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Posts tagged ‘soul music’

Eccentric Soul


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The World needs Swamp Dogg!


Jerry Williams is Swamp Dogg, one of the most unsung recording artists and producers in the last half-century. All had a great description, calling Swamp Dogg “Raunchy, satirical, political, and profane … one of the great cult figures of 20th century American music.” I’d rank Swamp Dogg up there with great soul and jazz artists/producers like Curtis Mayfield and Quincy Jones. Really, this guy is that good and his recording output that voluminous. But Swamp Dogg was also more than a bit unconventional when it came to the topics of some of his own songs, not to mention his outrageous and hilarious album covers. Based on his stage name, the funny album covers, and his “I don’t give a shit, I’ll record whatever I like” attitude, I think he got a bum rap as “too weird”, which pigeonholed him and forced his music underground. It was unlikely, for instance, that you’d find Swamp Dogg records for sale in suburban shopping malls in the 1970s or 80s.


But the scarcity of Swamp Dogg albums has been rectified in recent years thanks to compilations of his music released on CD by Kent and Ace Records, as well as reissues on his own label, SDEG (Swamp Dogg Entertainment Group). And just this year there have been several more vintage Swamp Dogg albums reissued on the Alive Records label. All of those recordings show the world what they’ve been missing; an artist with the ability to write catchy tunes, but also songs that addressed political, racial, societal, and environmental issues. Ahead of his time, or too damn timely? The soul version of Frank Zappa? Whatever the case, it’s never too late to discover this amazing artist, a man who is still alive and well and recording music in his seventies. The world needs Swamp Dogg!



My introduction to Swamp Dogg was a vinyl copy of I’m Not Selling Out, I’m Buying In that I discovered in the early 1980s. I couldn’t resist an album cover like this one; the mighty Swamp Dogg, dressed head-to-toe in white (complete with top hat and cane), and standing on top of a table in a boardroom, surrounded by grumpy looking white businessmen. The songs had gloriously goofy titles such as “The Love We Got Ain’t Worth Two Dead Flies”, “Low Friends in High Places”, and “California is Drowning and I Live Down By the River.” But beneath those silly song titles, were songs with grooves and hooks. Soul music with some kick to it. From that point on, I was hooked; a Swamp Dogg fan for life.


Williams may have gained initial fame in the soul and R&B, but he acknowledges a debt to country music too. In an interview with NPR he talked about how much country music influenced him in his youth, when he listened to the radio at night: “Black music didn’t start ’til 10 at night until 4 in the morning and I was in bed by then … if you strip my tracks, take away all the horns and guitar licks, what you have is a country song.”  In addition to his own recordings, Williams has produced singles and entire albums for the likes of Gary “US” Bonds, Johnny Paycheck, Doris Duke, Irma Thomas, Z.Z. Hill, and Arthur Conley. The album he wrote and produced for Duke, I’m A Loser, is widely considered by “Deep Soul” fans to be one of the very finest albums of that genre ever recorded. Another one of his productions, In Between Tears by Irma Thomas, was finally released on CD earlier this year. This 1973 recording was considered somewhat of a radical departure for the soul singer at the time, offering songs with more lyrical bite than she had previously recorded. I haven’t heard that album yet, but I have a copy on order.



Last month I picked up one of the new reissues, the very first album as Swamp Dogg, 1970’s Total Destruction To Your Mind.  If I had to compare his style to anyone, the closest I can think of is Joe Tex, particularly the way that Swamp Dogg fuses elements of melodic yet funky soul and country in his songs. In addition to the original compositions, Swamp Dogg co-wrote three songs with Gary “US” Bonds, recorded two Joe South tunes (including the classic “Redneck”) and also one by Bobby Goldsboro. Seemingly still suffering an identity crisis, Swamp Dogg credited Jerry Williams for the piano parts on the album. Besides his keyboard skills, and organ contributions from Paul Hornsby (any relation to Bruce?), some lively horn arrangements by the Maconites had to the funky groove factor. Many soul fans rate this album as a classic and I think the praise is justified.


Another album that was reissued on CD this year was the equally adventurous Rat On, first released back in 1971. And check out that cover! The album was recorded at TK Studios in Florida and featured guests such as Betty Wright, Al Kooper, Lonnie Mack and a young employee at TK named Harry Wayne Casey, a guy who would gain fame a few years later as leader of his own band, KC & the Sunshine Band. Rat On included several Swamp Dogg originals, along with covers of songs by Joe South, Mickey Newbury, and even the Bee Gees. The most controversial song on the album was “God Bless America For What?”, a provocative tune that reportedly landed Swamp Dogg on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List.”



It’s All Good, is a 24-track singles collection released by Kent/Ace Records that offers highlights of Swamp Dogg’s solo recording career from 1963 to 1989. If you want to immerse yourself in all facets of the Swamp Dogg experience, this is the one to start with. You get a total of 75 minutes of funky soul music, all of it garnished and spiced by Swamp Dogg’s trademark wit and wisdom. Another compilation, the 24-track Blame It On the Dog, was also released by Kent/Ace Records, and is billed as “The Swamp Dogg Anthology” but it consists mostly of artists that Williams produced, performing songs that he wrote, along with a few Swamp Dogg originals. The lineup includes artists such as Z.Z. Hill, Ruth Brown, Pattie Labelle & The Bluebelles, The Drifters, and Gary “US” Bonds.



Terry Callier

One of the many sad losses in the music world this past year was the passing of Terry Callier on October 28. Callier was a tremendously talented singer, guitarist and songwriter, one who recorded several woefully underappreciated albums in the 1970s, totally disappeared in the 80s, and then made an unexpected comeback in the 90s.


