The co-founder of the maverick reissue label the Numero Group talks about seeking out the eccentric, saving the unknown, and releasing only what you love.
Most music listeners could be forgiven for thinking that American soul music began and ended with Stax, Motown, and Atlantic. Those companies boasted formidable stables of talent, not to mention songwriters and session musicians who could crank out instant classics in their sleep. But those labels' continued dominance in the public mindset obscures the dreams that R&B hopefuls pinned on countless smaller labels.
Labels like Capsoul, Twinight, Big Mack, Bandit, and Deep City have largely been the focus of Chicago's young Numero Group label. Founded by Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier, and Ken Shipley in 2003, Numero quickly established itself as the go-to label of choice for soul fans seeking their next hit of obscure R&B. Known for its quality packaging, meticulous research, and obvious love for the music, Numero sometimes makes Rhino, the reigning king of reissues, look average, especially when considering its emphasis on rescuing "lost" imprints from obscurity.
"That's kind of part of the blessing and the curse of these labels," Shipley says. "They just never had a chance to get over that hump, or the chance that they had just wasn't enough to get them there. A lot of these people didn't operate with any entrepreneurial background, distribution network, or history in the music business, so these are very kind of mom-and-pop operations that did what they could, and it didn't always work out." On top of that, there was the formidable presence of the big guys to consider. "You're already going up against gigantic hit machines like Motown and Stax that are ruling the airwaves," he adds, "and you're trying to push your little record out there, and it was an extremely difficult thing to do at the time. If you could even afford to do it."
With labels and stories as colorful as the ones curated by the Numero Group, you'd rightly expect the music itself to be just as idiosyncratic and interesting. The following list is by no means meant to be the best of the best, but these tracks have their hooks in this listener's ears at the moment. Soon, it'll be others, like Stormy's "The Devastator", Renaldo Domino's "Not Too Cool to Cry", or Sylvia Hall's "Don't Touch That Thing".
Professionals, "Theme from the Godfather" (From Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up)
One of the better-known songs from Numero's releases -- at least to samplers -- this take on the signature Nino Rota piece features not only funky guitar and organ, but also windswept mariachi horns. It's anyone's guess why this one hasn't shown up on a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack.
Voices of Conquest, "O Yes My Lord" (From Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal)
Thunderous percussion that sounds like John Bonham keeping cadence for the marching armies of the Lord. A 20-person choir raising the rafters. It's hard to believe any church could contain such a ruckus.
Ozzie Hall, "Take Five" (From Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay)
An uptempo workout on the Paul Desmond classic, this track percolates on a flame of funky guitar and staccato piano chords, as Hall goes nuts on the saxophone for a few minutes, breaking with the lounge music that he and his backing band played in the same hotel for about 20 years.
Essence, "Fever" (From Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label)
After a spoken-word intro from label founder Ed McCoy that's pure '70s seduction, this female trio slinks and moans through a stripped-down take on the classic song. It doesn't quite make you forget Little Willie John or Peggy Lee, but it easily wipes away the bad taste of countless other attempts.
Newlyweds, "The Quarrel" (From Eccentric Soul: Mighty Mike Lenaburg)
The Mighty Mike Lenaburg comp is well worth picking up for the strange, and winning, mix of soul, psychedelia, and Tejano influences that came together in Phoenix, Arizona. But even by those standards, little prepares you for the sound of a couple screaming at each other at the tops of their lungs over a doo-wop backing.
Shipley's a fan of the music, and gets a charge out of hearing something great that probably hasn't been heard in 30 years. However, he's wary of attributing any outsized importance to the music Numero rescues. "Sometimes a record is just so poorly distributed that nobody even gets a chance to hear it, and so it just never gets heard, and it never gets pressed to its rightful quantity. Maybe not 'rightful quantity'. Revisionist history is a really interesting thing, because you're kind of looking back and looking to something as being more important than it was at the time. That's just us deciding, 'Hey, we think this is really cool.' It has nothing to do with what people thought at the time; none of these records got played on the radio with any great abundance, and that's just what happened."
Still, he does feel some names were unfairly lost to the mists of time: "Renaldo Domino, from the Twinight record [Eccentric Soul: Twinight's Lunar Rotation] -- I think that he was an absolute star. When I listen to him, I'm like, 'How is this guy not huge?' Or Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr from the Capsoul record [Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label] -- those guys were an obviously talented vocal harmony group that just never had a chance."
As frustrating as that must seem, though, Shipley's come to terms with it. "Not everything can be at the right place at the right time," he offers. "Some things are going to fall through the cracks. It's just kind of accepting -- and it's something I've been appreciating as well, just deciding, 'It's OK that this wasn't huge.' It could be huge in your house, it could be huge in your head, and that still makes it relevant and exciting, and great to listen to."
