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When We Were Kings
From 1943 to 1971, King Records and its ex-pawnshop clerk/boxing promoter president, Syd Nathan (1904-1968), revolutionized the process in which music was recorded, manufactured, distributed and promoted.
The Cincinnati label recorded some of the most popular acts of the day -- including such Rhythm & Blues artists as the Platters, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, James Brown, Roy Brown, Otis Williams, Billy Ward & the Dominoes, the Five Royals, Tiny Bradshaw, Charles Brown, Champion Jack Dupree and Country artists such as Grandpa Jones, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas, the Delmore Bothers, Merle Travis, Hank Penny and literally hundreds more.
Since its sale in 1971, King producers Henry Glover and Ralph Bass and owner Nathan have been widely acknowledged as pioneers, with inductions into both the Country and the Rock & Roll halls of fame.
As an influence on the music industry, King was the first independent recording company to control all aspects of its business. Even the major labels of the time jobbed out some part of their business, but all of King's recording, graphic design, manufacturing and distribution was accomplished at one address -- 1540 Brewster Ave. in Evanston.
Many examples exist -- such as Bill Doggett's million-seller "Honky-Tonk" -- of a 45 single being cut on a Monday and in Chicago record stores on Wednesday of the same week. A song that at the time would have only been a local or regional hit for other independent labels became national million-sellers for King. Few in the industry could act as fast to demand as King, an asset that gave the label an unparalleled competitive edge and served as the model for other companies to follow.
On a larger scale, the history of King Records was intertwined in the social history of the United States. Much of the music it issued played a critical role in the changing attitudes toward race relations, as young, white music fans discovered the Rhythm & Blues artists who were being covered by the more popular white artists of the day, whether it was Pat Boone, Peggy Lee or Elvis.
There were also many instances concerning new attitudes toward race within the company. By 1947, King was fully integrated, making it one of the earliest, if not the first, large companies in Cincinnati to do so. From shipping docks and field promotion offices to office managers and producers, King Records benefited from its liberal hiring practices through shared life experiences.
Those ideas led to the open exchange of musical ideas and created a style of music than can best be described as "proto Rock & Roll." It wasn't just the influence of Country music on R&B or Jazz on Country, but it was the actual physical presence of a white Bluegrass guitarist playing on a Hank Ballard cut or a black Jazz bassist featured on an early Grandpa Jones tune.
Nowhere was this more evident than with black producer Henry Glover and his work with many of King's early Country artists such as the Delmore Brothers. The band's "Hillbilly Boogie" was equal parts traditional, "old-timey" Country and Glover's Jazz and Blues background. Early Delmore Brothers hits like "Blues Stay Away From Me" were the perfect melding of "walking style" Blues and the tight harmonies of early Country artists like the Carter Family. It was "Rock & Roll" in everything but the name and Elvis' hips.
The fact that much of this blend might sound commonplace today simply underscores the impact of King Records on the contemporary music industry. Numerous sources exist to chart the successes of King, but sadly much of the company's "personal" history has been lost through fading memories or the passing of some of the industry’s most colorful characters.
Still, King's impact is so deep you don't have to "hear" James Brown's "Please, Please, Please" to "see" King's influence on American pop culture.
One in a Million
Pam Myers was a late starter in the world of musical theater. As a kid, she liked to sing in church, and that's where her creative energies were expended.
As a high school upperclassman, she took voice lessons at the Conservatory of Music, which was merging into the University of Cincinnati to become the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).
Her family thought that perhaps a career in music education was the likely path for the spunky singer, so she entered CCM in the fall of 1965. That fall she was cast in a musical, a show called Riverwind.
"There was no musical theater program at CCM then," Myers recalls. But her voice teacher, Helen Laird, had gone to college with some fellows who operated a summer stock theater in New Hampshire. Laird recognized Myers' talent and arranged for an apprenticeship at the theater in the summer of 1966.
"I think we had to do eight shows in one summer," Myers says. "We did all the dirty work."
