Previously in the book: Nebraskan Hal Neely, played trumpet on the big band circuit in the Midwest and California before he joined the army in WWI. After graduating from college he went into the record business and met Syd Nathan of King Records.
Obscene, loud, greedy, and crude—those are just a few of the words used to describe Syd Nathan. Also expansive, fun-loving, joke-telling and charismatic. What a combination.
Nathan was born in 1903 in Cincinnati, Ohio.1 He dropped out of school after the ninth grade because he had respiratory ailments and weak eyes. “I couldn’t see, so why bother?” He failed at several businesses including running a pawn shop, bussing tables, managing a shooting gallery, playing drums, operating an elevator, selling jewelry, and promoting professional wrestling. In 1938 he was arrested after he refused to pay off winners at one of his shooting galleries. The charges were dropped, but Nathan was fined $50 for “promoting a scheme of chance.” Later that year he opened “Syd’s Record Shop” on W. 5th St. in Cincinnati. His inventory was 300 old hillbilly, Western, and race records which he bought for two cents each from a jukebox operator. The first afternoon he made $18 which he used to buy more records from other jukebox operators.
Nathan sold the business in 1939 and moved to Miami where his brother Richard was a doctor. He tried his hand in the photo-finishing business but failed again. He returned to Cincinnati and started another record shop on Central Avenue, again getting his inventory from jukebox operators. This time Nathan’s luck changed when country music musicians Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones came into the shop looking for new material.2
“Down on Central Avenue there was a little used-record shop run by a little short Jewish man with the real thick glasses,” Travis recalled. “He had asthma and a scratchy voice, and his name was Syd Nathan. We got acquainted with him, and we had to go down to Syd’s used record shop and find all these great records by the black spiritual quartets. We learned the songs and sang them on the air.”
“Syd got all het up wanting to start a label, a country label,” Jones said. “He came over to radio station WLW where we were doing the Boone County Jamboree and wanted to sign some of us up to make records.”3
The only problem was that Travis and Jones were under contract to the radio station which would not allow them to work for anyone else. Nathan talked them into driving to Dayton, Ohio, in September of 1943 to a makeshift studio above a Wurlitzer piano store. Travis and Jones changed their names for the record and between the three of them they came up with the name of King Records. The first record was a major flop.4
“Some of those early King records came out worked so badly you could use them for bowls or ashtrays,” Jones said. “Watching a needle go around one was like watching a stock car on a banked race track.”
Travis added, “When I got the record, I took it home and put it on my player. It went round and round and round and I sat there and watched and thought, ‘Well, there ain’t nothing on this record.’ It got way over to the end of the record and directly you could hear me and Grandpa. It sounded like we were recording in Dayton but the microphone was in Cincinnati, way off in the distance. It wasn’t much of a record.”5
Every record made between 1898 and the 1940s was 78 RPM, meaning it revolved seventy-eight times per minute. They were generally made of a brittle material based on a shellac resin. When World War II occurred, shellac became scarce and record manufacturers substituted vinyl instead. The term “78 RPM” actually was not used until after new forms of record technology were introduced in the 1940s to distinguish the older style of records from the new.6
The failure did not keep Nathan from trying again in the record business. He went to the local public library where he checked out a book about “gramophone records written by an Englishman,” he said. “I didn’t catch on. I didn’t know what he was talking about.” He then went to the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville and talked to the pressing plant engineers. Eventually he hired one of them, George W. Weitlauf, to work for him in Cincinnati. By 1945 Nathan acquired a building on Brewster Avenue and remodeled it into a record plant.7
From there he created a string of hits in his first five years selling “race” and country music. He was known for signing both black and white artists in the late 1940s and had no patience for racism. King Records had integrated Christmas parties and company picnics. During World War II Nathan hired Japanese Americans to run machinery keeping them out of internment camps. He hired Henry Glover as an executive, making him one of the first African Americans in the music business with the power to make creative and business decisions.8
Syd Nathan was not a great humanitarian or social activist by any means. He ran a tight studio schedule and if white country music performers had to wait in the hall until the black R&B were finished recording, well, that was just the way it was. If a back-up musician would fail to show, Nathan would grab the nearest player whether he be black or white to fill in. “We work at it as if it was the coffin business, the machinery business, or any other business,” he said. “It has to pay for itself.”9
By the end of 1948 King was the top-selling race label. Among the 25 major hits was Bullmoose Jackson’s “I Love You, Yes I Do”. According to historical reports compiled by the public library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, King converted to the 45 RPM record format in 1949. King Records credited Neely with the switchover. As noted in his memoirs, Neely as a sales representative of Allied Record Company, was in Cincinnati calling on Allied client ZIV, which manufactured radio transcripts. In an interview with a representative of the Cincinnati library, Neely said he made it a point to “check out this character” Syd Nathan while he was in Cincinnati.
“I was in town to see a client and as it turned out I was about six blocks from King over on Brewster so I went over to see this guy for myself. I walked into his office and he said, ‘Who are you?’
“‘You don’t know who I am but I know who you are,’ I said.
“‘I know who you are,’ Syd quickly replied. ‘You’re a smart ass.’ By that evening I was having dinner at Syd’s house and he had sent for my bags at the hotel. I stayed for three days.” In Neely’s memoirs he left out the part of the story where Nathan had called him “a smart ass.”10
(Author’s note: I wrote this chapter from my own research. Chapters in italics are Neely’s memoirs.
1King of the Queen City, 90.
2The One, 74.
3Marion, J.C., Hurricane Blues: Earl Bostic.http://home.earthlink.net/jaymar41/bostic.html.
4Nite, Norm, Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock ‘n’ Roll (The Golden Years) Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974.
5Buddy Winsett Interview, July 2012.
6 Whitall, Susan, Fever Little Willie John A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul, Titan Books, London, 20.
7 Ibid., 58.
8 Ibid., 56.
9 Ibid., 73.
10The One, 75.
12 Sullivan, James, The Hardest Working Man, How James Brown Saved the Soul of America, Gotham Books, New York City, 2008, 64.
13The Life of James Brown, 42.
14King of the Queen City, 91.