Syd Nathan was an old-school music-business entrepreneur who launched the careers of James Brown, Hank Ballard and other R&B greats on his King Records label and its affiliates. A frustrated musician who yearned to be a jazz drummer, he instead transformed the musical landscape with his King Records Company. He went from owning a record store in downtown Cincinnati in the late Thirties to launching his own recording studio and label in the Forties. Over the next quarter century, King, Federal, DeLuxe and other Nathan-owned labels issued nearly 500 hit singles in a cross-section of genres.
Sydney Nathan was born on April 27, 1904, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He suffered from poor eyesight and asthma and spent his early adult years working in real estate, property development, photo finishing, pawn shops and jewelry stores. He then began running a radio and phonograph store with his sister and brother-in-law, Dorothy and Saul Halper. He began selling records there and wound up opening Syd’s Record Shop, which became Cincinnati’s most successful record store.
In 1943, with financial assistance from his family and friend, Nathan started King Records in an old icehouse on Brewster Avenue in Cincinnati. The first records on the King label appeared that year. He aimed to reach otherwise untapped niche markets, providing country-music records to whites who’d relocated to the Midwest from Appalachia and rhythm & blues records to black urban dwellers who’d moved up from the South. In the process of working with black R&B and white country artists, Nathan helped effect a cross-pollination of the two worlds, thereby helping lay the groundwork for the musical hybrid known as rock and roll. The record labels launched or acquired by Nathan included King, Queen, DeLuxe, Federal, Glory, Bethlehem, Audio Lab and Beltone.
Nathan’s talent scouts scoured the industrial North and rural South for blues, R&B, jazz and country musicians. In addition to Hank Ballard, whose R&B smash “Work with Me Annie” helped give the Cincinnati-based enterprise a national profile, the roster of artists who recorded for King and its affiliates included Little Willie John, Billy Ward and the Dominos, Bill Doggett, Earl Bostic, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Wynonie Harris, Bullmoose Jackson, the Delmore Brothers, Moon Mullican, Grandpa Jones and Cowboy Copas. The biggest star of all was James Brown, who was brought to King by A&R man Ralph Bass in early 1956. As Brown told writer Gerri Hirshey decades later, “I would be telling a lie if I said I would be a world star without the help of men like Mr. Nathan. He was the first one willing to take a chance on me.” King hit its commercial peak in 1963, when Brown’s Live at the Apollo, Vol. I rose to Number Two on the album charts.
Unfortunately, Nathan suffered from heart problems, and he died on March 5, 1968. Syd Nathan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.