It was a hard summer, but she began to see the possibility of a career in the musical theater. Back at CCM, her mentor, Helen Laird, had laid the foundation for a musical theater program at CCM, and Myers quickly enrolled.
"When I came back to school, I really got into it," she says.
Before graduating, Myers had starred as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, as Bloody Mary in South Pacific and as Annie in Annie Get Your Gun. She extended her experience with more summer stock theater work in New Hampshire and on the Showboat Majestic in Cincinnati.
As CCM's first musical theater graduate in 1969, Myers headed off to New York City. She performed in an original review, Weigh In -- Way Out, at the famed cabaret Upstairs at the Downstairs.
And then her really big break happened. She made her Broadway debut in the original production of Stephen Sondheim's Company. Sondheim listened to Myers' powerful but innocent-sounding voice, then wrote for her the featured number "Another Hundred People." When the show opened in April 1970, Myers was immediately noticed.
"He made (the song) up for me," she remembers. "Actually, my character wasn't in the show. They kind of came up with that character."
Myers played a young woman arriving in the big city, coming onto the street from a subway station full of excitement and terror.
She received a Tony Award nomination for her performance and a place in the history books for her association with one of Broadway's greatest creative minds.
"It means a lot to me," she says of her connection with Sondheim. "I have tried very hard to keep the integrity of the song. I don't overdo it, and I don't do any other version of it except that one, in that key and in that arrangement. I try to be very meticulous about it. That means a lot to him."
Myers performed in Company for 18 months, including a six-month run in Los Angeles and San Francisco. After that she was in another Broadway show, The Selling of the President, which didn't do so well. In fact, she calls it "a big flop," but in her typically sunny, optimistic way she recalls that she met some great people doing it.
Myers' next big break gave her more national exposure, plus a chance to grow professionally. In the late 1970s, she was cast as the "girlfriend" on the syndicated TV series, Sha Na Na. "It was a whole different way of performing," she says. "We did four seasons. Every May, June and July we'd rehearse and tape these shows. It was a lot of intense work, but I learned a lot."
"For a singer," she says, laughing, "I've done a lot of comedy."
The producers of Sha Na Na didn't know she was a singer. "I was hired to do comedy," she says. "They had no clue. That was pretty funny. They were just completely separate from that (her musical theater career)."
Her TV work made her more versatile, although Myers notes that producers and directors sometimes find her harder to peg as a result. Is she a singer or a comic?
"It can work against you," she says. "I'm finding that more and more as I get older." When people have asked her if she does stand-up -- as in stand-up comedy -- she tells them, "I stand up and sing!"
For another decade Myers worked in regional theaters and had featured roles in films and TV shows (including Major Dad, Alice and St. Elsewhere). But then she chose to locate permanently back in Cincinnati.
She's continued to find good work from this base, appearing with the Long Beach Civic Light Opera as Dot in Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and repeating the role in Portland. She's done Annie Get Your Gun in Atlanta and Gypsy in Austin. Two years ago her performance as Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (a co-production with the St. Louis Repertory Theater, where the show's successful run continued) won her much praise, including recognition in the 1998 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards as outstanding actress and outstanding performer in a musical. Earlier this year she produced and sang in her three-woman show Love & Shrimp at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati.
Despite her induction as the first actor in the CEA Hall of Fame ("This made me feel a little bit old for a minute," she confesses, "but then I said, well, heck, it's a pretty young hall of fame!"), the fiery redhead with a quick smile and a contagious laugh is not resting on her laurels.
"Right now, I'm starting over," she says. "I'm looking to get back into the mainstream of musical theater."
Myers worries that she's spent a bit too much time away from New York City, so she's been there twice this year doing cabaret performances and working to re-connect with producers and directors. "I still have a lot of performing to do, I think."
That's on top of a lot she's already done. When Myers is back on Broadway again, Cincinnatians will look at her proudly and think that she may have arrived as part of "Another Hundred People," but now she's one in a million.
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