genre, with his innovative music and exciting live performances leading the way.

In the mid-1960s, Brown released a series of singles that proved he was an explosive and exciting musical visionary, an artist determined to push beyond boundaries. They would establish the template for James Brown’s changing musical style, which placed the overall rhythm of the song over melody or chord changes. The first of these, “Out of Sight,” released in 1964, was a bold declarative musical statement of Brown’s intentions. This was music born in part from his live performances, where the band would “vamp” on a chord, holding a pattern as Brown worked his patented dance moves across the stage. “Out of Sight” introduced this bold new sound, bringing the “vamp” to the radio.  This sound would soon have a name of its own. But for now, it was simply James Brown music. “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “I Feel Good (I Got You),” both released in 1965, became his biggest hits yet and arguably remain the songs most identified with him. Again, they are striking examples of Brown’s restless musical vision: they intensified the sound heard on “Out of Sight,” “Brand New Bag,” in particular.

By 1967, James Brown was a superstar, with multiple top ten records, a Grammy award, appearances in film and television. He was busily establishing himself as an entrepreneur and was seen as a spokesman for the rising Black Pride movement. At King Records, Brown was the top seller and undeniable star. Earlier in 1964, he and Syd Nathan had a falling out and Brown refused to record for King. The legal standoff ended in 1965, in time for “Brand New Bag” to come out on King. Since then, James Brown seemingly ruled the label as he racked up the hits and sales. He moved his company, James Brown Productions, into the King buildings on Brewster Avenue, and settled back into an uneasy alliance with Nathan.

Throughout 1967, Brown kept up the touring schedule that pushed himself, his band and his audiences to the limit. Life on the road meant that Brown and his band often recorded while touring, using studios located in whichever city they found themselves in. This was true for most of his hits in the 1960s: “Out of Sight” was recorded in New York City, “Brand New Bag” in Charlotte, NC and “I Got You” in Miami, FL. It was a relentless schedule which had them recording quickly before getting back on the road to get to the next show. Occasionally, that schedule had them back in Cincinnati and they could record in the studio of their home base, King Records.

So, when James Brown and his band arrived at 1540 Brewster Avenue in Cincinnati that day in May of 1967, after one more all-night trip on the tour bus coming back from the latest gig (in this case, New York), maybe it didn’t register as anything more than just another recording session, just another song to get down on tape. It probably didn’t feel like history in the making. But it was.

The song to be recorded was titled “Cold Sweat,” and had been worked up by Brown and saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, partially in a backstage dressing room. According to Ellis, Brown “grunted a rhythm and a bass line” and told Ellis to take it from there. Ellis wrote out the horn chart on the bus the night before the recording session. Brown took some of the lyrics from his 1962 song “I Don’t Care” and Ellis referenced Miles Davis’ “So What” with the horn arrangement, but when it all came together, James Brown’s vision combined with Ellis’ arrangement and the band’s feel for the music created a song unlike anything that came before.

The band that assembled in the recording studio consisted of some of James Brown’s most-legendary and talented sidemen of the 1960s, including Maceo Parker on saxophone, guitarist Jimmy Nolan, bassist Bernard Odum and Clyde Stubblefield on drums. Ellis said that the band set up and went over the song, working on their parts. When James Brown arrived, he made a few changes, and they were ready. According to recording engineer Ron Lenhoff, Brown and the band make quick work of “Cold Sweat,” recording the seven-and-a-half-minute song live in just two takes, with no overdubs.

Released as a two-part single in June, and reaching number one on the R&B chart and number seven on the pop chart, the impact of “Cold Sweat” was almost immediate. If “Out of Sight” was the sound of James Brown striking a match and "Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” the sound of James Brown igniting a fire, then “Cold Sweat” was James Brown throwing gasoline on to the blaze.  Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler said the song “deeply affected the musicians I knew…for a time, no one could get a handle on what to do next.” Writer Alan Leeds called it the “sound of a rhythmic revolution.”

The single Cold Sweat (parts 1 and 2) was a number 1 record for James Brown in 1967

And it was. On “Cold Sweat,” Brown finally brought the funk fully to the fore. Funk wasn’t new to Black American music; the word had been used in music before, but it was more about feeling than sound. Brown turned funk into a new musical genre. By focusing on the rhythm and creating a groove driven by the downbeat, he made funk an identifiable sound. Melody and chord changes were kept to a bare minimum. Every instrument was locked in and dedicated to the rhythmic feel: the jazz-influenced drums and repetitive percolating bass lines, the percussive guitar parts and stabbing declarative horn lines. And then there was that voice, the voice of a seemingly possessed James Brown, filling the spaces with grunts, shouts, screams, exclamations and commands, sounding at times less like a lead singer and more like another instrument. Maybe no one could get a handle on “Cold Sweat” because nobody had heard anything like it. It was as unique an artistic statement as a song could be.

The back cover of the “Cold Sweat” album, 1967

With “Cold Sweat,” Brown created the perfect distillation of the musical vision that he first glimpsed in 1964; it was the final foundation stone of funk music and as such it would reverberate through American popular music for decades, influencing soul, jazz, rock, rap and hip hop.  In the song’s immediate wake, newer bands like Sly & The Family Stone and Funkadelic were quick to pick up on the new sound James Brown was laying down, and more established artists such as Wilson Pickett, Miles Davis and the Temptations incorporated funk into their music.  In the early 1970s, funk became the dominant sound in Black American music. In Ohio, fittingly, funk would flourish in the land of King Records. Dayton, in particular, became known for its funk bands, like The Ohio Players, who came to exemplify that Ohio funk sound with hit records “Fire” and “Love Rollercoaster.” In Cincinnati, The Collins brothers “Bootsy” and “Catfish” joined James Brown’s band in 1970 and went on to become highly influential artists and stars in their own right.

For James Brown, “Cold Sweat’ accelerated his stardom, and he continued to refine the funk sound he created, scoring hits in the late 1960s’ with such songs as “I’ve Got the Feeling,” “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud”) and “Let A Man Come in (And Do the Popcorn).” In 1969, he released “Funky Drummer” which included an iconic drum break by Clyde Stubblefield that went on to become one of the building blocks of rap music, having been sampled thousands of times.   His hits continued into the 1970s, including “Get Up (I Feel like Being a Sex Machine”) “Super Bad” and “Get On the Good Foot.”

Unfortunately, the funk music success for James Brown came during difficult times for King Records. Syd Nathan passed away after a long illness on March 5th, 1968, and his company was sold off to Starday Records in Nashville. The King Records facility on Brewster Avenue in Cincinnati was shut down in 1970, and James Brown left the label for Polydor Records in 1971.

Today, a historical marker installed by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame stands at the King Records site in Cincinnati, as preservation efforts to save the buildings and plans to install a museum dedicated to King Records continue, supported by local historians and fans and promoted by musicians like Bootsy Collins. James Brown passed away on Christmas Day, 2006, leaving behind a truly astonishing musical legacy that will continue to influence popular music for years to come, a legacy that started and was shaped in the small recording studio of an independent record company located in Cincinnati, Ohio: King Records.

Sources and reading recommendations
King of the Queen City
Sweet Soul Music
Xavier University


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