Such discoveries, though, become less and less likely with the passage of time, especially when you consider the ages of those involved -- if they're even still alive. It becomes more and more likely that another revelatory act like a Domino won't be found. "There's a historical element to this that I think is really fascinating," Shipley says. "There's a entire history of music that's kind of being discarded and left behind because people aren't bothering to get it, and especially with American black music from the '60s and '70s, you've got people who are coming past retirement, in their 60s, 70s, 80s sometimes, and we're going to start losing these people. And when you lose them, you start to lose access to the information that they have."
A case in point is the Capsoul label, which was the first label profiled by Numero. Based in Columbus, Ohio, Capsoul had some hits, but had to close after the bank padlocked the studio doors. Bill Moss, a DJ and singer who founded the label in the '70s, broke into the studios to retrieve his master tapes, but later lost them all to a flood. He took his remaining stock of records to a recycling plant. Under those circumstances, it fell to Shipley and company to reconstruct the label's highlights via 45s, some of them found on eBay. The label released only a dozen 45s and one LP, so the 19 tracks found on Numero's first edition of its Eccentric Soul series provides a thorough overview. Still, it would have been much more difficult to put together if more time had passed. "Literally if we'd gone a year later, there would have been no chance to do it," Shipley recalls. "Bill [Moss] died about a year after the record came out, and it's a really, really sad thing, to think about." Moss, for his part, apparently enjoyed his label being in the spotlight again, telling NPR's Weekend Edition in 2004, "I don't think there has been a day that has gone by that I have not thought about that record company....It's like the first woman you ever really loved. You never get over that one."
Then there's the Bandit label. Bandit's owner, Arrow Brown, was a shady, gun-toting Chicago character who used the welfare checks from his harem of wives and lovers to fund the label. He kept it alive for eight years despite the fact that virtually none of the label's releases -- many by friends and family -- saw the light of radio play. Before all was said and done, Bandit crooner Johnny Davis died after landing at the bottom of a 12-story building. When Numero began tracking down information on the label, Brown had been dead for ten years, and inquiries into Bandit were greeted with dead ends. There were certainly no archives to search. "A lot of stuff went to the dump before we were there," Shipley laments. "[Brown's] family didn't really care about the legacy of his music, and they were frustrated by his death and by the kind of mess that he left behind -- it's such a tragic story. And so one of his sons just took everything and put it out in the alley, and it was just thrown out, gone." Again, with the master tapes gone, it fell to Numero to track down whatever vinyl they could find.
You would think exploring the musical history of a nation, as Numero did on its Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay disc, would be a little easier, but not so. That music turned out to be ephemeral for a different reason. "If we had gone to the Bahamas ten years ago, we would have come back with everything," Shipley recalls. "But when we went there in January to make this Bahamian record, we realized that if we didn't come here right now, we probably would have arrived three years later and gotten nothing at all.
"There is this race against time that you're constantly up against," he continues. "In the case of the Bahamas, it's a race against the elements, a race against global warming at this point, because I tell you, the next hurricane that comes through, whatever was left there is going to be gone. It's a really recordless society. I think the people have a deep appreciation for history, but realize you can't hang on to something and care about it too much, because it could just be blown away."
Like every other record in the Eccentric Soul series, Grand Bahama Goombay holds its own quirky treasures, yielding gems like Cyril Ferguson's "We're Gonna Build a Nation", a cross between James Brown lockstep funk and an emotional plea for national solidarity, one that quickly got Ferguson in trouble with his homeland. "It's a call for unity," Shipley notes. "It was recorded after the Bahamas became a nation in 1973, and was almost immediately banned for being too cynical.
"Those are the nice little things that come with finding a record," he laughs. "To find out that someone was censored in their own country for trying to bring people together."
Obviously, the job of compiling records for discs like the Bandit compilation or for the Grand Bahama Goombay disc requires an orderly presentation, in order to convey the value to the listener. That, perhaps, is where the Numero Group is unparalleled. Each disc features photos of the label's acts as well as meticulously researched liner notes that tell the always interesting tales concerning the labels and the entrepreneurs who founded them.
"That's a big thing for us," Shipley says. "We've got a following at this point where we could do pretty much anything we want to do, but you know, why would you do less? If anything, you've got to start doing more. Because people are just going to constantly be demanding more. And for us, we want to get better at it. We don't want to just settle for anything."
A perfect example is the double-disc Eccentric Soul: Twinight's Lunar Rotation release. "That's why we spent nearly two and a half years working on the Twinight record," Shipley adds. "Because we knew that if we just put another week into it, another month into it, that it could be even better. You just take the records as they come, as opposed to just trying to fit a release schedule."
That's nothing, though, compared to another as-yet-unreleased project: "We're working on this record right now, this kid soul record, sort of a 'Standing in the Shadows of the Jackson 5' kind of thing, and it's a record that Rob and I have been talking about making since the very beginning of this company. We've slowly but surely been putting the pieces together and we feel like we're close to done, and we're still not done," he laughs. "You just have to have that patience to make a great record. If you do, you're going to be rewarded. People notice when things take time and are quality. People notice when things don't take time and are kind of shitty.
