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Excerpt: 'King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records'

Chapter Ten: Record Man
Ralph Bass and Federal Records

Ralph Bass (1911--97) was one of the true characters among the record producers, A&R men, and talent scouts who came to the fore in the 1940s and 1950s. Although he didn't try to pass for something he wasn't, there was always something different about Ralph Bass, a white man of mixed Jewish-Italian ancestry who crossed the color line and never looked back. Bass was a jive-talking wheeler-dealer, half artist and half con artist. He was a consummate record man.

Bass was full of himself, but seemed to know it, in a way that made his shtick (and self-promotion) more entertaining than irritating. He moved freely between two parallel worlds at a time in America when relatively few people crossed the racial divide. Bass was a pioneering record man, but he was proudest of the role he played in bringing blacks and whites closer together through a common love for music.

As the main man at Federal Records (King's most successful subsidiary label) from 1951 to 1958, Ralph Bass was at the helm for some of the era's greatest hit records, cut by some of the most influential musicians and singers of the 1950s. Among the great artists associated with Bass at Federal are James Brown, Hank Ballard, Billy Ward & the Dominoes, Little Esther, the Platters, Big Jay McNeely, and Jimmy Witherspoon.

Bass also dabbled as a songwriter, usually in a collaborative situation. Among the songs in his modest catalog are such little-remembered numbers as "Be Bop Wino," "The Last of The Good Rocking Men," and "Quiet Dad." He was more successful with his publishing company, Armo Music, which published the songs of numerous top writers, including Hank Ballard, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, James Brown, Rudy Toombs, Lowman Pauling, Billy Ward, and Ike Turner.

The bulk of this chapter is told through excerpts from a lengthy interview with Ralph Bass conducted April 19, 1984, in Chicago. During the interview, held in his second-floor office above his wife's dance studio on a major South Side street, Bass talked about his career in the record business, touching on such topics as leaving Savoy Records for King, his relationship with Syd Nathan, his "discovery" of James Brown, and the reasons he left King for Chess. Bass's stories were so lovingly tended and told, it seemed a shame to burden them with extra exposition unless absolutely necessary. It's Ralph Bass in his own colorful words.


"My job at King was to supply the talent and produce them. I practically lived on the road. I lived out of the trunk of my car. That's when I found all those artists for King.

"The James Brown story is a classic. I was in Atlanta. There were two radio stations in Atlanta then that played black music, both of them on Auburn Avenue. One of them had Zenas Sears, who was a big DJ at the time. He was just a great guy, a beautiful cat.

"We had our own branch there and I came there and the branch manager said, 'Hey, I've got a dub I want you to hear.' He played this dub for me and I said, 'Who the hell is that?' I had never heard anything like that. It was so different. My theory as a producer has always been: Let me find someone who's different and at least I have a chance. It might backfire, but at least I have a chance of being different, novel. That was my basic philosophy about finding talent and producing them.

"Anyway, I said to the branch manager, 'Where is this group?' It was a group called the Flames. He said they were in Macon. I got one of the black DJs to go with me and we drove down to Macon. In those days, when you were looking for someone, you went to the nearest radio station. So we went to the station and I introduced myself and told them what I was there for. I said, 'Where can I reach these Flames? Where can I find them?'

"And the cat at the radio station said, 'They are managed by a cat named Clint Brantley,' and he gave me a phone number. In those days, the smaller cities and towns in the deep south always had some black cat who controlled everything across the tracks, you might say. He usually had a big nightclub. Brantley was that guy in Macon.

"Well, they gave me a number for Brantley's home. I called and talked to his wife and told her who I was. His wife said, 'You stay right there and I'll get ahold of him and he'll call you right back.' And he did. I told him who I was. And then he said to me — this is like a James Bond story — 'Now at eight o'clock you park your car in front of this barbershop, which is right across the street from the railroad station. When the lights go on and the blinds go up and down, after they go down, you come in.' Now Macon was one of those towns ... well, an out-of-town white cat could be in trouble in those days.

