[30 March 2012]
Numero Group provide an undeniably crucial role in preserving music’s cultural history. The music industry is littered with musicians who have been chewed up and spat out, their music no longer economically viably to whatever (and it is usually the majors) label owns the rights. Rather than pass back the masters to the artists concerned (and there is little or no incentive or imperative for them to do so), recordings on old reel to reel, 4-track, 8-track and every other conceivable recording format were left to rot in vaults, recorded over or simply thrown away. Such a waste represents a phenomenal wealth of cultural capital that is locked away, inaccessible or simply lost forever.
Thank goodness then, for people like Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley, the founders of Numero. More than just crate-diggers, Numero employ forensic like detective work in tracking down long forgotten musics and musicians, and as they state are, ‘devoted to dragging brilliant recordings…out of unwarranted obscurity.’ These recording are nearly always recovered from local labels, studios, radio stations and so on, providing an insight into the cultural and social history of local music production and activity.
Their latest release is a 3-CD/4-LP set of the work of Cleveland, Ohio, soul bandleader Lou Ragland. Born in 1942, it was at school that Ragland first picked up an instrument, a tuba, before quickly moving to clarinet and then saxophone. But it would be his voice, a classic, smooth, clean soul voice that would be is major trump card.
His first band, Lou Ragland and the Bandmasters, became regulars on the Cleveland scene and backed the early incarnation of the O’Jays, then known as the Mascots. With his first band dissolving and an unsuccessful attempt at hitting the big time in Los Angeles behind him, Ragland, like so many musicians, worked a number of jobs in between making and playing music. It would be this continual hopping form one project to another that would eventually lead to Ragland becoming musician, road manager, producer, engineer and label owner in the process getting a grounding in nearly all aspects of the music industry. But his desire to nurture and record black musicians in his home town would remain a constant desire.
It was during this time, 1967, that Ragland was to cut, arguably, his most notable song although it would take a number of years after its release for it to gain traction. “I Travel Alone” from which this compilation takes its name, is a slice of Northern Soul heaven. Crisp drumming, humming bass and Ragland’s high vocal line, accompanied by backing vocals, breaking for the brass section, the tempo never lets up for the 2.33” duration. It is easy to understand how this was picked up a few years later by the Northern Soul scene forming in England.
The compilation is chronological in order, which allows the listener to follow the development of Ragland and his involvement in the Cleveland scene. This explains the two late ‘60s soul Volcanic Eruption tracks that Ragland sings on, before we get onto Ragland’s most successful band, Hot Chocolate. Immediately “Good for the Gander” points to Lou’s new direction. A slab of funk psychedelia with soul harmonies, this is a classic of its type, guaranteed to get the dance floor packed. Hot Chocolate consisted of drummer Tony Roberson and bassist George Pickett with Ragland on guitar and vocals and would cut one album, Hot Chocolate reproduced here in its entirety along with a live album Live From Agency (by which time the group had swelled to a quintet).
The album would consist of a roster of local artists playing on it to complement the trio. It is an upbeat, extremely tight album of funk, soul and psychedelia. One can only speculate that with the sheer number of other funk groups around at this time, Hot Chocolate were overlooked or mismanaged, as the music they produced absolutely stands up. Perhaps it was the misfortune of seeing the British Hot Chocolate hit the mainstream first that derailed them. Whatever the reason, the album deserved to be heard by more than the initial 1000 pressing could offer.
The last outing for the renamed Lou Ragland and Hot Chocolate, “Since You Said You’d Be Mine” provides a fitting finale. This slick, tightly produced song is a classic soul track and was picked up by Warners for release. Again however, the music industry curse kissed Ragland full on the lips and the single disappeared from view.
Ragland would remain undaunted by such setbacks. He returned with more soul standards, showing off his prowess as a consummate songwriter, with Seven Miles High tracks “What Should I Do” and “Understand Each Other” and with his quartet Wildfire’s “Tend To Your Business”, another huge wall of wah wah slapped bass funk, falsetto vocals party music.
The final album in this release would be Ragland’s swan song to Cleveland and appropriately would feature the great and good of the city’s musical firmament. Understand Each Other is both social and spiritual in its outlook. The title track follows Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” musically and lyrically. Pleading vocals against a soul backing ask us to “understand each other”. Ragland’s voice, which deserves to be spoken of as one of the great soul voices, really comes through here. The album was recorded while Ragland flirted with Islam. Its themes of love (“What’s Happened to the Feeling”), redemption (“It’s Got to Change”) and spirituality (“The Next World”) can be understood in this context. Having said that, it is obvious that Lou Ragland was plain and simple a master songwriter.
Ragland now plays with the famous Ink Spots in Las Vegas, but it is this collection, which chronicles and pays homage to his time honing his skills in the fertile grounds of Cleveland, that makes you think he never really did travel alone. This substantial release should ensure that continues to be the case.