[6 April 2007]
In 1966, Neal Hemphill, a plumber and one-time gospel group member, set up a recording studio in the basement of his plumbing shop in the Birmingham suburb of Midfield, Alabama. The studio, christened the “Sound of Birmingham”, opened its arms to any local or touring act with a song to sing or jam to groove on; Hemphill’s various imprints—Sound of Birmingham, Hemphill, and Crown LTD—would release many of the songs recorded in the humble underground room. Eventually, Hemphill moved the Sound of Birmingham to its own space (the building next door to his plumbing shop) and even imported a 16-track console that had belonged to Electric Ladyland Studios in New York City. The studio had a top-ten hit on the R&B charts in 1972 with Frederick Knight’s “I’ve Been Lonely for So Long” (released on Stax Records), but the majority of material cut in that Birmingham suburb has remained something of an obscure mystery in the backstreets of soul’s greater consciousness.
The story of Hemphill’s studio is revisited on The Birmingham Sound: The Soul of Neal Hemphill Vol. 1, the first release from the Rabbit Factory, an independent label that promises to preserve “Southern music and culture through the reissue of lost and unknown classics as well as relevant new material.” Like similar reissues of rare R&B recently excavated by other indie labels like the Numero Group and Now-Again, The Birmingham Sound is an under-the-radar score for soul music enthusiasts, a glimpse into a recess of region-specific American music that has gone largely unheard for the better part of three or four decades. The collection draws 23 songs recorded from the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, much of them boasting a raunchy, big-bottomed rhythm section in the vein of the nearby Muscle Shoals sound.
While there’s not a surplus of revelatory soul music on The Birmingham Sound (it is full, by and large, of good but frequently ordinary genre exercises), a handful of tunes—Blue Notes’ “Even If You Got Love”, Eddie Steele’s “Groove Me Mamma”, Knight’s “Here After I’m Hereafter” (what a title!)—sound as though they could be lost Stax or Volt b-sides. Pat Peterman stands out as one of the compilation’s two female vocalists; her two tracks, the uptempo “I Love the Way You Do the Thing You Do” (dig how those horn charts quote Ike and Tina’s version of “Proud Mary”) and the karma-cognizant ballad “You Gonna Reap It”, put her emotionally resonant, if formally limited, voice on display. The disc’s other female singer, Little Lois Barber, drops a few ringers herself: “Thank You Baby” paces swiftly with a Motown gallop, and “Specify” is a spit-shined midtempo plea that succeeds well despite the title’s imperfect fit within the chorus. Other highlights include Bill “Butterbean” Flippo’s “Love Keeps Hanging On”, with its swampy rubber groove; Ralph “Soul” Jackson’s AM radio-ready breeze through “Set Me Free”; and Broadneck’s bluesy vamp “Psychedelic Excursion”, which, while not psychedelic, is a hell of a trip. The Broadneck song is one of those especially rare cases of bizzaralia—the stoned groove, the freewheeling guitar, and vocalist Jimmy Broadneck’s chortle-punctuated impressions of James Brown, vacuum cleaners, and dog howls are wacky and irreverent adlibs to an otherwise pedestrian groove.
Broadneck is far from an undiscovered gem, but it is a fantastic little curiosity, one that you can’t seem to tear yourself away from. The rest of The Birmingham Sound strikes a much more conventional pose, and, with the exception of a few stiff forays into proto-funk territory (Cold Grits’ “Funky Soul”, David Sea’s “Believe in Me”), offers the world’s soul fiends and crate diggers a clearer picture of another minor scene in the wide, warm world of good-time American music.