From launching the machine James Brown to resurrecting the career of Hank Williams, the Queen City has a notably rich music history. Let's take a look at a personal (but informed) ranking of the top 25 greatest artists in the music chronicles of Cincinnati:
25. Sacred Mushroom
Sacred Mushroom lived together in a Cincinnati home called "Mushroom House" that "sheltered a small tribe." Escaping from "the rich-blundering-narrow-minded-owner-of-the-non-essential-producing-factory," Sacred Mushroom built a strong local underground fanbase in the late 60s. They are known for their strong psychedelic blues rock (powered by the Goshorn brothers), the self-titled album they left behind in 1969, and little else. The band's dissolution was left to mystery, and original copies of this album are highly sought-after by psych collectors around the world. There are a few of these scare LPs that still float around town (though Shake It Records re-released the LP in 2013). Fun fact: the grainy picture above is the only known photo of the whole band.
24. Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods
Led by keyboardist Robert "Bo" Donaldson, Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods formed in Cincinnati in 1965. It wasn't until the '70s when they hit it big, scoring a string of five Billboard Top 100 hits from 1972-75, including the #15 hit "Who Do You Think You Are" and the smash #1 hit "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," a vaguely anti-Vietnam pop song which sold 3.5 million copies in 1974. Their self-titled album from that year also hit the Top 100. Although they were largely pigeonholed as a novelty pop band (they toured with The Osmonds), their pop styled also crossed over into clever but simplistic garage rock. Although "Billy Don't Be a Hero" was ranked one of the worst songs of the 1970s by the Rolling Stone, they did have considerable chart success with catchy, radio-friendly music pop songs that capture the whimsical aural aesthetics of the mid-1970s.
Alternative band WHY? was formed in 2004 by rapper and singer Yoni Wolf, the son of a Rabbi who began his music career with a 4-track found in his father's synagogue. A long-time Cincinnati collaborator in the late '90d and early '00s, Wolf graduated from DAAP and pursued music. Working with his older brother Josiah, WHY? began releasing albums that mashed together indie rock and pop sensibilities with a hip hop delivery and characteristically vivid lyrics. Released under the label Anticon (which Wolf himself founded in 1998), their celebrated 2008 album Alopecia has brought them into the national indie scene. WHY? followed up with critically acclaimed albums Eskimo Snow, Mumps, etc., Moh Lhean, and AOKOHIO.
22. Jack Lawrence
Hailing from just over the river in Covington, KY, Lawrence founded the Cincinnati-based neo-garage rock band The Greenhornes, and has become a bass guitarist in high-demand ever since. His technical ability and unique bass styling has attracted praise from multiple music journalists, leading to tenures as the bassist for The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs, and City and Colour, all while collaborating frequently on Jack White solo recordings. A mainstay in the alt- rock scene over the last 25 years, he has also collaborated with Wanda Jackson, Loretta Lynn, Blanche, Karen O, Glim Spanky, Karen Elson, and contributed to soundtracks for Spike Jonze and Marc Forster films. Oh, and he is credited with playing at least 12 different instruments. Safe to say, he's been busy.
21. 24-Carat Black
24-Carat Black was a mere blip in the 1970s soul and funk scene at the time, but have come to be one of the most sampled groups of the era. Their only output, Ghetto: Misfortune's Wealth, released in 1973, was a concept album centered around the tough life in inner city Cincinnati. The LP divided into eight "synopses," which each tackle a different theme of poverty. Only teenagers at the time, the bandmembers were led by famed Stax producer Dale Warren and their work went largely unnoticed. Since then, their work has been sampled as breakbeats by an ever-growing list of hip hop artists, including Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, Pusha-T, Naughty by Nature, Eric B, Digable Planets, and Metro Boomin.
