Markets fail, the popular music marketplace included. For any number of reasons, sometimes great songs, albums, or artists never gain the attention they deserve. But lately, a system of labels has developed which attempts to correct some of the market’s past errors. These labels reissue music that they believe didn’t get a fair shake the first time around. The music may not even be that old — Light in the Attic Records is working on reissuing four excellent early ’70s albums from the Brazilian pop smith Marcos Valle, but they also recently reissued a D’Angelo album from 2000. Labels spot a supply of little-known or hard-to-obtain good music, look for a demand, and try to connect the two.
Omnivore Records is one of these labels, with a taste for Bert Jansch, Alex Chilton, Gene Clark, and Townes Van Zandt. While these artists lean towards folk, country, and rock, one of Omnivore’s latest releases dips into deep soul: The South Side of Soul Street, a collection of 20 singles (and their B-sides) recorded in Florida between 1969 and 1976 and originally released on the Minaret label. Mostly when people talk about Southern soul, they talk about the same set of studios — Stax, Muscle Shoals, Hi Records. But there were other hot spots of soul production below the Mason-Dixie line, and Florida had a scene of its own. Betty Wright, George and Gwen McCrae, and Latimore were all Florida-based R&B singers with hits.
The tunes on The South Side of Soul Street rely on the standard Southern soul ingredients: sharp rhythm guitar, organ, horns, bluesy keys. The percussion holds steady, the melody rises and falls. There are a few nods to the more active beat and bass lines of funk, but most of the songs stick to the mid-tempo or ballad mode.
Of the 40 songs on The South Side of Soul Street, 18 are by one artist, Big John Hamilton. Big John’s most exciting vocal performance is on “Big Fanny”, one of the quicker and more elastic tracks in the collection. He manages to find a perfect combination of smoothness and rasp in his singing (presumably spurred to greater heights by the fanny in question).
The singers at Minaret weren’t always the most commanding bunch. They all sing well, but it’s hard not to stack them up against their formidable Southern soul competition. Even a notch below the genre giants — Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, and Isaac Hayes — you had James Carr, Percy Sledge, O.V. Wright, men with riveting croaks and sweetly cracked croons. Minaret also didn’t work with many ladies. While most of the songs are about loving women, the only women who actually cracked the studio seem to be named Doris (Doris Allen and Doris Reed).
However, you can’t gain an understanding of Southern soul only by listening to the people who broke through and crossed over (you can’t listen exclusively to the people who never made it either). While there aren’t many lost classics here, listeners who need their deep soul will find a fresh fix.