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‘King R&B; Box Set’ Offers Glimpse of Rock’s Infancy : VARIOUS ARTISTS: “The King R&B; Box Set” King (****)

Syd Nathan’s King Records was one of the handful of independent labels that contributed greatly in the 1950s to the fusion of R&B; and country that created rock ‘n’ roll.

While not essential like Sun, Chess and Atlantic, the Cincinnati-based label was a seminal force that nurtured several strong Rock and Roll Hall of Fame candidates.

Four King acts--James Brown, the Platters, Little Willie John and Hank Ballard--have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and a fifth, Billy Ward & His Dominoes, is one of the nominees this time around.

Among the classic recordings by these and other King artists: Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” John’s “Fever,” the Platters’ “Only You,” Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” the 5 Royales’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” and Hank Ballard’s original version of “The Twist.”

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Not bad for starters in this four-disc set, which is drawn from the scores of R&B; recordings that Nathan released on King and the affiliated DeLuxe and Federal labels.

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But the real treat here is going through the remaining tracks and finding records that have been pretty much lost over the years except to collectors.

They include two selections by Lonnie Johnson, a singer whose sweet, understated romanticism clearly influenced Elvis Presley, who recorded his own version of Johnson’s 1947 hit “Tomorrow Night.”

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Like many of the R&B; artists of the time, several King performers turned at times to suggestive themes and lyrics, which fueled adult complaints that this new sound was a bad influence on the nation’s youth. Among the most controversial of them: the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man,” the Midnighters’ “Work With Me Annie” and Bull Moose Jackson’s “Big Ten Inch Record.”

Despite all these colorful records, one of the most entertaining aspects of the King story is Nathan himself.

As Colin Escott explains in the booklet accompanying the discs, Nathan was a Cincinnati native who had gone through lots of other businesses before turning to records. He had run a pawn shop, a jewelry store and even some pro wrestling promotions in the region.

Nathan was in his 40s, in fact, by the time he launched King Records in 1944 as a country label. He did well with such artists as Cowboy Copas, but expanded into R&B; after World War II.

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“You may disagree with me 100%, but somebody has to be the chief and I’m elected,” he once said with characteristic flamboyance. “I am spending my money, not yours, so it will have to be what I say.”

Nathan didn’t necessarily have a feel for a hit. Upon first hearing Brown’s “Please, Please, Please,” he reportedly told an aide that it was the “worst piece of crap” he had ever heard.

But he hired people who did have ears for a hit, including Ralph Bass, who discovered Brown in Atlanta. Bass talked Nathan into releasing the single, which was the first of more than 50 hits Brown had for King labels before his contract was purchased by Polydor in the early ‘70s. In the deal, Polydor also bought the rights to all past Brown recordings, which is probably why there is only one of his hits in this set.

The package also features tapes of Nathan talking to his sales and creative staffs--urging them to outthink and outwork the major labels. As much as any of the actual records, Nathan’s rambling pep talks capture the crazy, anything-goes spirit of rock’s infancy. A solid collection.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).


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