With Nick and Drew Lachey from 98 Degrees and funk legend Bootsy Collins (who now enjoys his own restaurant) all hailing from the Queen City, Cincinnati has raised some fine, popular and well-known musicians. One of the greatest periods in Cincinnati’s musical history, however, was from the 1950s through the ’70s.
This period marked a golden era for Cincinnati’s recording industry. "There were literally hundreds of record labels in the ’50s to the ’70s," says Jim Blase, owner of Shake it Records, located at 4156 Hamilton Avenue in Northside, Ohio.
Before this musical rush, however, Cincinnati acquired much of its music identity with migrants from the South. At the early part of the century, droves of people were traveling north to work their way into a metropolitan area with manufacturing jobs, Blase says. What made Cincinnati a target destination for these job seekers was the fact that it was the first major city that they hit in the Midwest (with Chicago and other major cities being further north), Blase says.
They were coming to work, and they brought their music with them. So while Cincinnati celebrated the Reds, the new residents were singing the blues. And the local recording industry picked up on the musical trend.
One of the most famous recording companies in Cincinnati was King Records, and owner Syd Nathan embraced the blues and R & B trends in the industry as well as the country and bluegrass flavor of Appalachia. "They would take what was popular and make themselves popular," Blase says. Started in the mid 1940s, this recording company was the only King fit for the Queen City.
With King Records, Nathan incorporated the popular music as he experimented with innovative ideas, including the integration of white and black musicians into the other race’s music. White musicians recorded blues and R &B music, while the black musicians recorded country and "hillbilly" music.
Nathan also dabbled with white and black musicians playing with each other to produce a new sound and political statement. While these musical crossovers might seem normal in present day, in the days of King Records these concepts were risky with the segregation and sentiments at the time, but Nathan’s risks proved unique and exciting at the same time.
Under the parent company of King Records, Nathan began other record labels, including Federal Records. The most famous artist to sign and record with Federal Records is none other than Mr. James Brown, one of the first musicians ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Other than Brown, King Records and Federal Records have included the Stanley Brothers, Wynonie Harris, Little Willie Harris. Throughout his time with Federal Records, Nathan and Brown had differing opinions on more than one occasion, and Brown went as far as to record some of his songs with other record labels.
In addition to King Records and its subsidiary companies, Cincinnati-based Fraternity Records proved to be a prominent company in the Queen City recording industry, particularly in the late 1950s and all through the ’60s, Blase says. In its beginnings, founder Harry Carlson operated Fraternity Records out of a hotel room, but that start led to the record company’s success as America’s oldest continuously operating independent record label, says Shad O’Shea, former recording artist with and later owner of Fraternity Records.
Many artists who worked with Fraternity Records worked with the company to get their start and moved on when they got big. So Jackie DeShannon, who sang "What the World Needs Now is Love" (featured in "My Best Friend’s Wedding" and "Forrest Gump"), recorded with Fraternity Records before she got her big break.
Singer Bobby Bare also got his start with Fraternity Records. His song "All-American Boy" quickly reached No. 2, and he went on to record more than a dozen No. 1 records, O’Shea says. Similarly, a nine-member group named The Casinos struck some luck with what would be one of the biggest songs released by Fraternity Records. Their song, "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye," a song written by John D. Loudermilk, reached No. 6 on the charts.
Loudermilk had attempted to get the song on the charts with other recording artists, but it wasn’t until The Casinos took hold of it that it really took off. Since staying in the top 10 for more than 10 weeks, this song has been re-performed by country greats like Andy Williams and Neil McCoy, but it started off with The Casinos at Fraternity Records.
Other No. 2 spots reached by Fraternity Records artists include "Ivory Tower" by Cathy Carr and "So Rare" by Jimmy Dorsey.
Today’s musical world cannot compare to the industry it used to be. "The Web and the Internet have just totally changed how you market music," Blase says, and these changes have impacted the recording industry in Cincinnati and elsewhere. There are still recording companies in the Tri-State area, but their inner workings and the way they relate to the national and international music markets have gone through a complete transformation.
In fact, as the music industry becomes more and more homogenized with the powerhouse media conglomerates, many areas have lost their regional touch to what has been a specific genre or a couple genres of music that have contributed to the local culture. And places like New Orleans, La., have fought hard to maintain their musical culture.
For more information about the history of the Cincinnati music scene, look at the Shake it Records Web site. Also, pay attention to their "Links" section because it provides links to several musically historical sites that are specifically about or geared toward Cincinnatians and their city.