20. The Casinos
One of the premier male doo-wop groups of the 1960s, The Casinos were discovered by local WSAI disc jockey Tom Dooley while playing a Cincinnati club. They recorded their early singles at Syd Nathan's King Records, studio home to famed musicians such as James Brown, the Ink Spots, The Platters, and Little Willie John. Although recorded at King Records, they released their music on Cincinnati's Fraternity Records, most notably the doo-wop national Top 10 hit "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye," which peaked at #6 in 1967 (even though the style was considered passé by the time). The Casinos have reformed with various lineups and still perform today led by singer Ken Brady.
19. The Deele
The Deele were an R&B quintent that achieve peak success in the mid-to-late '80s with their two hit singles: "Body Talk" (1984) and "Two Occasions" (1987), their signature song. Formed in Cincinnati in 1981 out of the remnants of another Cincinnati-based R&B group, Pure Essence, and were comprised of local studio musicians. They were led by Kenny Edmonds, but you probably know of him as Babyface, the 11-time Grammy Winner and producer/writer of 26 R&B number ones. Popular in the post-disco phase, The Deele had a string of hits that propelled them to national stardom, but disbanded after Babyface left to pursue a solo career, and eventually found LaFace Records (e.g. Outkast, T.I., Usher, P!nk).
18. Ass Ponys
Ass Ponys formed as an alt-country band in 1988 as a heavy-touring act based out of Cincinnati. On their founding, bandleader Chuch Cleaver states: "Our first show was in Newport, KY at a now defunct club called The Tophat. We made $15.00 cash." Playing regularly at Clifton's Sudsy Malone's garnered a local following and some commercial successes, regional hits "Kung Fu Reference," "Little Bastards," and "Astronaut." They then embarked on a national tour with Pavement and signed to major label A&M in 1993. Ranging from contemporary rock to grunge to country to Americana, they released six studio albums acclaimed by critics in the 1990s before disbanding in 2005, four years after Clever formed another longtime Cincinnati band Wussy.
17. H-bomb Ferguson
H-Bomb Ferguson was a key figure in the early development of Rock 'n Roll, performing as a jump blues singer based out of Cincinnati. After a stint with Savoy Records in New York, Ferguson signed with King Records in 1957, and produced upbeat blues singles with loud vocals, hammered piano, and aggressive tenor saxophone. His recordings for King focused more on crazed piano stylings, which earned him the reputation around Cincinnati for "Thelonius Monk-style blues." On stage, he adopted a flamboyant wearing different colored wigs and a manic disposition, which was off-putting to some audiences during the time. "The wigs are there to shake them out of their troubles... If anyone in the audience is so wound up that they can't hear me, then they can damn sure see me and... it opens up their minds to the music, to the blues."
16. Gloria Jones
"The Queen of Northern Soul" was born in Cincinnati in 1945 but first found her success to overseas audiences in the UK. She was the first artist to record the hit song "Tainted Love." In the studio, she was an in-demand songwriter for Motown, writing for The Commodores (see #15), The Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross (solo), and The Jackson 5. She was often called upon to sing backup on many of Motown's biggest songs. In 1969, she met and became romantically involved with Marc Bolan (yes, she was driving the car during the fateful crash) and was a keyboardist and backup vocalist in the glam-rock group T. Rex. Fun fact: Jones starred in a run of the Broadway musical Hair with Meat Loaf, Jennifer Warnes, and Dobie Gray.
15. Sheldon Reynolds
Reynolds' guitar dominated the American funk scene, especially in the 1980s, with stints as a vocalist and guitarist of two dominant forces in the genre: Earth, Wind & Fire and The Commodores. His R&B-funk crossover guitar style began at the age of 12, when we was labeled a prodigy. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Reynolds helped found the Dayton-based band Sun, embarking on tours for much of the 1970s. As if this wasn't enough, he played on records by Maurice White and Philip Bailey (both solo), Smokey Robinson, Barbara Weathers, and Chicago. And he was married to Janie Hendrix (Jimi Hendrix's sister).
