I believe geography has its own personality. Different places produce different types of people, different values. They attract different types as well. You could argue that the culture of these places produces its social fabric, but I believe that the geography, the land itself, helps produce that culture.
Those places produce their own sound as well. It comes out of the earth, and it blends with other sounds carried on the wind and the water from a thousand other places. People build off that, and the things they build and bring contribute to the sound. The barreling trains of Chicago’s loop. The steamboats on the Mississippi. The clip clop of mule hooves on the streets of New Orleans. New York and L.A. may make the biggest noise, but it’s often the other cities where American music fills its lungs.
I’m drawn to the sounds those cities produce. Record labels come up in those cities with a sound so distinctive that they are forever identified with the places 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 artists, but the producers, engineers, distributors, and 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) and shipping them out to every radio station and record store they figured would gain them an audience, even if it meant building the audience one station at a time. It was on-demand music of a style that neither big labels or small ones could emulate—the big ones because their money came from mass production, and the small ones because they didn’t have the resources.
This integrated business model allowed King to put out records in a lot of different arenas. Originally a country label (with a tagline of “If it’s a King, it’s a Hillbilly!”), owner Syd Nathan began to branch out with a second label called Queen Records, specializing in an emerging genre called rhythm and blues. These records were eventually absorbed by King, and before long the label would tip entirely in the direction of the new sound.
A big part of the new direction was the success of an artist from Cleveland named Bull Moose Jackson. In 1947, Jackson recorded the ballad “I Love You, Yes I Do,” which became the first rhythm and blues record to sell a million copies.
Bull Moose Jackson doing a live performance of “I Love You, Yes I Do.”
As Cincinnati historian Brian Powers points out in this excellent series on King Records, Bull Moose Jackson was unique in his ability to so easily straddle the sweet and the bawdy with equal dexterity. He was a crooner when he wanted to be, turning out sweet love songs that were safe enough to sell in bulk to white audiences. Then he could turn around and do bawdy songs like “I Want a Bow Legged Woman” and “Big Ten Inch Record” (made popular again years later thanks to an Aerosmith cover).
That an artist like Jackson would have come to prominence at King Records seems appropriate to me. King was a product of Cincinnati, a city that straddles the northern and southern United States in a way no other American city does. Sitting on the banks of the Ohio River, just across from Kentucky, it’s a country town with a city infrastructure. It’s country with brick, as I’ve heard people say about New Orleans. By 1949, King was producing a wide variety of records from a huge arsenal of artists (they even released a record of Yiddish recordings). But that was the year that King made its play for the music of the future; rhythm and blues, which soon become rock and roll.
No song exemplifies that shift more than “Why Don’t You Haul Off an Love Me?” Not simply because Bull Moose Jackson recorded it, but because he had a hit with a jumpy blues version of a song that had been number one on the country charts just two months earlier.
That version of the song was by Wayne Raney, and it made such a splash that it ended the 16 week number one reign of Hank Williams’s classic “Lovesick Blues.”
Raney, a country musician from Arkansas who would later who established his wealth with a harmonica business, co-wrote the song. It hit the top of the Country and Western charts in September. As it was climbing, King Records owner Syd Nathan saw its potential to crossover to another market, and handed it off to Bull Moose Jackson. Jackson’s version, dotted with handclaps and driven by Jackson’s powerful saxophone, was also a smash, soaring to the top of the newly named Rhythm and Blues charts (it was called Race Records until June of that year), and by late November the song was parked firmly at number two behind Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”
Within two months, King Records had scored two of the biggest hits of 1949 with the same song, recorded by two different artists in two different genres that most people in the music business felt had nothing to do with each other. That Syd Nathan saw the potential of the song in two markets marks him as a savvy producer. But it also shows someone who saw the direction American music was about to take. 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.
King Records would become not just a Cincinnati institution, but pioneers in the development of rock and roll and soul music, with both King and subsidiary Federal Records recording artists such as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Billy Ward and the Dominoes, Little Willie John, and a young singer named James Brown, who would score a hit with his very first recording for Federal, “Please, Please, Please.”
What’s interesting to me about the two recordings of “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me?” is the same thing that interests me about both Bull Moose Jackson and the city of Cincinnati. It’s that ability to take the coin and show you both sides simultaneously. As rock and roll developed, you can hear the influences it carried from both versions of the song. It would retain the rhythm and drive of the Bull Moose Jackson version, but it would soon center itself in the guitar like the Raney version. I can hear Ray Charles in this just as easily as I can hear Johnny Cash.
Bull Moose Jackson is an underappreciated figure in the birth of rock and roll. But then again, so is Cincinnati, and so is King Records. Years before Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Little Richard “invented” rock and roll, artists like Bull Moose Jackson, Wynonie Harris and Fats Domino were laying the groundwork. It wasn’t new music when it exploded in the mid-1950’s. It was something that had grown right up out of the ground, distinct to a few different cities that knew how to cultivate it. A sound that was there all along, once we trained our ears to hear it.
POSTSCRIPT: Cincinnati has a fascinating history that I couldn’t fully get into here, and part of that history is its place on the Underground Railroad. In 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened up in Cincinnati. Like a lot of nonprofits, it’s currently struggling with the COVID-19 crisis. If you’d like to help support their important work, consider donating here.