On Race Music


Underground is the opening number in Memphis: The Musical, which received 8 Tony nominations while winning 4 (2010) – including Best Musical. The story (loosely true) is about a white DJ in Memphis who played black music in the 1950s to a White audience. The musical’s script includes “race music” as a descriptive phrase.

In my almost 66 years, I haven’t heard “race music” before, well – until 10 days before attending a community theater performance of Memphis: The Musical when we saw the premier of a new play – Cincinnati King – a story about Cincinnati-based King Records. (Click for video ad.) From not ever hearing the term to it crossing my path twice within 10 days is a bit odd – but also a sign for a blog post.

Within a week after attending Memphis: The Musical, we saw a new movie (well, new at the time) – Green Book – many thumbs up! (Click for trailer.) Although not about race music, this movie involves both music and racism. Another timely event for my November and this post. However, this post is about Memphis and Cincinnati – so, let’s jump to Cleveland.

Cleveland is in the diagonally opposite corner of Ohio from Cincinnati – a 4 hour drive downtown-to-downtown. Cleveland is also home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Hall). Besides putting up the money to get the Hall, the location is based on Alan Freed, a Cleveland DJ (WJW) who coined the term rock and roll. Interestingly, Freed’s “sign-on” song was on the King Records label.

Then there is Terry Stewart, the Hall’s longest serving CEO and current President Emeritus, who said the following: “There are only three places in the country that can claim to be the birthplace of rock and roll: New Orleans, Memphis, and Cincinnati.” (Reminder of the two plays that I saw.)

Image from Wikipedia

King Records is the reason Cincinnati is in that quote. Syd Nathan, a local sales hustler, started King Records in 1943. With Cincinnati being home to one of the nation’s most powerful radio stations (WLW) and the local population having many Blacks and poor Appalachian Whites, Nathan saw a musical opportunity.

In time, Nathan grew King Records into one of the most successful independent record labels in the country, Nathan also controlled the recording, mastering, pressing, and shipping processes because they were typically done in-house – therefore a quick turnaround from recording to store shelves.

By realizing the importance of music to different populations, Nathan’s stable of artists included country & western, rhythm & blues, gospel, bluegrass, rockabilly, and boogie woogie. On the “B-side” of 45s, he often put a crossover song or artist to expand the music to different populations. Yes, Nathan promoted and distributed race music.

Fever was a hit for Peggy Lee in 1958 – but did you know that King Records Little Willie John recorded Fever two years earlier?


Everyone knows the success with The Twist. Did you know that the song was first done by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters on King Records? Ballard was unavailable for American Bandstand, so Dick Clark (who wanted the song on the show) turned to a local artist to perform the song as a cover – enter Chubby Checker.


Music buffs may know King Records names as Albert King, Grandpa Jones, Joe Tex, The Dominoes, The Charms, Freddie King, and John Lee Hooker – but the biggest name at King Records was none other than the Godfather of Soul – James Brown – with this mega-hit that won Brown his first Grammy Award (Best R&B Performance, 1966).


Syd Nathan died in 1968. Although King Records final demise would shortly follow, it’s impact on the music industry would last forever. Meanwhile, the City of Cincinnati is considering a King Records Museum. Let’s toast the pioneers of race music in Cincinnati and Memphis. Cheers!

54 thoughts on “On Race Music

  1. What a great post, Frank. There is no denying the love you have for your city…
    Fascinating about those well-known songs. Just goes to show.
    And, isn’t it funny how you don’t hear about something and then hear it over and over?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That was interesting Frank, so many little snippets that I had no clue about – and I had no idea Cincinnati was/is so well connected musically. I had never heard of that term ‘race music’ before either – it sure would make me take notice if it came floating by once let alone twice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pauline,
      The way this post and information came together still amazes me. By the end of November I knew much more than I did at the end of October! … so I’m very pleased that you enjoyed this post.


    • Holly,
      A touch of music history is a good thing – and much of this was new to me until those November events that inspired this post. I was surprised to learn that John Lee Hooker was on King. Must have been during his early days.


  3. So so fascinating. I’ve never heard that term either. Not sure about it still even after reading your post.
    But I grew up listening to a lot of rock and roll on vinyl when I found and old collection in a dusty corner of our house when I was about 11 or 12 in the 90s. It wasn’t really the type of music any of my friends were listening to a the time lol but it sparked a love in me for music from the 50s and 60s.
    I’d love to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one day.
    Going to look up a lot of these songs you mentioned. I love Fever (yeah, yeah, I know. ..you’re not surprised) and used to sing it a few years ago when I was singing in a duo but had no idea about the original recording.
    Really enjoyed this.
    Thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fiery,
      Glad this tapped into your love not only for music – but also the early days of rock and roll. After all, you didn’t live those days. The Rock & Roll HOF is quite the place – a place to can engulf a music lover.

      Fever is so wonderful. I’ve always enjoyed the song – and even more when my wife and I took up ballroom dance some (I think) 11 years ago. Some versions are outstanding foxtrot songs. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and the story behind Chubby Checker. I never knew that “Fever” was previously recorded. I really like the Little Willie John version. Rock and roll was an essential part of my upbringing in the 50s and 60s. It was almost a religion. My 45s are gone, but I still have my albums and my memories. Thanks for reactivating some of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gary,
      As a long-time music lover and one who lived that era, I have no doubt you would have enjoyed Cincinnati King at the Playhouse! My 45s are also long gone – and as well as most of the albums (which we shed when we loved to the condo almost 5 years ago). Meanwhile, until I saw the play, I was unaware of Little Willie John. Seems he was quite the talent with a sad ending to his story.


  5. Excellent! Now you’re really getting down into my musical ‘hood – past and present. Glad I got to see “Cincinnati King” at the Playhouse In The Park just before Christmas to sort out some of the key origins. Next up I need to make it to Cleveland to (finally) tour the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then a trip to Memphis, then a return visit to New Orleans where last year I only scratched the surface of understanding that complex culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. i’m sure I would really enjoy this musical, Frank, and I recall when it toured locally, but didn’t see it at that time. Maybe next time I will! This is so interesting to hear of the people who performed very famous songs before the “headliners” we all recognize. I’ve not heard the term “race music” before, so this alone is interesting to me. We have yet to see Green Book but we do intend to! Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debra,
      Glad you saw this post because I knew you would enjoy its many facets. FYI: You can find Memphis: The Musical (in its entirety) on YouTube … Now that’s a surprise! You would have enjoyed Cincinnati King – but I doubt if it comes your way. Will be interested to see even if other theaters pick it up.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Lots of layers–and music–in this post, Frank. I thought of the musical “Ragtime”– there’s a scene where Coalhouse Walker explains that “coon songs” are for minstrel shows where white men are in blackface–then proceeds to play ragtime. I saw the musical Beautiful recently, and it’s interesting how many hit songs were written by King and Goffen.
    I saw Green Book, too, recently. Kind of predictable, but great acting.
    And you’ve seen Dale and I are obsessed with the music from “Cold War.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Comment with respect.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.