14. Doris Day
While she is perhaps known more for her box office success playing Calamity Jane and starring in Hitchcock films, let's not forget that this Cincinnati-born artist had two number one hits, released almost 100 charting singles, and completed 29 studio albums over her as one of the most acclaimed big band singers of the 20th century. Her career was launched by the 1945 #1 recordings of "Sentimental Journey" (selling 5+ million copies, an unheard of amount at the time) and "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time," and she had a prolific vocal career that lasted until 1967. She recorded at least 650 songs in her career during an age when musicians were limited to a few singles a year. In 2001 at the age of 89, she even hit the Top 10 in the UK with My Heart, an album of original material.
13. George Russell
Russell is cited as one of the most prominent developers of modern music theory, but he got his start as a singer in a Cincinnati Episcopal church and on the Ohio Riverboats, making his stage with Fats Waller at the age of 7, dueting "Moon Over Miami." His career turned to jazz piano, where he composed innovative albums, including the seminal work Jazz in the Space Age, which featured jazz greats such as Ernie Royal, David Baker, Hal McKusick, and Bill Evans. In 1953, while working at Macy's as a salesclerk, he published his landmark book Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which popularized the Lydian scale with re-conceptualized tonal harmony on a jazz scale. One of the first ever music theories to come from the genre, this launched a revolution in jazz, and modal playing based on post-bop aesthetic became crucial for foundational records, including Milestones and Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme and Ascension by John Coltrane.
12. Pure Prairie League
The country rock outfit Pure Prairie League initially formed in Waverly, Ohio, but completed their lineup with a cast of Cincinnati regulars in the Clifton neighborhood in the late 1960s. They first attracted attention as the house band of New Dilly's Pub in the Mt. Adams area of Cincinnati, which led to the group being signed to RCA Records. It was their second album Bustin' Out that exploded them onto the national scene. Due to the surprise hit single "Amie," which peaked in the top 40 a full three years after its original release in 1972, the band became a major touring attraction. Pure Prairie League had many lineup changes and other lesser commercial successes with a total of 11 full-length efforts. Members of the band would collaborate in various iterations with key figures in '70s country rock, including Don Felder of The Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Poco, Little Feat, Loggins & Messina, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and American Flyer, cementing these Cincinnati rockers with a respected presence in the genre.
11. Marty Balin
Born as Martyn Jerel Buchwald into a Jewish household in Cincinnati, Balin is credited as the primary founder of the famed San Francisco psychedlic rock outfit Jefferson Airplane, serving as a songwriter and co-lead vocalists along with Grace Slick. He contributed well-known compositions in the band's discography, including "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Second," "Today," "Plastic Fantastic Lover," and "Volunteers." Balin performed with the band during their most famous iteration from 1965-1971, including performing at the Monterrey Pop Festival and Woodstock. He would later join the offshoot Jefferson Starship, where he wrote the #3 hit "Miracles."
10. Scott Walker
Walker was British by blood, but he was born in Hamilton, Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati, and his family moved to the city a few years later. His music success was strongest back in his native country, where he established himself as a pop idol in the trio The Walker Brothers (although none of them were actual brothers). In 1967, he embarked upon a solo career and shifted his style to avant-garde baroque pop. His first four solo albums (Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3, &Scott 4) are highly regarded today as challenging, nuanced, and beautiful pop music, and they have earned Walker a cult following. He died in 2019, and the BBC noted Walker as "one of the most enigmatic and influential figures in rock history."
9. Phillip Paul
Phillip Paul is one of the most widely-regarded studio drummers of the 20th century. After a stint in Harlem playing with artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, and Bud Powell, Paul cut his chops as the house drummer at the Cotton Club in Newport, Kentucky, the top nightclub for the black community at the time. Paul became the studio drummer for King Records, playing drums on over 350 known recordings. You've probably heard his beats before, playing with Hank Ballard, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, Nat Adderley, Jimmy Smith, and Herbie Mann. That's him on the kit on iconic hits such as "The Twist" by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, "Hide Away" by Freddie King, and "Fever" by Little Willie John. Paul was recognized for his massive contribution to music history by the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, and has played music in the Cincinnati scene for over 50 years.
