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It doesn't snow in Portland, ever; nobody here has seen any stick to the ground for more than an hour or so in the past five years. So everyone here is shocked and paralyzed. MLK, this morning at 8:30, hadn't been plowed, and that's a pretty major street. I made it to yoga anyway (my teacher gave me a lift back home), and have been housebound the rest of the day. With one significant exception: taking the trash out tonight. That was not a small effort. The snow had briefly been supplanted by freezing rain, or by melting snow, so it had formed a hard crust of not-quite-ice on top of the soft stuff. Then it got more of the soft stuff. The trail I made on the way from where the trash can lives to the roadside looks like some major tectonic damage.

Listening of choice for the past couple of days has been the King R&B Box Set; looks like four discs, is really three plus a "bonus" (unreleased tracks and three long recordings of Syd Nathan talking to his staff). King was James Brown's label until the early '70s (specifically until "Escape-Ism" and the second version of "Hot Pants"--all historical events from 1956 to 1975 are now correlated with the relevant JB single in my head, that's just what happened in the course of research), and ground zero for a lot of what I find interesting in pre-'60 R&B--and located not in L.A. or New York but in Cincinnati, so I'd wanted to hear this for a while, as I'm becoming a dedicated provincialist.

First shock of the set: the photograph of King's boss, Syd Nathan, on the first page of the booklet. I knew that the guy had a business sense that was way ahead of his musical sense (he was openly contemptuous of a lot of his label's biggest hits), and I knew he was sort of how shall we put this square, but... maybe it's just that the people who assembled the set found the most unflattering portrait of him they could: he looks like the most horrible executive vice president in charge of widget-manufacturing that has ever been poured into a mold, and is wearing bi-level cola-bottle-bottom glasses that are the very essence of unbecomingness.

As far as this box is concerned, the King R&B era begins with a record that was actually on its early subsidiary Queen (Bull Moose Jackson's 1945 cash-in on a Lucky Millinder hit, "I Know Who Threw the Whisky in the Well") and ends, just as a gesture, with James Brown in 1965, doing "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." (It really ends two years earlier; only two other songs postdate Live at the Apollo, not counting a couple of cool Hank Ballard oddities on the bonus disc.)

And between them? Jazz-trained, road-honed musicians, mostly, trying to make something cheap and fun--that's the short version of what I'm getting from this foreshortened version of King. That means silly stuff ("Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me"), nudge-nudge "party records" ("Big Ten Inch Record"), and probably too many answer records and sequels. Nathan never had a hit he didn't try to milk into the ground, which may be part of why King artists' albums tend to be unsatisfying: any Bill Doggett album will have ten songs that groove like "Honky Tonk." But Nathan's expedient ideas were usually good ones, in practice, mostly because he had incredible singers working for him. Having Wynonie Harris record the country song (Hank Penny's, was it?) "Bloodshot Eyes" got them two hits with one tune, and also resulted in Harris peeling the paint off three counties' worth of walls. (Why didn't he follow that up with more country/R&B crossovers? Someone should write an alternate history story.)

1 Comments

James said:

Ace/Kent Records has released a bunch of excellent compilations of King releases around different themes (King soul, King female r&b vocalists, King rockabilly, King instrumentals, etc.) One of them, -Hillbilly Bop and Boogie- presents a bunch of country versions of King r&b hits. I don't think Ace has done the reverse (collecting King r&b covers of country songs) but knowing that label, it may pop up some day.

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This page contains a single entry by Douglas published on January 7, 2004 1:46 AM.

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