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Posts tagged ‘Hi Records’

Eccentric Soul

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Over the past decade the Numero Group has been reissuing lost or obscure recordings from the 1960s and 1970s as part of their “Eccentric Soul” series. These CDs are a virtual goldmine of rare soul music treasures. Most of fans of Soul and R&B are familiar with the more popular labels that released great music in the 60s and 70s, such as Motown/Tamla, Stax, Atlantic, Chess, and even smaller imprints such as Hi Records, Okeh, Malaco, and Loma. But during this golden era of music there were hundreds of smaller labels scattered around the USA that released music that rivaled the big companies in terms of quality. Many of these regional labels, however, couldn’t get their records publicized due to lack of airplay, distribution limitations, or financial problems. Thankfully, however, the dedicated music addicts at Numero Group are resurrecting these lost jewels.

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One of those regional labels was the South Florida-based Deep City. Numero has released two separate compilations from that label: Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label, and Eccentric Soul: Outskirts of Deep City. Holy Sunshine State, where were they hiding these amazing songs? I grew up in Florida, but had never heard of the Deep City label, or most of the artists on these thrilling compilations. There are a few recognizable names on here, such as Betty Wright and Paul Kelly, but the rest are mainly “no-name” artists who cut a few singles and disappeared for the most part. The material on the first volume comes from 1964-68, and there is a distinct Motown vibe to a lot of the songs on there. The final track, “Darling I’ll Go” by Moovers, even sounds like a classic Four Tops tune. The second volume includes two tunes by Clarence Reid, an underrated artist who later gained fame as a funky and nasty costumed character known as Blowfly. Those antics aside, Reid was a very talented songwriter and the song credits on this compilation offers proof: he wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 20 songs. Most of the songs are culled from the period 1966-1971, along with one tune from 1963.

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The very first compilation I bought in this series was Eccentric Soul: A Red, Black & Green Production. Oh my, I don’t know where to begin in praising this CD. I bought the excellent Father’s Children CD that the Numero Group reissued and was so impressed with that one that I ordered this collection of tunes from RBG (Red, Black & Green) Productions, the people behind the Father’s Children recording. Actually, it’s pretty much one man, Robert Williams, who was the genius behind this stuff. He produced all 19 tracks on this CD compilation, recorded between 1972 and 1975, including the closing track, the dreamy “Linda Movement” by Father’s Children. Everything I love about 70s soul can be found here, from funky, jazzy jams to soulful crooning, and pop bliss. One group, East Coast Connection, has a track called “Summer in the Parks” that is a brilliant tribute/medley to popular tunes by Kool & the Gang, Isaac Hayes, Earth Wind & Fire, and Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers.

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Another highlight from Numero is their Eccentric Soul: Prix Label collection. The Prix label was headquartered in Columbus, Ohio and most of these tracks were recorded at Harmonic Sounds studios in Columbus between 1969 and 1973. The CD booklet includes this cool tidbit about some of the demo recordings on this collection: “Nearly 30 years after the label closed its doors, a mysterious box of tapes turned up at an estate sale in Columbus, Originally thought to be the lost Prix masters, it turned out instead to be dozens of demos, rehearsals, and few finished songs recorded during the rime of Harmonic Sounds. The tape boxes were, for the most part, unmarked, presenting a puzzle that would require much time and effort to solve.” Thankfully, the folks at Numero Group DID put in the time and effort to figure out who was singing what and the result is this fabulous CD. As with all Numero Group reissues, you get a very detailed booklet with the history of the label and the recording artists, plus a bunch of very groovy old photos. The booklet also includes a 2011 “Postscript” with additional information on the mysterious origins of Penny & the Quarters, the group that was featured on the soundtrack to the film Blue Valentine.

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Another of my favorites in this series is Eccentric Soul: The Nickel & Penny Labels. These labels were founded by a guy named Richard Pegue. I’d never heard of him before, but he qualifies as a certifiable musical genius. Pegue was a songwriter, producer, DJ, musician, and the creator of these two labels. Based in Chicago, his labels released some brilliant soul music between 1967 and 1973. But, as the liner notes tell us, most of these singles went out of print only weeks after they were released, and most of these artists never recorded full albums of their own. Pegue wrote 16 of the 24 tracks on this collection, and the quality is very, very high. Some songs just jump out at you, perfect examples of magical soul bliss. Really, if you played these songs for someone and told them that they were long-long tracks from the Motown vaults, they would be lavishing endless praise on this album. But because they were put out on obscure labels in the late 1960s and early 70s, no one seemed to pay much attention at the time, nor is this timeless music getting much publicity even after the 2011 Numero Group reissue.

