One of the most important and successful independent labels in history and without question the most diverse in terms of quality output, as they released vital records in rock, country, blues and jazz.

Founded in 1943 by Syd Nathan, an irascible man who failed mightily in every endeavor he tried but one – selling records. First as proprietor of his own record store wherein he catered first to black customers, then upon buying another store’s supply when they were going out of business he discovered their inventory was mostly hillbilly music which increased his cliental to rural white customers. He began to befriend some country artists who performed on radio who’d come into his shop looking for (mostly black) records to sing on their programs and he wondered why they weren’t making records themselves. Nobody had ever asked them to they told him, so Nathan decided to start his own label and do just that.

King Records was strictly a white hillbilly label when it started and Nathan himself knew nothing about the music but he assembled a strong roster of artists starting with Grandpa Jones, Merle Travis, The Delmore Brothers and Wayne Raney, in the process carving out a niche the majors were largely ignoring. Soon after he started Queen Records to record black artists as well such as Bull Moose Jackson (who gave them their first million seller with “I Love You, Yes I Do”) but in 1947 simply moved them all to King making the parent label truly integrated in everyway, including making Henry Glover, the black trumpeter who’d worked with Lucky Millinder’s band, his top A&R man/songwriter/producer for his entire roster, black and white.

Though a near-sighted man with proverbial thick Coke bottle glasses, Nathan was incredibly far-sighted in many of his other business practices as well. He established his own pressing plant to be able to control production of the records in-house, as well as printers to create the album covers down the road. He organized his own network of distributors across the country so he wasn’t competing with other labels for the efforts of one-stop distributors who handled every company’s line. He also frequently had his black artists cover his country acts and vice versa, thereby expanding a song’s audience (for which he controlled publishing).

When rock ‘n’ roll began in 1947 Nathan was quick to jump in, first by signing artists with good track records who were recently lacking in commercial success yet were adaptable to the style, most prominently Ivory Joe Hunter and Wynonie Harris, thereby allowing him to build a solid stable from which to get started. He then bought a controlling interest in DeLuxe Records, who’d launched rock just a few months earlier but were in financial straits, giving him access to Roy Brown, rock’s founder and leading light to date, as well as other promising acts. He further added to his roster by making deals to re-issue notable artists from even smaller labels such as Todd Rhodes from Sensation Records and Earl Bostic on Gotham, both of whom would become hit-makers on King.

In the 1950’s it was a three label race for the most important independent company between Atlantic, Chess and King. Atlantic had the advantage in commercial success, Chess carved out the strongest identity with the blues in addition to their rock output, but King was the arguably the most diverse, the only of the three labels to have successful country and gospel acts. Like Atlantic they also scored with jazz thanks to Millinder and Jimmy Scott, and like Chess they had success with the blues with Lonnie Johnson, Freddie King and Champion Jack Dupree, while Jackson and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson scored with hybrid records. All of this while featuring some of the greatest rock artists from across the spectrum from vocal groups like The Midnighters and “5” Royales to solo stars Harris and Little Willie John, instrumentalists Bostic and Bill Doggett, female artists Lula Reed and Linda Hayes and even early white rock acts Boyd Bennett and Mac Curtis. The roll call of names becomes even more impressive when factoring in those who recorded for subsidiary labels Federal and DeLuxe.

By the late 50’s their power started to diminish. As the hit-making market was becoming more shaped by younger white teen tastes King’s output remained more raw in style and rooted more prominently in the black experience; the label’s reluctance to engage in widespread payola cut into the unfettered access to radio outlets to get their music heard; and the lack of cultivating younger photogenic stars to cross over through television appearances hurt as well.

Their final major star however would be their biggest, one of the top three names in all of rock history in fact, as James Brown was promoted from Federal to King label in 1960 and kept the company in the spotlight for the rest of the decade, even amidst fierce battles between Brown and Nathan over musical direction, what records to release and finally a prolonged defection in 1964 by Brown over contractual issues at the peak of his popularity which derailed the company’s chances of moving strongly into the next era of rock.

Nathan’s health was failing as well and though Brown returned in 1965 with his biggest hits over the next few years he was now virtually carrying the label single-handedly as no new artists emerged to fill the void left behind by the previous generation. When Syd Nathan died in 1968 at the age of 64, after twenty-five years in the business, there was nobody left in the company who could replace him. King was sold to Starday Records and James Brown continued to record for the label that was the same in name only until 1971.