Part of the reason for Terry Callier’s lack of success was that his sound was not so easy to categorize. He stared out as a folk singer with a heavy blues foundation, but later garnished his songs with jazz, soul, and pop flavorings. While the songs on Callier’s albums covered a variety of styles, what held it all together and elevated each tune to a higher plateau was Callier’s magnificent voice, one that ranged from achingly lonesome to soul-stirring, depending on the mood of the song. Lyrically, Callier’s songs touched on familiar themes of love and loss, but also politics, war, and racial equality. These were not your typical light, fluffy pop tunes. Phrases such as “contemplative”, “romantic” and “sophisticated” have been used to describe Callier’s music. Others have tossed around terms like “quietly soulful” and “classical folk.” See what I mean? It’s damn hard to categorize Terry Callier. Just listen to the songs and savor them.  


His 1969 debut album for Vanguard, The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier, was a blend of acoustic blues and folk. It was a mellow, understated album, but also quite hypnotic — just Callier singing and playing acoustic guitar, accompanied by a bass player. But it impressed enough listeners that Callier made a bit of a name for himself and was later able to continue his recording career in the 70s, releasing delightful and genre-bending (if not blending) albums like What Color is Love, Fire on Ice, and Occasional Rain. That latter one was perhaps my favorite Terry Callier album, one that included the mesmerizing song “Ordinary Joe.”



Alas, none of Callier’s albums sold very well, and by 1983 he pretty much retired from the music business and started working as a computer programmer to support his daughter. But in the early-90s he experienced an unlikely resurgence in popularity after club DJ’s in the UK starting spinning his old records again. After a few guest appearances on recordings by Massive Attack and Beth Orton, Callier was inspired to stage a comeback of his own, and in 1998 he released the critically acclaimed Timepeace album. After another album, Lifetime in 1999, he released Speak Your Peace in 2002, an album that included a thrilling duet with Paul Weller on the song “Brother to Brother.”

 Terry Callier has sadly passed away, but most of his albums are still in print, waiting to be discovered by discerning fans of quality music, whether your preference is jazz, pop, or soul.


Billy Preston

Billy Preston was a keyboard player of great renown. He was dubbed “The Fifth Beatle” due to his musical contributions on classic Beatle albums such as Abbey Road, Let it Be, and The Beatles (The White Album). He also recorded and toured with the Rolling Stones, and played on Sam Cooke’s legendary Night Beat album. In addition to his studio work with many other artists, Preston recorded several solo albums and had huge hits with “Will it Go Round in Circles”, “Nothing from Nothing”, “Outa-Space”, and “Space Race.” His duet with Syreeta, “With You I’m Born Again,” was also a big seller, though by that time he drifting more toward the middle of the pop road and full-on religious fervor.


While Preston is most famous for his association with the Beatles and the Stones, and his run of hits in the 1970s, he also recorded some wonderful instrumental albums in the 1960s. I bought one collection last year, Retrospective, that features seventeen fabulously funky tracks, highlighted by Preston’s lively organ playing. The songs on Retrospective were culled from two albums that Preston recorded for the Vee-Jay label in 1965 and 1966 (The Most Exciting Organ Ever and Hymns From the Organ). Among the album’s highlights are covers of “My Girl”, “Shotgun”, “Stop in the Name of Love”, “Downtown”, “Eight Days a Week” and “King of the Road.” And his version of “How Great Thou Art” is transformed into an extended funktified masterpiece. One odd thing about this album, however, is the cover photo that the label chose: its shows Preston sporting his famously full-on afro from the mid-70s, as opposed to the shorter 60s haircut he sported when these songs were actually recorded. By contrast, The Complete Vee-Jay Recordings shows Preston delightfully banging away on his organ at the time of these recordings, when he only 19 years old! Preston, in fact, was quite the child prodigy. In 1962, when he was 16, Preston was hired by Little Richard to be in his touring band. By then Preston had already honed his keyboard skills playing for famous gospel acts such as Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland. And even before he started recording, at the age of twelve, he played the part of the young W.C. Handy in the film St. Louis Blues, which also starred Nat King Cole.


Among the many classic Apple Records recordings that were remastered and re-released last year(including albums by the Beatles and Badfinger) was Preston’s Encouraging Words. Produced by his Beatle-buddy George Harrison, the album was originally released in 1970. Preston wrote most of the songs on the album, but he also performed covers of Harrison songs such as “My Sweet Lord” and “All Things Must Past.” Unlike his previous all-instrumental albums, this one has Preston singing on all the songs. One review I read called this “one of the best soul albums of all time.” That’s pretty high praise, and while this album is very good, I’m not sure if it ranks quite that high on the list of soul classics.


One of the last albums that Preston recorded before he died in 2006 was I Believe in My Soul, an ambitious multi-artist project produced by Joe Henry in 2005. I was amazed to find a copy of this CD when I was in Kuala Lumpur last month. Needless to say, I snatched it out of the bin quickly. Preston shared billing on this album with four other veteran soul acts: Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, and Ann Peebles. Even with five different artists, the result was a surprisingly strong and cohesive album, highlighted by gems such as Toussaint’s steaming instrumental version of “Turvalon,” a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here with You,” by Ann Peebles, a cover of the Tom Jans gem “Loving Arms” by Irma Thomas, and Mavis Staples doing the Curtis Mayfield’s classic “Keep on Pushing”. Definitely an album worth looking for.

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