Monday, October 14, 1996
King Records' totals add up to city history

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mention the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to me and I see two colors. Red and chocolate brown.

The brown comes first. That's the color of the old King Records plant, next to Interstate 71 in Evanston.

Red is the color of civic embarrassment. King Records is to Cincinnati what Motown Records is to Detroit. Yet, the city has never formerly recognized its contribution to local history. I wonder who dropped the ball on this one.

King Records - whose plant closed in 1970 - is practically a farm team for rock's Hall of Fame. Eight King alumni are in it.

James Brown, King's biggest star, is on the Hall's list. So are two men named just last month. One is Bootsy Collins. He got his start in James Brown's band. The other is King's founder, Syd Nathan. He was a wily, frog-faced wheeler-dealer whose diet consisted of chewing on cigars and chewing out musicians while running King Records from 1944 until his death in 1968.

In a cold sweat

What was once the home of King's hits is now a United Dairy Farmers warehouse, a resting place for worn-out ice-cream coolers. No plaque outside the building says: James Brown recorded here, had his records pressed here and probably slept here in his hideaway office.

There's also no mention of the King Records plant in the city's register of landmarks, a 90-page guidebook called, Cincinnati's Historic Properties.

If you want to see the plant, don't blink while driving through Evanston on I-71. It sits across the highway from Walnut Hills High School. All there is to see is a brown blob of brick buildings. That's why I'm seeing red.

To get the red out, I had to find out whose job it is to designate local landmarks. How is it done? Who can do it?

So, I tracked down Chris Cain, the city's urban conservator. He pretty much told me it's everybody's job. And, it's pretty easy.

When I told him about the King Records plant, he said all I had to do was: ''Write a letter.''

That's it?

''That's it,'' he said. ''Letters of recommendation can be from anyone. You don't have to be a citizen of Cincinnati. Or, even live in Ohio. After I get a letter, I research the building. Then I present the request to the Historic Conservation Board. It has nine members and meets every other Monday.''

The board votes on the building's qualifications. If it is architecturally, culturally or historically significant, it passes go.

The recommendation then travels to city council. If it receives a passing vote, the building becomes a bona-fide Historic Structure. It even gets an official mention in Cincinnati's landmarks guidebook.

A bronze plaque outside the building costs extra. Prices start at $300.

Write on

Music Hall is in the Historic Properties guidebook. So's Union Terminal. The old King plant should be there, too.

''Write a letter,'' Chris Cain said again, in case I didn't hear him the first time.

He assured me my letter would not get buried under a ton of mail.

''We only get three or four requests for historic buildings a year,'' he said. ''We had to cancel our last meeting. We didn't have enough requests to consider.''

That's all I needed to hear. Now, I had to write a letter. It's my civic duty. I don't want the Historic Conservation Board to turn into a bunch of bureaucratic Maytag Repairmen. So, I started typing.

Dear Chris Cain:

The old King Records plant at 1540 Brewster Ave. in Evanston belongs on Cincinnati's list of Historic Properties.

It's famous by the numbers:

461 - the records King put on the charts between 1944 and 1970.

32 - King's total of No. 1 records.

8 - Rock and Roll Hall of Famers (James Brown, Hank Ballard, Clyde McPhatter, Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson, Bootsy Collins, producer Ralph Bass, founder Syd Nathan) with ties to King.

Yours in landmarks, Cliff

Want to put in your 32-cents worth about the King Records plant? Write to: Chris Cain, Cincinnati Urban Conservator, Centennial Plaza Two, 805 Central Ave., Suite 720, Cincinnati, 45202.

I'm glad I did. It's kept my brown eyes from turning blue over seeing red.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.