The legacy of King Records assures its place near the top of not just all record companies in 20th Century American history, but on par with any American company of that era regardless of product. At one point King was the 6th largest record label in the entire country, all without ever aspiring to make a “pop” record. Instead they dragged the mainstream pop world to the farthest reaches of the musical and cultural margins of society and in return pushed those styles, artists and audiences into the mainstream. Nathan did this with tenacity and drive fueled by a sharp mind and sharper tongue, was aggressive and innovative in his business moves while breaking down racial and social barriers years before any other company, in or out of music.

In the end the full scope of King Records and the music they made shaped rock ‘n’ roll as much as any other record label ever.
IVORY JOE HUNTER: Don’t Be No Fool, Fool (3) (King Records 4183; December, 1947)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: San Francisco Blues (4) (King Records 4183; December, 1947)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Wynonie’s Boogie (3) (King 4202; January, 1948)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Rose, Get Your Clothes (3) (King 4202; January, 1948)
BIG MAYBELLE (as MABEL SMITH): Sad And Disappointed Jill (5) (King 4207; February, 1948)
BIG MAYBELLE (as MABEL SMITH): Bad Dream Blues (3) (King 4207; February, 1948)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: Come On Let Your Hair Down (4) (King 4208; February, 1948)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Good Rockin’ Tonight ★ 10 ★ (King 4210; February, 1948)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Good Morning, Mr. Blues (3) (King 4210; February, 1948)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Love Is Like Rain (3) (King 4217; April, 1948)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Your Money Don’t Mean A Thing (1) (King 4217; April, 1948)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: Siesta With Sonny (4) (King 4220; May, 1948)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Lollipop Mama (6) (King 4226; May, 1948)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Blow Your Brains Out (5) (King 4226; May, 1948)
BIG MAYBELLE (as MABEL SMITH): Too Tight Mama (4) (King 4227; May, 1948)
CECIL GANT: Hogan’s Alley (4) (King 4231; June, 1948)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: What Did You Do To Me (4) (King 4232; June, 1948)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Bite Again, Bite Again (4) (King 4252; October, 1948)
TODD RHODES: Walkie Talkie (3) (King 4252; November, 1948)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: I Like It (3) (King 4255; November, 1948)
TINA DIXON: Walk That Walk, Daddy-O (4) (King 4257; December, 1948)
TINA DIXON: Parrot Bar Boogie (5) (King 4257; December, 1948)
BIG MAYBELLE (as MABEL SMITH): Little Miss Muffet (3) (King 4271; January, 1949)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: In Time (5) (King 4275; February, 1949)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Grandma Plays The Numbers (6) (King 4276; February, 1949)
WYNONIE HARRIS: I Feel That Old Age Coming On (8) (King 4276; February, 1949)
EARL BOSTIC: Blip Boogie (7) (King 4277; February, 1949)
TODD RHODES: Pot Likker (7) (King 4287; March, 1949)
TODD RHODES: Red Boy At The Mardi Gras (4) (King 4287; March, 1949)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: Waiting in Vain (7) (King 4291; May, 1949)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: That’s The Gal For Me (6) (King 4291; May, 1949)
WYNONIE HARRIS: Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee (6) (King 4292, May, 1949)
WYNONIE HARRIS: She Just Won’t Sell No More (6) (King 4292; May, 1949)
JOE THOMAS: Backstage At The Apollo (6) (King 4296; June, 1949)
TODD RHODES / JOE THOMAS: Page Boy Shuffle (7) (King 4299; June 1949)
EARL BOSTIC: From Midnight To Dawn (3) (King 4302; June, 1949)
EARL BOSTIC: Earl’s Blues (6) (King 4302; June, 1949)
WYNONIE HARRIS: All She Wants To Do Is Rock (8) (King 4304; August, 1949)
WYNONIE HARRIS: I Want My Fanny Brown (7) (King 4304; August, 1949)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: Landlord Blues (3) (King 4306; August, 1949)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: Guess Who (7) (King 4306; August, 1949)
CROWN PRINCE WATERFORD: You Turned Your Back On Me (5) (King 4310; September, 1949)
CROWN PRINCE WATERFORD: Pow Wow Boogie (2) (King 4310; September, 1949)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: All States Boogie (5) (King 4314; September, 1949)
IVORY JOE HUNTER: Jealous Heart (6) (King 4314; September, 1949)
EARL BOSTIC: Who Snuck The Wine In The Gravy (3) (King 4316; October, 1949)
EARL BOSTIC: Platter Poppa (4) (King 4316; October, 1949)
JOE THOMAS: My Baby Done Left Me (3) (King 4318; October, 1949)
JOE THOMAS: Tearing Hair (4) (King 4318; October, 1949)