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For a double whammy of soul delights, check out Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation. The Chicago-based Twinight (and Twilight) label is best known for being the home of soul legend Syl Johnson, who later recorded for Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records label in Memphis. This 2-CD collection highlights the “other” recordings that Twinight put out from 1967-1972. With 40 tracks, there is something for everyone, including a few torrid instrumentals. As for the “Lunar Rotation” part of this album title, the booklet inside this collection explains that this was the late night period on local radio stations when airplay was given to “high school talent show winners, major label cast offs, minor label upgrades, and girlfriends with decent voices … the DJ’s call it lunar rotation, broadcast lingo for radio limbo, all-night airplay for 45s with no chance of making the charts, a nice time for a disc jockey to make good on that fifty dollar handshake.” The booklet goes into detail about the label’s history and the recording acts represented on this CD. There are not any Syl Johnson songs on this compilation, but the essay in the booklet explains his crucial importance to the label, not only as the label’s sole hit-maker, but its foundation. When Syl Johnson left the label in 1972, the label not only lost their main source of income, but it also severed their ability to attract new talent. It’s a shame that the label didn’t enjoy more success. Certainly, the songs on this compilation are good as anything else you’d hear on airwaves at the time.

And those are just a few of the compilations that Numero Group has released thus far. I’m currently listening to Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label, and just ordered the newest release in the series, Eccentric Soul: The Forte Label. Based on the excellent track history of what the Numero Group has been releasing, I’m going to be immersed in yet more soul nirvana.

 

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Soul Music Legend: George Jackson

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One of the legends of soul music, George Jackson, passed away on Monday this week. If you never heard of George Jackson, that’s not really surprising. He earned most of his fame as a songwriter during his long career in the music business and released only a handful of songs in the 1960s. But many of his old recordings were unearthed and released for the very first time in recent years and reveal that in addition to being an ace songwriter, he was also an outstanding singer and performer.

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Reading online obituaries, it’s not clear how old George Jackson was; Wikipedia and All Music list him as 78, while the New York Times and several other wire services gave his age as 68. However, most sources give his birthdate as 1936, so if that’s the case he’d certainly have been in his late seventies. But what is undisputed is how talented this man was. While he was signed to Fame Records in the 1960s, Jackson only released two singles, but he spent most of time at that label as a songwriter and producer.

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Whether you realize it or not, if you are over the age of 35 you’ve probably heard some of the songs that George Jackson wrote, most notably “Minnie Skirt Minnie,” “One Bad Apple” (a hit by the Osmonds), “Old Time Rock and Roll” (a huge hit for Bob Seger), and “The Only Way is Up” (a hit for the electro/new wave act Yaz). He also wrote hit songs for Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Z.Z. Hill, Candi Staton, and other artists, most of who recorded for the Fame and Atlantic labels. As a singer, he recorded more than 100 solo tracks for Fame, but strangely, those recordings were never released and sat in the archives for nearly 40 years until they were finally put on various CD compilations by the UK reissue label Ace/Kent.

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The first release of vintage George Jackson material came in 2009 with In Memphis: 1972-1977, a CD containing 21 tracks, some of which were recorded for the legendary Hi Records label. But, like his 60s output for Fame, these excellent songs also sat on the shelf for several decades. As a music fan, I’m both shocked and saddened that music of this quality went unheard for so many years. But luckily the music junkies at Kent Records realized what a goldmine they had, and continued to release more George Jackson compilations. The second in their series, released in 2011, was Don’t Count Me Out: The Fame Recordings, Volume 1. This collection contained 24 tunes, all of them delicious soul gems. Last year Kent followed that one up with another compilation, Let the Best Man Win: The Fame Recordings, Volume 2. Like the previous set, this one also contained 24 songs rescued from the vaults, every single one of them an expertly crafted soul gem. Honestly, the quality of these recordings is extremely high and the tunes are thrilling. But what elevates them all to a higher level is Jackson’s scintillating vocals and soulful performance. He sounds a bit like Percy Sledge with some Tyrone Davis thrown in the mix; heartfelt southern soul with an irresistible backwoods country vibe. I’m telling you, this guy should be ranked up there with Otis Redding, James Carr, Wilson Pickett, and other great soul vocalists of the era. He was that outstanding. Obviously, he had the rep as a great songwriter, but hearing him sing these songs it’s painfully obvious that he was also a first-rate singer. All the more shameful that these songs were never released and promoted when they were first recorded.

