Today, two versions of a little gem off the great Cincinnati label King Records, whose old building at 1540 Brewster Avenue now stands as a Rock and Roll Heritage Site. I’m always drawn to the various sounds that various cities produce. Every town has its own rhythms, its own music, from the trains barreling around Chicago’s loop to the steamboats blowing past St. Louis to the clip clop of mule hooves all around New Orleans. New York may house the biggest labels, and L.A. may be home to the world’s greatest dream factory, but when the story of American music is written, it tends to find its strongest voice in the towns that grow their music right out of the ground.
Some labels had a sound so distinctive that they are forever identified with the cities that spawned them. Chess Records in Chicago. Stax and Sun in Memphis. Motown in Detroit. Every label tells a story. It’s the mark of not only the producer, but the engineers, the distributors, even the recording studio itself.
What made Cincinnati’s King Records unique was that they controlled every step of their process from one building. When you walked into that old factory on Brewster, you could find artists recording, engineers mixing, and a small crew of people pressing and printing every record, sometimes in quantities as small as a few dozen, then shipping them out to every radio station and record store they figured would gain them and audience, even if it meant building the audience one station and store at a time. It was on-demand music of a style that big labels were too impatient to emulate when their money came from mass production, and that smaller independent labels couldn’t emulate, as they didn’t have the same resources.
Originally, King Records focused on country music—“If it’s a King, it’s a Hillbilly!”—while keeping a race records label—Queen Records—on the side. Eventually, the race records, as they were known at the time, would be absorbed into King as part of an emerging rhythm and blues catalogue that would soon feature the likes of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Billy Ward and the Dominoes, Little Willie John, and a very young James Brown.
It was this rhythm and blues market that King owner Syd Nathan focused on from the late 1940’s onward. By 1950, what had once been a strictly country outfit was well on its way to being regarded as the “king” of rhythm and blues labels. One of the turning points for King’s move from country to rhythm and blues came in 1949, as the label scored big hits on both charts with the song, “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me.”
Wayne Raney, a country musician from Arkansas who established his greatest wealth with a harmonica business, co-wrote the song and recorded it for King. By September of 1949, the song soared to the top of Billboard’s Country and Western charts—ending the sixteen-week reign of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” at number one.
Shortly after Raney recorded his version, Syd Nathan, seeing its potential in a different market, passed the song along to a talented rhythm and blues saxophonist named Bull Moose Jackson, who had already scored number one hits on Billboard’s Race Records chart with “I Love You, Yes I Do” (1947)—which was the first R & B record to sell a million copies—and “I Can’t Go On Without You” (1948).
Jackson’s version, dotted with handclaps and driven by driving saxophone blasts, roared up Billboard’s newly named Rhythm and Blues chart (it was called the Race Records chart until June of that year), reaching number two in late November and sticking there for two weeks, behind Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” As 1949 rolled over into 1950—with the Golden Age of Rock and Roll inching ever closer—King Records left behind its country roots for the new, swinging sound of rhythm and blues.
Today, we’ll give a listen to both versions of a track that stands as a signpost in the history of one of American music’s great labels. First, let’s give a listen to Raney’s version, a bouncy hillbilly tune that became Raney’s biggest hit:
Next, the swinging version recorded by Bull Moose Jackson and his Buffalo Bearcats. Sadly, not many people remember the Moose these days. Like King Records, his remarkable contribution to the body of American music is largely forgotten. If enough people hear songs like this, however, that shouldn’t be the case for long.