The Community Builder
By Suzanne Buzek
Pickett Slater Harrington bows to the King—King Records, that is. As an associate in the Eigel Center for Community Engaged Learning, Harrington is always looking for new initiatives to improve and enrich local Cincinnati neighborhoods. Perhaps none strikes closer to home—literally— than the center’s project to commemorate a Cincinnati and Evanston legacy: King Records.
“Evanston has been looking to build and strengthen the community,” Slater Harington says. “They looked at this great asset—this legacy of King Records and wanted to revive that legacy and give it its proper place, its due credit, but also do it in a way that strengthens the local community.”
It is well-kept secret, but just a stone’s throw from Xavier’s campus, at 1540 Brewster Avenue, sits an old brown-and-white building where Syd Nathan and his employees recorded, created, packaged and distributed records that would help shape musical tastes across the country. Equally important, during a time of racial segregation in America, Nathan, a Jewish businessman, brought together African-American and white musicians and other employees in an environment that allowed all to work together and flourish.
“King Records is known for featuring artists such as the Stanley Brothers, Cowboy Copas, James Brown and Bootsy Collins—to name just a few,” Slater Harrington says. “Bootsy Collins—the honorary chair of the board—tells his story about how he hung around and waited to get into the studio. He practiced and practiced, and they finally let him in. A lot of great music came from King.”
King Records occupied the space on Brewster Avenue from 1944 until Nathan’s death in 1968. When Nathan died, his family sold the company to former executive Hal Neely, who just five months afterwards merged King Records with Nashville’s Starday Records. Since then, the building has served as home to a number of less-glamorous business enterprises, none hinting at the rich cultural and musical history the structure represents.
“The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized the space on Brewster Avenue with an historical marker, but we wanted to make King into a living and breathing presence in our time,” says Harrington. “We thought of a museum to honor this, and then we went a little further, maybe a museum was too static.”
After much brainstorming and forming of partnerships for this project, plans are now in the works to create King Studios, a brand new facility, consisting of three parts: a memorial space for King Records, a living and breathing entity—a live recording studio—and a community arts center, on the 3500 block of Montgomery Road.
Slater Harrington says the project, on which he works with other Eigel Center associates, Evanston locals and multiple other partners, epitomizes everything the Eigel Center aims to do. Working with community organizing and community development, Harrington’s interactions with Evanston and Cincinnati locals helped provide a sense of what King meant—and continues to mean—to the community.
“I hear stories of how the community of Evanston sees King Records,” he says. “People have talked to me about when they would dumpster dive right outside the studio as kids because all these old records were just thrown out the back, and they would get it and listen to what was going on and what music was hot at the time. They remember seeing James Brown walking out of the studio. They have fond memories of King.”
All efforts contributed to King Studios are comprehensive and take into consideration all aspects of the community—education, health care, local business, crime reduction and recreation—not just the art and music.
“One of the great things I think this facility does is that it not only revives the artistic atmosphere in the neighborhood, but it has the possibility of strengthening the business district corridor,” he says.
King Studios is not Slater Harrington’s only project with the Eigel Center by any means. He is currently working with the Paddock Hills community in its efforts to sustain its unique hillsides and to avoid erosion and environmental damage. He is also an associate for STRIVE, a regional initiative to create a more effective world-class education system. Regardless of the project, comprehensive work and collaboration are present and a necessity. This mentality of placing the community’s efforts first is evident in the King Studios project.
“We’re not the repositories of everything King,” Harrington explains. “We have so many people together to make this happen, so everyone is a part of it. Folks have been working on this long before we have, and hopefully we can connect with them and see the work they’ve done as a possibility of being connected to this work. That’s the only way something like this can truly take hold and really happen.”