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In addition to those solo collections, a few more George Jackson songs can be found on recently issued compilations such as Hall of Fame: Rare and Unissued Gems from the Fame Vaults and Lost Soul Gems from Sounds of Memphis, both put together by the fine folks at Kent/Ace. Lost Soul Gems has two wonderful Jackson tunes, one of which is a rough mid-80s demo, just Jackson on piano and singing, an achingly beautiful tune titled “It’s Hard to Say No.” Once again, I find it mind boggling to think that music this special was shelved for so long. Did someone once say that the people running record companies were idiots? Well, here’s the proof.

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For an interesting interview with George Jackson, check out this link:

http://www.soulexpress.net/georgejackson_tribute.htm

Sadly, George Jackson wasn’t the only soul music legend to pass away in recent months. Last month we lost Bobby Smith, one of the main vocalists for the Spinners. He’d been singing with Spinners since their days with Motown in the 1960s, and of course during their hit run with Atlantic in the 70s. In February we lost soul-jazz pioneer Donald Byrd, the unheralded singer-guitarist Lou Bond (check out his self-titled CD that was recently reissued by Light in the Attic, the same label that revived the career of Rodriguez, the singer/star of the “Searching for Sugar Man” documentary), Cecil Womack (brother of Bobby, and member of Womack & Womack with his wife Linda, who was Sam Cooke’s daughter!), two members of the Temptations (Richard Street and Damon Harris), and the oldest sister in the Staple Singlers, Cleotha Staples. Back in January, Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner of the Ohio Players also passed away.

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Syl Johnson’s Soul

One of the more interesting — and extravagant — reissues in music last year was Complete Mythology by Syl Johnson, a collection quite unlike no other: six vinyl albums and four CDs, plus a 52-page booklet, all housed inside a lavish hard-bound box. This was such an impressive package that it was nominated for two Grammy Awards this past year: in the strangely re-named “Best Historical Album” category, and for “Best Album Notes.”

I had heard Syl Johnson before — most notably his 1969 smash “Is It Because I’m Black” and a few songs on some Hi Records compilations — but other than those few tunes, I was woefully ignorant about his other recordings. I wasn’t keen to splurge on the mammoth boxed set, mainly because I have absolutely no use for vinyl records at this point in my life, so I settled for The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records, a two-CD compilation.

 

There are times, listening to this set, that you could swear you were hearing Al Green, or his long-lost soul twin. But that’s not such a far-fetched illusion: Willie Mitchell produced both singers for the famous Hi Records label and his trademark “sound” infects those recordings. But such a musical infection is a glorious thing in this case, and when you are finished listening to the music on these discs, you are left to wonder why Syl Johnson was never a bigger success. Of course, the Al Green comparisons are inevitable, but it would be unfair to call Syl Johnson a “poor man’s Al Green” or some sort of second-rate soul singer. He’s definitely got his own style and when he is able to slip out of the Willie Mitchell production shadows, his vocals take on a grittier, bluesier edge, but without losing their soulful luster.

 

The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records, as its title indicates, covers Syl Johnson’s entire tenure at the label; four albums and 45 tracks. Not surprisingly, since it isn’t just a “Best of” collection, it does contain a bit of fluff; some songs are slathered with too much disco-era gloss, the cover of “Stand By Me” doesn’t yield anything special, and hearing yet another medley of Otis Redding hits was not such a hot idea either. While it may require a bit of wading through the musical mud to get to the goodies, it’s worth the effort. For the most part this collection serves as a fine introduction to a woefully neglected singer.

Syl Johnson’s music has also been very influential among the Hip-Hop community in recent years. “Is It Because I’m Black” may have been his biggest chart hit, but several other of his compositions, most especially his 1967 song “Different Strokes,” have been sampled numerous times by artists such as Jay Z and Kanye West, Run DMC, and Wu-Tang Clan. In some cases, Syl Johnson had to sue certain artists in order to get paid for those samples. Those early songs, however, are not to be found on the Hi Records compilation. For those goodies, you’ll have to either get another compilation, Twilight and Twinight, or splurge for the boxed set.

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