"At about half past seven we drove to this barbershop and parked the car right in front. Everything was dark. There was nothing open, nothing. The street was absolutely deserted. All of a sudden, the lights went on, the blinds went up and down. I said to the DJ who was with me, 'Hey, man, if I don't come out, if some thing happens to me, come and get me.' I didn't know what in the hell was happening; it was so strange.

"So I went in and told him who I was. I explained that I'd heard a dub and I was very interested. With that, he pulls out a contract that Leonard Chess [of Chess Records] had sent him. When I worked for Chess later on, Leonard told me he'd never forgive me for taking James Brown away from him. Leonard was supposed to have come down, but the weather was pretty bad. He couldn't make it because of the weather.

"I had about three hundred dollars in my pocket, so I took two hundred out and said, 'Clint, this is for you. Two hundred.' Those days, baby, you know, two hundred was a lot of money. I said, 'But I want to sign them now.' He said, 'We've got a deal.' So he got on the phone and he had the cats come down, the group. I didn't know who the lead singer was. All I knew was that I wanted the group just the way they sang on the dub.

"I told Clint, 'Now I want to be sure this is the same group before I sign my name on the contract. Where can I hear them?' Clint said, 'Well, I've got this big club. You come over tonight.'

"So we went to the club, and James started to sing. Now he must have seen an act named Big Jay McNeely. Big Jay had a thing where he would get on his back and he'd crawl all over the floor on his back blowing his horn, his saxophone. James must have seen this because James got on the floor and did the same thing, crawling from table to table singing this song I'd heard on the dub, which was 'Please, Please, Please.' It was fantastic. So I signed the contract, gave them a copy, and said I'd be in touch.

"I got back to Cincinnati and called the group. I told them to come up to Cincinnati at a certain time and I'd put them up in a hotel. They came up and we did the session. I left right after the session [to go back on the road]. I was in St. Louis when Henry Glover and Andy Gibson, an arranger for King, came in on their way to Hot Springs, Arkansas.

"They said, 'You better call the old man [Nathan] right away. He told us when we found you to tell you you were fired.' And I said, 'Fired? For what? What did I do this time?' They just said, 'You'd better call.' So I did.

"Nathan got on the phone and said, 'What are you on? What kind of shit are you on?' See, everybody in those days thought I was smoking pot because of the crazy things I did. Henry Glover said to me once, 'I'm black, but I won't go in some of the joints you do.' So, I had to be on some shit, right?

"Anyway, Nathan says, 'You gotta be on something, because how could anybody in his right mind record the worst piece of shit I ever heard in my life? Sounds like someone stuttering on a record, all he says is one word.'

"I said, 'Oh, you must mean the Flames and "Please, Please, Please."'

"Nathan said, 'You took all my money, spent all that money bringing that group up here, giving that man two hundred dollars.' I said, 'Is that right? Tell you what, Syd. Put it out in Atlanta.' I had the dub with me and every place I used to go, I'd play it for a bunch of broads and they'd go crazy. They'd go out of their minds. So I knew what I had.

"Nathan said, 'I'm gonna put it out all over the country, not just Atlanta, to show you what a piece of shit this is.' I said, 'Fine. And if it doesn't sell, you don't have to fire me. I quit.' I was so sure of this damn thing. Well, of course, the rest is history.

"Now the aftermath of the story is that Syd never discussed how great this record was and what a great job I had done. He could never do that. But I was in the studio there one day, waiting for somebody to do a session. Syd came blustering in with some other cat who was evidently not in the record business. I could hear it all because of Syd's loud voice. Syd said to the guy, 'You know why we're so successful here at King Records? Because we don't do things like anybody else. I'm gonna show you what I'm talking about.' And with that, he went to the record player and put on a copy of 'Please, Please, Please.'"

From King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records by Jon Hartley Fox. Copyright 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Published by University of Illinois Press. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Jon Hartley Fox