Filed Under Music

Women at King Records: They Too Shaped Popular Music in Postwar America

King Records was one of the independent recording studios that created Rock and Roll, and it was one of the city’s only racially integrated businesses. Songs by male artists like Hank Ballard, Little Willie John, Wynonie Harris, and the Delmore Brothers are well-known, but few people know that many women artists in genres like country and rhythm and blues that combined to create rock and roll recorded at King.

Some of the women who recorded at King were well-known stars who had hits at King; others had hits before or after they recorded at King, and some r performed primarily on radio. You may or may not know all the specific records they made, but their music was essential to the formation of popular music and popular culture.

One of King Records’ stars was Lula Reed (1926-2008), who grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio, and sang in her church choir. She came to King as a secular rhythm and Blues singer because she was the winner of a contest sponsored by King to become the vocalist in Sonny Thompson’s band. Her biggest hit was Henry Glover’s “I’ll Drown in My Own Tears” in 1952. Clearly, she was popular: chosen Girl of the Year by the Southwest Association of Disc Jockeys as well as Favorite Pin-Up Girl by GI’s at Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Country and Rockabilly singer Bonnie Lou (1924-2015) performed on radio and, later, television in addition to recording at King Records. Her mother sang and played the piano, and her grandmother, originally from Switzerland, yodeled for the cows to come home every evening. But Bonnie Lou (Mary Joan Kath) also had formal lessons in violin and guitar in her small community of Carlock, Illinois. She began performing on WJBC, Bloomington, when she was 11, and before she was 20 she joined WLW’s Midwestern Hayride where she played with country stars Chet Adkins, Homer and Jethro, and the Girls of the Golden West. At King she had hits in 1953 with “Tennessee Wig Walk” and “Seven Lonely Days, and in 1958 with a duet with Rusty York, “La Dee Dah.” She made a smooth transition from radio to television, appearing on Cincinnati WLWT Midwestern Hayride, the Paul Dixon Show, and the Ruth Lyons’ 50-50 Club.

Other women artists are less widely-known but are also part of fabric of late-twentieth-century popular music created at King Records. For example, the Jewels (Sandra Bears, Grace Ruffin, Margie Clark, and Martha High) were back-up singers for James Brown, in 1965 and 66. Brown produced their 1967 song, This is my Story, on King’s subsidiary Federal. But even as teenagers this group from Washington, DC, originally called the Impalas, had performed earlier at Roosevelt High School and Zion AME Church. After school they frequently dropped by their friend, Bo Diddley’s basement recording studio. They had a hit, Opportunity, in 1964 on Dimension Records founded by Don Kirshner and Al Nevins.

Sisters Bertha, Irene, and Opal Amburgey were primarily radio singers who performed as part of the Coon Creek Girls on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and as the Hoot Owl Holler Girls, Martha, Minnie, and Mattie on WSB in Atlanta. Growing up in Neon, Kentucky during the Depression, the sisters had practiced singing and playing while pretending the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling was a microphone. Their mother bartered chickens and their father, who built the supports for coal mines, sold some of his tools to buy their instruments. In 1951, using their original stage name, the Sunshine Sisters, they recorded Tennessee Memories and You Can’t Live With’em at King. Irene later became a gospel singer on the Grand Ole Opry, known for her most famous song Satisfied. Sister Mattie moved to Memphis where she recorded several Rock-a-Billy songs at Sun Records and became a successful songwriter whose songs included, Eddy Arnold’s hit Lonely Again and Lay Some Happiness on Me by Dean Martin.

Nearly 200 women recorded at King. You can find out more about them from Sue Plummer’s database compiled from Michel Ruppli’s King Records discography.

Images

King Records Building
King Records Building Source: Halper Family King Studios Photograph Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Xavier University, 2023.
The Jewels
The Jewels
Sunshine Sisters
Sunshine Sisters
Lula Reed
Lula Reed
Bonnie Lou
Bonnie Lou

Location

1540 Brewster Avenue, Cincinnati OH 45207

Metadata

Dr. Christine Anderson, “Women at King Records: They Too Shaped Popular Music in Postwar America,” Cincinnati Sites and Stories, accessed June 15, 2024, https://stories.cincinnatipreservation.org/items/show/219.