We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
With the exception of good ol’ rock ’n’ roll, soul has been Time-Lifed more than any other music. Not just by the folks with the red-and-white logo, either. Oldies radio has homogenized soul into a series of ooh-baby-loves, sugar-pie-honey-bunches, and I-feel-goods. Hollywood has turned it into distant history starring Jamie Foxx—and worse, into the title of a Macaulay Culkin movie. Even the justly celebrated city of Memphis, Tenn., has made the music into a 17,000-square-foot museum and a daiquiri-serving theme park. And just in case you can’t figure out what’s happened to Beale Street from all the Epcot-style huts, tour-bus fumes, and overpriced B.B. King shit, you’ll find a forlorn statue of Rufus Thomas tucked away along some green space. Mr. Funky Chicken, meet Mr. Neon Pig.
What isn’t seen or heard in this version of history is the fact that, in the ’60s and early ’70s, R&B got DIY in a big way. Inspired by the Stax and Hi labels in Memphis, the Meters in New Orleans, and the success of the blaxploitation movement, ambitious musicians and minimoguls started to respond with their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the day’s tunes. Before disco’s thump, Lionel Richie’s ’Fro mullet, and Thriller’s blockbuster sales, there were Willie Mitchells and Berry Gordys in every city. Soul music got made in row houses, and its singers were discovered on the stages of talent shows. It was real. It was touchable. And sometimes, it was just weird.
It was only a matter of time before this strange strain of indie soul got rediscovered. Once hiphop DJs got through their Lou Donaldson and Cannonball Adderley discs, they were bound to start crate-digging in the flyover territories. I’m sure there were others, but the watershed compilation for non-DJs came in 2001 with Stones Throw’s The Funky 16 Corners, a mix of lo-fi funk nuggets and call-and-response shouters that would make the J.B.’s proud. Lucky for us, the vinyl nerds have kept at it with last year’s Midwest Funk: Funk 45s From Tornado Alley and, more important, the Numero Group’s ever-expanding Eccentric Soul series.
You want New Weird America? Meet Arrow Brown, founder of Bandit Records. The man at the center of the 20 productions on Eccentric Soul: The Bandit Label, this chubby Chicago hoodlum spent most of the ’60s allegedly keeping a group of eight to 10 women in his home, creating a quasi-commune/harem and freeloading off their welfare checks. On weekends, the house hosted one long party, with folks singing over turned-down soul hits.
Brown had big plans, though: He wanted to build an entertainment company that would produce tunes and films, off-brand stuff that mimicked the mainstream successes of the day without having to worry about technicalities such as the musicians’ union. Under his strict control, his women sang for him, led him to other singers, and, well, helped him father a few crooners, too. The songs that Brown produced weren’t amateurish vanity projects, but sweet slices of soul pleadings skewed by the obvious limitation that these acts didn’t have Curtis Mayfield’s recording budget. And as the Eccentric Soul disc documenting the Bandit label’s output makes clear, whatever Brown was doing behind closed bedroom doors, he didn’t let it infect the confident mood in the studio.
The Majestic Arrows open the set with “One More Time Around,” a woman’s plaintive pleading for a last night with her man before they part ways. A lone violin saws through the tune; a party noisemaker intros the backbeat; random bits of guitar plucking, organ pounding, and a few naive-sounding “woo-hoo-ooo”s come in and out. As clear as it all makes the fact that Brown couldn’t afford a string section, none of it gets in the way of the song’s being irresistible.
The band had range, too: On “Another Day,” it produces the perfect mellow gold, opening with a harp run and some shimmering strings before singer Larry Johnson counters with a gorgeous falsetto. He trades verses with the young Tridia Brown as she laments how “Tears have dried on my face,” her father’s Baldwin organ throwing a subtly bluesy veil over the proceedings. And this time, it sounds as if there might be two or three violins.
Still, Brown’s production never came close to matching the expansive funk of the blaxploitation soundtracks or Mayfield’s early solo albums. But they didn’t just mimic the old-school vocal groups on Motown, either. Johnny Davis and the Arrows’ “Boogedy Boogedy” straddles both with pumped organ, happy horn charts, and the Arrows’ harmonies swelling and receding on the bridge. Elsewhere, wah-wah guitars shimmy and fade, a saxophone bops, and strings swoop like cheap Bacharach all over the place. The Majestic Arrows’ “Going to Make a Time Machine” comes complete with a fake rocket whoosh; their “Love Is All I Need” is prog Tom Jones. Linda Balintine’s two numbers could have sat well on Dusty in Memphis if it weren’t for the crackling sounds on the old source tapes.
