King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records by Jon Hartley Fox
It seems somewhat hard to believe there's never been a lengthy attempt to tell the story behind legendary independent record label King and its various associated imprints. (While there was a two-volume discography published in the 1980s, that's hardly entertaining reading for anyone besides record collectors.) But finally, more than 40 years after the death of label founder Sydney Nathan, King is getting some love in print. June 2009 saw the publication of King Records of Cincinnati, a pictorial history compiled by Randy McNutt. And September brought King of the Queen City, a more in-depth study by Jon Hartley Fox published as part of the Music in American Life series of the University of Illinois Press.
When it comes to preserving the history of post-World War II record labels, it's a sadly common fact that the tales behind these creators of American pop culture history are being allowed to gradually slip into the mists of time. In the case of King it seems particularly egregious that it's taken so long for someone to gather the details of how the label managed to create an empire built from seemingly disparate types of music. By the time of Nathan's first, tentative efforts in 1943, the majors had largely abandoned "hillbilly" and "race" music -- or, in more modern terms, country-and-western and rhythm-and-blues. The label prospered by working nearly exclusively from commercially neglected corners of American vernacular music, and in some ways served as a bridge between generational shifts in the direction of C&W/bluegrass and (to a much greater extent) R&B and gospel. It also got lucky with the explosion in sales (and workaholic schedule) of James Brown, who largely kept the company afloat through the 1960s when sales of King's more traditional country and old-school R&B stars sagged.
Beyond the wide-ranging nature and generally high quality of the music released on the various labels (including Federal, DeLuxe and others), King's story is also important for the way Nathan ran his business. He managed to get rolling in spite of a World War II shellac shortage (the material used to make 78s) and a recording ban by the American Federation of Musicians. Nathan also thought big early on, building a self-contained complex that eventually handled all aspects of making a record from recording to pressing, and established a national distribution and sales network. Even more forward thinking for the 1940s was the company's attempt to maintain a color-blind hiring policy, spearheaded by personnel manager Ben Siegel. It wasn't limited to the factory floor, either; A&R Director Henry Glover was African American, as were other managers throughout the company.
The policy came through in the music as well. Records by black artists at first were issued on the Queen subsidiary, but that was quickly phased out and its artists reissued on King. Music director Glover produced for and wrote songs with both R&B and country artists through his tenure with the label, and often country hits would be recorded by R&B artists, or vice versa. Finally, an explanation for the existence of the Stanley Brothers version of "Finger Poppin' Time" or Little Willie John singing "She Thinks I Still Care."
Nathan died in 1968, and his label essentially ground to a halt a few years later when James Brown negotiated a deal to leave for Polydor. Four decades on, most of the other people involved are also no longer with us. Luckily, author Fox first began gathering information when working on a public radio documentary in the mid-1980s, so he did have the opportunity to interview some of the principals before they died. He also worked at one time for International Marketing Group, the current version of the company that has owned King's master tapes since the mid-1970s, giving him unique access to the label's archives.
Interestingly, while Fox makes a case for the label as a pioneer at demolishing boundaries both racial and musical, for the most part the book divides up the label's story into separate chapters focusing on specific genres! More anecdotes about label founder Nathan, generally regarded as one of the great characters of the recording industry, would have also been welcome. However, those are both relatively minor quibbles with a work that does a great job at concisely detailing the astonishing breadth of music that King managed to record during its time as an active label.
Thankfully, both the current and previous owners have kept a surprising amount of the music in print over the years, though often in somewhat haphazard fashion. Like many labels' back catalogs, it's been gradually resurfacing in a more coherent way during the CD era, though mostly from overseas companies. King of the Queen City is likely to send readers searching the corners of the Internets for what's currently available. (Bob Koch, Guide editor)
The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker's Reflections by George Nakashima
The master woodworker walks you through his life journey from his early years in Washington, to his travels to Paris, India and Japan, through his time spent in a Japanese "concentration" (his words) camp, to his ending up in Bucks County, Pa. Strangely, he never mentions the name of the Japanese carpenter he meets in the internment camp who teaches him basic woodworking skills.
The book is inspiring to woodworkers, with many illustrations and photographs of his work.
A few memorable quotes:
"Each plank...can have only one ideal use. The woodworker must find this ideal use and create an object of utility to man, and, if nature smiles, an object of lasting beauty." "The work of Frank Lloyd Wright was especially disappointing to me, although the forms used were interesting and the results were causing a certain excitement in the architectural world. I found the structure and the bones of the building somehow inadequate, however, and the workmanship shoddy." (Todd Hubler, advertising production manager)
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
This droll book, filled to the brim with contrived plot twists, is like your mother writing a book about your college experience. This first-person narrative is loaded with "witty" observations about Generation Y stereotypes, like how we all say something is "sucky" or "awesome" with nothing in between. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say "sucky," ever, and I wouldn't even say it in reference to this book, which indeed it was. I found myself rolling my eyes at her character's diction, which shoved a supposed 19-year-old's slang through a self-important academic's grammatical filter.
Equally distracting was the fact that the story was set in a mysterious Wisconsin college town called "Troy." This "Troy" was also the location of a sex shop called A Woman's Touch, on the lake where Otis Redding's plane crashed, and a thinly veiled restaurant with "Burritos as big as your behind." I read an interview where she said it wasn't supposed to be Madison, and that it shouldn't really matter to the story, but I found myself more annoyed at how uncreative she was in describing this "fictitious" town than if she had merely called a spade a spade.
I was also very uninterested in the poorly researched tangents of this book. There was an incredibly shallow motif of Sufism that did not relate to the story, which was mostly a couple's melodrama with which the narrator could have been more involved. To me it seemed like Moore had several unrelated ideas that she wanted to express and crafted a slipshod plot line to communicate these ideas before they became too dated. Oooh! Laurie Moore knows who Modest Mouse is! How edgy.
The topics Moore brought up in the story were quite interesting, such as interracial adoption, war and food production. But unfortunately, her coverage of these subjects seemed as flat and one-dimensional as her characters. (Craig Cady, sales representative)