"Eventually, everything will come together if you're patient. That's the thing we pride ourselves on. Just saying, 'Hey, look, we've gone and done a lot of projects that people have tried to do a bunch of different times, and weren't able to do.' That's just because we have the patience to go out there. The real problem is the time. It's getting people to agree to this before it's too late. And getting these people on board to realize, hey, if you have assets out there, we're a really great place for you to come and have a safe place. You know you're going to get paid, you know the music's going to be treated with care, and you know you're going to make money."
Soul releases like the Eccentric Soul series makes up the bulk of the Numero Group catalog so far, but that's never been the label's only interest. They reissued and expanded Camino del Sol, by electronic act Antena. They compiled 33 tracks of power pop on their Yellow Pills release, and resurrected the rockabilly/gospel hybrid of Fern Jones's 1959 album, The Glory Road. Heck, the label's even dabbled in disco. Shipley has a simple explanation for the variety: "There is value everywhere you look. What we've always said about the label is that it's just music fans. If you're a fan of music, there's something for you."
That eclecticism mirrors Shipley's own tastes. "I don't listen to just country music, I don't just listen to soul, I don't just listen to power pop, or anything like that. And I think there are a lot more people out there like me than people who listen to just one thing, so with that in mind, that's how we approach the label. We like folk, we like soul, we like everything, and we're gonna just go where our tastes take us."
That spirit occasionally puts them at odds with a market that apparently wants them to concentrate on one thing. "We're not going to go where the market wants us to go," he states. "If we went where the market wanted us to go, we'd just be making soul records, and that would be pretty boring, because to make an Eccentric Soul record is one of the easiest things that we can do now. I could ship that out in an hour. There's so much of it, I'm saying. There's an endless supply, but these other records are kind of what make it more rewarding in a way, because they are a little bit more challenging, and there's just a slightly different story about them -- just different people that you get to talk to."
That doesn't mean that the Numero Group is done with R&B. In fact, they're now in a position to not only tell new stories, but also to revisit some of their previous releases. They just released a record profiling the Columbus, Ohio-based Prix label. "It's the second in our Columbus, Ohio series of records. There's going to be a third one that's going to bridge the gap between the Capsoul label and the Prix label, like all the artists kind of in-between, because these were very connected labels through a couple of different entrepreneurs, studios, and session musicians, so we're going to tell this kind of in-between story.
"We're also doing a second volume of the Deep City records," he adds. "Since we made that Miami record, so much stuff has come to us from the labels. We've unearthed about 17 new master tapes full of material that's absolutely incredible. Demos, different sessions, instrumentals, all kinds of great stuff. There's not going to be a tremendous story there, but it's going to be a tremendous record."
Fittingly, that restless spirit is also taking them in new directions, leading them to launch two new labels. "The first is a label called Asterisk," Shipley confirms. "It's an album series. Basically, there's a lot of records that we would have liked to do that we don't want to go out and dredge up this big story and do a lot of publicity, and that kind of thing. These are really just records that we really want to make, and they might not sell a lot of copies, but we really like them as albums and we want to be able to promote them as such, and just say 'Hey, this is a folk record that came out in 1974' without having to try to get this big press machine and hype and all that, and just make records available, make them really well-packaged and well-designed and sound really great, and let audiences discover them."
More ambitious, perhaps, is a jazz label called Flat. "It's all jazz: spiritual jazz, soul jazz, whatever. The jazz marketplace is different from any other kind, and that's why we felt we needed to separate it from the regular Numero lines. Because we want people who are into jazz to know, hey, these guys are doing more jazz records."
Expect a challenge, though. "We realize this isn't going to be accessible for a lot of the people who listen to our regular records. Most people say they like jazz, but they don't really like jazz, you know. They think just because they've heard John Coltrane and Miles Davis that they're jazz fans. You know, call me when you've just gotten done listening to three hours of spiritual jazz," he laughs. "That will be closer to what we're thinking about. If you want to get into this weird jazz, this is a good place to start. It's going to be very slow, not a lot of hype, just making great records that we really want to make."
The patience that helps them put these comps together also informs Shipley's advice to exploring the Numero catalog -- that listeners should look to their releases as resources. "Pick it up as you can. To talk about our records, we talk about this like a library. When you go to a library, a library's books are always available and if you discover something one year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, or yesterday, it's all still relevant. Some of this shit's waited 30 years; it can wait another 30 months if it has to. It's not going anywhere, and it's a resource in a way. It's a reference. For anybody who's into one label of soul, we've got everything here that you need know about this label. We've got the session musicians, we've got the tracks, we've got the songwriters, all this different stuff in this little library for you."