8. Mamie Smith
The oldest entry on this list, Mamie Smith, known as "The Queen of the Blues" holds quite the distinction: she is the first ever black artist (male or female) to ever record a blues song with vocals. In 1920, "Crazy Blues" became her first success. Selling over one million copies within the year, the recordIng Is considered the first ever "hit" by a black artist and the first ever hit in the blues genre. It also catalyzed the introduction of "race records" into the mainstream. Due to Mamie Smith's success, record companies began making records to sell to black audiences for the first time and seeking out black female talent.
7. Adrian Belew
Hailing from Covington, KY, Adrian Belew is a multi-instrumentalist mainly known for his guitar work as the frontman of progressive rock act King Crimson from 1981 to 2013. But that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as Belew's guitar style is deemed innovative, impressionistic, and non-reliant on conventional instrumental tones nor chord patterns. Besides his prolific career as a solo artist (over 20 albums for Atlantic and Island Records and a 1989 Top 10 hit with "Oh Daddy"), he has been a noted session player and touring guitarist, playing for the likes of David Bowie, Paul Simon, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Crash Test Dummies, Cyndi Lauper, Nine Inch Nails, Tom Tom Club and The Bears (another Cincinnati-based project).
6. Walk the Moon
Lead singer Nicholas Petricca founded Walk the Moon as an '80s alternative pop project in Cincinnati while a student at Kenyon College in 2006. Their debut album was record Soap Floats Recording Studio in Cincinnati, which had overnight success after the blowup of "Anna Sun," propelled by the music video shot in one-take at the Mockbee in Over-the-Rhine. They were immediately signed to a major label (RCA) for their second album, noted for its iconic retro synth-pop sound. Their biggest hit to-date, "Shut Up and Dance," shot straight to #4 on the Billboard Top 100 in 2014. Today, they are regarded as one of the top indie pop touring acts and they show no signs of stopping.
5. Afghan Whigs
Greg Dulli founded The Black Republicans after dropping out of University of Cincinnati, which turned into The Afghan Whigs. The band capitalized on the success of the grunge movement in the early '90s, but it was the soul and R&B sounds incorporated into their indie rock act that set them apart. John Curley sharp bass notes has been noted in punctuating the band's strong low end sound. They are known for their dark aesthetic, using black humor on topics such as drug addiction, sexuality and suicidal to create provocative songs. After amassing a major following in Cincinnati, they were signed to major labels Sub-Pop (the second band based outside of the Northwest U.S. to be signed to their roster), Elektra, and Columbia, and have released eight albums to date. They flourished under Sub-Pop, but later became embroiled in a highly-publicized legal battle with Elektra over business dealings. After taking a ten year hiatus, they returned with fresh material, released some of their more popular tunes "Demon In Profile," "Parked Outside," and "Algiers".
4. The J.B.'s
While James Brown recorded in Cincinnati for much of his career, the city can't claim his origins (he was from the South). The Queen City can, however, claim his longtime backing band, The J.B.'s, who were one of the tightest, fiercest band in the history of funk. They were brought together as a rag-tag group of musicians from various funk and soul groups in Cincinnati. While there have been around 30 members of the band in numerous iterations, they were led by trombonist Fred Wesley and saxophonists Maceo Parker and Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis. While supporting Brown on stage and in-studio, the J.B.'s also recorded on their own, sometimes with Brown himself contributing organ or synthesizer. "Pass the Peas," "Gimme Some More," and "Doing It to Death" charted for the band, the latter being a #1 R&B hit that sold over a million copies. They are responsible for bringing hot funk on tracks such as "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," "Soul Power," "Superbad," and for leaving a legacy as one of the best instrumental backing bands to support a legendary frontman.
3. The Isley Brothers
Bringing generations together on the dance floor, the recordings of The Isley Brothers feel timeless. Brothers O'Kelly, Rudolph and Ronald grew up in the Lincoln Heights area of Cincinnati, but eventually settled in the Blue Ash suburb. After three unremarkable singles, their fourth, the 1959 song "Shout" became a major hit, selling over one million copies. They followed it up with the Grammy-winning hit "It's Your Thing." Moving from a vocal trio, the group recruited their three younger brothers to turn the act into a full band. Throughout the late '60s and the '70s, the band had strong commercial success, including scoring a #1 album with The Heat Is On. Between the '50s and the '00s, The Isley Brothers achieve a rare feat of reaching Billboard Hot 100 with new music in 5 different decades, and were honored with induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since then, you've heard them at every wedding you've been to.
2. The National
The National is Cincinnati's indie heartthrob, and arguably the biggest act to emerge from The Queen City in recent years. Singer-songwriter Matt Berninger and bassist Scott Devendorf met in DAAP at University of Cincinnati, eventually combining efforts with the Dessner brothers to create critically-acclaimed indie rock albums Boxer, High Violet, and Sleep Well Beast, which won a Grammy in 2017. The National has come to define and influence the indie rock scene: the throwaway baritone register of Berninger, the wringing pedaled guitar of the Dessners, the creative drum-looping of Bryan Davendorf, and their characteristically somber, thematic lyrics are now considered standard. The success of their albums has landed them on Barack Obama's iPod, and they have become one of the most watched contemporary rock bands of the 21st century. While they are based in New York, The National returns home to Cincinnati frequently to host the Homecoming festival in downtown Cincinnati.
1. Bootsy Collins
Rounding out our list is Bootsy Collins, who is regarded as one the key figures (if not a pillar) in funk music. His storied career began with his older brother, "Catfish," founding The Pacemakers in 1968. They were both recruited to join James Brown in 1970 as their backing band (The J.B.'s), playing on some of his key early hits (see #4). From there, Collins joined the House Guests until he was recruited by George Clinton. The funk rock group Funkadelic, eventually became the supergroup Parliament-Funkadelic (or P-Funk). and Collins performed on some of the biggest funk hits of the day, including "Give Up the Funk," "P-Funk," and "Flashlight." The 1975' album Mothership Connection is considered a masterclass in funk bass playing. He also had success as the leader of Bootsy's Rubber Band and through his solo work, with hits such as "I'd Rather Be With You" and "Bootzilla." Extremely loyal to Cincinnati, he has been the official and unofficial spokesman for many civic organizations from the Cincinnati Bengals and the Art Institute of Cincinnati. Collins' playing has become synonymous with the funk style, but he is also noted for his wild persona, star-shaped bass and extravagant outfits. Retiring from music in 2019, Bootsy Collins has left behind a legacy of excellence in the world of funk.
Some Honorable Mentions:
The Lemon Pipers, who's 1968 hit "Green Tambourine," was arguably the first-ever bubblegum psych tune to reach number one on the Billboard charts.
Doo-Wop vocal group Otis Williams and the Charms, who formed at Withrow High School in 1952 and produced charting hits like "Hearts of Stone" and "Ivory Tower."
Foxy Shazam, an indie rock band founded in 2004, are recent hometown favorites who made it big with their on-stage antics and energetic tracks.
98 Degrees, Cincinnati's favorite guilty pleasure boy band, was founded by hunk Nick Lachey and co. and had a string of hits in the early 2000s.
Mainstay folk act Over-the-Rhine, together since 1989, is a husband and wife duo that have played with Bob Dylan, John Prine, and My Morning Jacket.
18-year-old Barbara Howard was discovered at a local talent show and recorded one highly-regarded soul record before drifting into obscurity, only to be "brought back to life" in recent years.
Listen to the artists and their songs on Spotify: