The legacy of Black music in Cincinnati, as told by Alicia Reece

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Hamilton County Commission Vice President Alicia Reece, the founder of the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame, speaks during the inaugural Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame, Saturday, July 24, 2021, at The Andrew J Brady Music Center in the Downtown neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Hamilton County Commission Vice President Alicia Reece, the founder of the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame, speaks during the inaugural Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame, Saturday, July 24, 2021, at The Andrew J Brady Music Center in the Downtown neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio.

When considering African Americans' impact on the music industry, Detroit and Memphis are typically regarded as quintessential cities for Black artistry.

The lesser-known story is that of Cincinnati, whose rust-belt streets gave way to the creation of doo-wop, funk and other sounds that dominated the mid-20th century.

Perhaps the legacy of Black music in Cincinnati has been overlooked in the past. But Hamilton County Commission Vice President Alicia Reece seeks to change the narrative with the creation of the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame, which had its grand unveiling to the public last month.

News: These artists will be inducted into the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame next month

The Walk of Fame, founded by Reece, is located outside the Andrew J. Brady Music Center, with Hollywood-style stars honoring musicians with connections to Hamilton County. The 2022 honorees include Penny Ford, techno-funk band Midnight Star, hip hop producer Hi-Tek and jazz musician Wilbert Longmire.

The 2021 inductees included Bootsy Collins, Charles Fold, The Isley Brothers and Otis Williams.

Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame: These artists will be inducted next month

"I saw a need from what I was hearing from people," Reece said. "We have a rich history of music and particularly Black music that I had learned just from growing up and being around it and my parents. And I said, wait a minute, this has to be shared with the world."

Reece's musical background

Barbara Howard, Reece's late mother, was a national recording artist, and her father owned an independent record label. Her parents met through music, and she grew up hearing many of their stories and those of other Black musicians, such as Bootsy Collins.

"I would hear these stories growing up, and we used to say, man, all these stories are great, but the stories can't stop with just in my head. These stories need to be shared to the world," Reece said.

Why representation matters

Reece, 51, is the first woman and African American to win city, state and county races in Hamilton County. She’s served as the Cincinnati vice mayor, state representative and councilwoman. She is also the first African American woman to serve as deputy director of tourism in Ohio.

She said she wanted to use the knowledge and experience she's amassed over nearly 20 years of public service to honor the unsung contributions of Black musicians from Cincinnati.

Reece seeks to share her story as a Black woman in local legislature and the stories of these musicians to inspire future generations.

"As an African American woman, myself, being the founder and developer of a Black music walk of fame, that story in itself is, I'm hoping to be, inspiring to other Black girls to say that you can do development. You can have an idea like this. You can contribute," Reece said.

Why the Walk of Fame is where it is

The location of the walk of fame also underscores this message of empowerment. The interactive display is near the new Andrew J. Brady Music Center, but the significance of the location does not end there.

Reece explained that many African Americans escaping chattel slavery would migrate from Kentucky to Ohio, seeking freedom. They would cross the Ohio River and settle in the area now known as The Banks.

Although many Black people eventually moved to the West End, The Banks is still an important site for Black history in Cincinnati and was the ideal location for the walk of fame, Reece said.

What you can expect when visiting the Walk of Fame

Reece describes the Walk of Fame as a "music corridor." This interactive tourist attraction features QR codes that viewers can scan to learn more about the artists and listen to their music in real-time. There are also LED screens that display facts about the legacy of Black music in Hamilton County.

The Walk of Fame is a nearly $20 million publicly and privately funded project. She explained that this decision was made to make the tourist attraction free and accessible to the public.

Reece said she doesn't want money to be a barrier preventing people from experiencing the rich history of Black music in Cincinnati.

"I wanted it to be Disney World. I want it to be interactive. I wanted it to be fun. And I wanted it to be something that people around the globe want to come and see from a tourism perspective," Reece said.

Each star on the Walk of Fame is sponsored by Procter & Gamble. For an artist to be considered for the Walk of Fame, someone must submit an official nomination form, and the nominee must meet the criteria listed on the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame website.

History of Black music in the Queen City

The legacy of Black music in Cincinnati can be traced back to the 1920s with blues singer Mamie Smith.

Smith was born in Cincinnati in 1883 and is known for her song "Crazy Blues," which is widely considered the first blues song on record and represents the emergence of Black female singers into popular music culture.

Mamie Smith: The Queen of the Blues was from the Queen City

The topic of Queen City music history cannot be discussed, however, without analyzing the contributions of King Records. King Records was started in 1943 by Syd Nathan as a "hillbilly" record label that became known for producing "race" music. "Race music" is an antiquated term for music made by and for African Americans.

King Records did what very few labels attempted to do at that time: Merge Black and white audiences. While it never garnered the reputation of other labels like Motown, King Record's impact on the American music industry has deep roots.

Billy Davis, the former guitar player for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, recorded for King Records. This independent label also released Charlie Feathers' cut “One Hand Loose” and R&B singer Little Willie John's “Fever.” According to The New York Times, King is where “The Twist” was first recorded by Ballard and where Wynonie Harris made “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

In January 1956, James Brown and his vocal group The Famous Flames signed to Federal Records, a subsidiary of King Records that was started in 1950 to release mainly "race" records. During his time at King, Brown would release several chart-topping hits such as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," "I've Got The Feeling," "Out of Sight" and "Cold Sweat," which many music experts credit as the song that created funk as a music genre.

Brown's funky sound would influence several bands in and out of Ohio, including Sly & The Family Stone, Funkadelic and The Ohio Players. By 1967, Brown was the superstar of King Records with multiple top 10 records, a Grammy award and appearances in film and television.

Research librarian and music historian, Brian Powers, is somewhat of a local expert on King Records, having published "A King Records Scrapbook" for the Cincinnati Public Library in 2008. When discussing the significance of Brown's contributions to King Records, Powers said, "There was other labels that were doing some R&B here in Cincinnati, not just King, but King was obviously doing it on such a, on a big scale, on a national level and all those James Brown hits, you know, you realize all that stuff that you kind of think of in the late sixties as probably his most influential music and his biggest hits were done while he was at King Records."

Not all of the influential Black music coming out of Cincinnati was produced by King Records. Even some of the Walk of Fame inductees, such as Penny Ford and the Isley Brothers, were not affiliated with the label.

Reece said that while King Records did create a lot of well-known artists, there was no shortage of talent coming out of Cincinnati from all directions. While the attraction honors artists affiliated with King Records, it also honors other artists, songwriters, groups and producers who were not signed to the label.

According to Reece, at one time, Cincinnati was known for having more independent record labels than most cities in the country. Reece's primary goal is to educate the public on Cincinnati's contributions to the music industry. She said her connection to music, her over 20 years of public service, and her identity as a Black woman were the catalysts for this project.

"Music is in the fiber and the foundation of my family and who I am," Reece said.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Alicia Reece Cincinnati: Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame