It’s hard to classify precisely what exactly Numero Group’s never-ending Eccentric Soul series does, but perhaps the best descriptor for it is simply that it does for soul music what the Criterion Collection does for classic films: preserving lost classics and making them readily available for a whole new generation of avid fans.
On Smart’s Palace — the 11th entry in Numero’s Eccentric series — we follow the strange and tortured journey of the Wichita-based Smart brothers, a talented family of brothers that relished the classic Motown peak-era soul sound without making too many commercial concessions, the band’s live sets led by John and Leroy Smart doing their best to one-up each other in terms of sheer showmanship (doing backflips and handstands and the like — best evidenced on the cover of this particular release), their crazy antics becoming just as vital to raising the Smart Brothers’ profile as the music itself.
Family friends would drop by to handle vocal duties (most notably in the form of the talented C.C. Neal), various off-shoot projects were formed (Hard Road and Chocolate Snow chief among them), all while the Smart brothers made numerous attempts at recording hits in L.A. and Chicago (at one point even using a radio station’s “On Air” booth as a recording studio simply ‘cos nothing else was available), fame eluding the group the whole time even as their status as local legends became more and more of a sure thing with each passing year. Small local labels were formed, guitarists were left behind in California during the Smart’s frequent migrations across America, and — in one truly bizarre instance — former Sam & Dave sideman Thereon Gafford, signed to Dick Smart’s Solo Records with recording partner Darrell Buckner, wound up jeopardizing any commercial prospects of raising the Smart’s label profile after he escaped from a mental institution and was wanted by authorities. Needless to say, mainstream success wasn’t entirely in the cards for the Smarts.
You wouldn’t know it, though, from the gusto that they give each and every recording. Opening with the gritty torch number “I’m Not Ashamed” (recorded in 1965), it’s obvious that this compilation — or the “Smart sound” for that matter — isn’t exactly easy to place or categorize. As Eccentric Soul: Smart’s Palace continues on its non-chronological trajectory, we veer wildly between unrecognizable ’70s soul interpretations of Beatles classics (“A Day in the Life” as performed by Chocolate Snow) to lighthearted R&B pop tunes (John Smart’s “Don’t Hate Let’s Communicate” — the closest the Smarts ever came to having a hit single, this track selling out locally but nowhere else). At times, the Smarts walk a very distinctive line of redux James Brown-styled funk (best exhibited on the groove-driven “Barefoot Philly”). At others, they feel at home entering novelty single territory (the very smoky and sensual ballad “Let Me Be Your Christmas Toy”, here again credited to Chocolate Snow). No matter what styles they try, the Smarts always seem to feel at home, making for a remarkably consistent compilation of the brothers’ decade worth of output.
Given the Smarts’ uncompromising vision, however, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the weakest moments on Smart’s Palace come from the times where it feels that the group are trying to have a hit, like with Hard Road track “If You Really Love Me”, which is heavy on wah-guitar but light on lasting hooks. “Everybody Needs Somebody” — credited to L.T. & the Soulful Dynamics — is such an intentionally deliberate James Brown knockoff that its lack of originality winds up suffocating any hope for the song to truly stand on its own legs. Contrastingly, when the group isn’t focused on writing hits and instead spend their time just having fun — as evidenced by tracks like the funked-up “Lorraine” (by the Smart Brothers) and the pre-disco soul of “It’s Like Heaven” (Chocolate Snow, again) — we get real personality and real spirit, which reads infinitely better than the group’s more hit-driven inclinations.
At the end of the day though, Eccentric Soul: Smart’s Palace is fascinating aural document, capturing a musical family that had no money to speak of but all kinds of talent, manifesting itself in a series of lo-fidelity, high-quality recordings that recall the wilder tendencies of the soul music that was a bit too wild for Motown’s mainstream tastes during its peak-era. In short, the Numero Group has done it again, and the Smart Brothers may finally get recognized as what many people in the Midwest already knew they were: one of the finest soul groups working the late ’60s, hands down.