In-depth but clumsy look at a significant independent record company.
Fox’s book has its roots in a 1986 NPR documentary he wrote and produced about King Records, one of the most important of all American indie imprints. Founded in Cincinnati in 1943 by former record retailer Syd Nathan, King was a critical outlet for “hillbilly” (country) and “race” (rhythm & blues) records eschewed by the major labels of the day. Blessed with the savvy talent scouts/producers Henry Glover and Ralph Bass, the company was home to country and bluegrass luminaries like Reno and Smiley, the Delmore Brothers, the Stanley Brothers and Moon Mullican, and top R&B and blues acts such as Wynonie Harris, Little Willie John, Roy Brown, the Dominoes and Freddie King. From 1956 to 1971, King’s biggest star was the groundbreaking soul singer James Brown, who cut one chart-topper after another for the label. For a time, King was the preeminent American indie, thanks to its color-blind musical policy and its sophisticated in-house recording, manufacturing and distribution systems. The volatile, abrasive Nathan alienated as many artists as he nurtured, but his keen business sense prevailed until his death in 1968. King was a one-of-a-kind operation, but Fox is more interested in logging discographical minutiae than in delineating the firm’s unique creative chemistry. Most of the book considers King’s releases by genre, and it runs aground in a laborious, often repetitious recitation of biographical details, recording sessions and chart positions. Minor musicians sometimes receive nearly the same amount of attention as pathfinding performers. While Brown at least rates a chapter of his own, his historic career at King and his combative relationship with Nathan are dispensed with in a mere 12 pages. The proceedings are also slowed by the author’s cliché-riddled style.
Fox offers plenty of welcome facts, but analysis and wit are in much shorter supply.