The unlikelihood of Brown’s dreams of soul success can be heard most acutely on the two tracks performed by his then-7-year-old son, Altyrone Deno Brown, whom he tailored as a Michael Jackson clone. The comp’s liner notes report that the kid spent his nights belting out Otis Redding and Sam Cooke tunes—instead of going to school, he went on auditions. “Publicity photos at the time show him playing with a group of other kids,” the notes read, “but later he would reveal that he didn’t know any of them.” Altyrone’s “Sweet Pea” has the tyke pouting more than singing over a noodly lullaby. And he’s clearly no Michael Jackson; it’s beautiful and heartbreaking only in its awkwardness: “Sweet Pea/Is what they call me/But that’s not my naaa-ame.”
The best tracks on The Bandit Label are the ones untouched by Arrow Brown’s ghoulish influence and schizophrenic orchestrations. The compilation closes with three rehearsal recordings from the Majestic Arrows, their voices sounding vulnerable even while building into powerful harmonies, accompanied only by the thud of shoes on the floor or a guitar being lazily strummed. They could be singing in the harem’s kitchen, and they proclaim the words bright and loud: “I believe/If I had a little love/I can make it.”
Driving through Memphis on a promotional trip in 1974, Bill Moss heard the news that Al Green had been scalded by some hot grits flung by a deranged lover. Moss, the founder of the Capital City Soul label, quickly sped back to Columbus, Ohio, to commission a rerecording of a hometown obscurity by Elijah and the Ebonites called “Pure Soul.” As a sort of macabre tribute to the injured Green, Moss changed the instrumental’s title to “Hot Grits!!!” With its sliding bass, sweaty chants of “Hot grits!” and high-pitched “ooo-whoa”s, the record earned a few spins down South.
Listening to the track now on Numero’s Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label, you can’t help but admire the thing even though it had no real chance of ever going mainstream. It doesn’t matter that the song works mightily as a dance number. An R&B smoker dedicated to the breakfast food that burned Al Green?! Come on.
By the time the record was released, Moss, a popular Columbus DJ, had recruited a roster of torch singers, soft crooners, and assorted neighborhood kids all ready to fill in and take their chances, as well as an Ohio State professor who did the string arrangements. In five years, his label produced a dozen singles and one album and never get more than regional success. What remains are glorious ghosts from soul music’s alternative universe.
Instead of the Four Tops or the Temptations, Capsoul had the Four Mints and Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr to moon over hard-to-get girls between string parts and finger snaps. Instead of Wilson Pickett, the label had Kool Blues. Instead of Percy Sledge, it had Ronnie Taylor, whose dramatic, slow-building “Without Love” name-checked Napoleon and Josephine about 20 years before people thought Stephin Merritt was clever for doing it.
Although Capsoul’s songs lack the eccentric flourishes found on Bandit recordings, the label’s output was far more consistent. Some of the tunes are downright stunning. Marion Black’s smoky baritone on the blues “Who Knows”—sampled by fellow Ohioan RJD2 on his Deadringer album—is one of the saddest things you’ll ever hear—until, that is, you put on Kool Blues’ bare ballad “I Want to Be Ready.” Over trickly guitar and mournful organ fills—and, in the Eccentric Soul version, more than a few vinyl crackles—the singer prepares himself to be dumped; he wants to be ready “when the hurt comes my way.” Shuggie Otis couldn’t have done lo-fi soul any better.
Black one-ups Kool Blues with his icy “Go On Fool,” a tune that got him attention after he performed it in a Moss-sponsored talent show. Against a simple arrangement of guitar, piano, and drums, Black tactfully asks his woman to “show me the courtesy to/Clean the house/ Cook a meal/That’s all I ask of you.” Of course, she’s busy talking on the phone and watching soap operas—but not too busy to deliver the song’s title phrase: “Go on fool/Leave me alone.” Later, Black mourns that he has to shop and clean on his own while his wife disappears for the weekend. Throughout, his genial but broken-spirited delivery transforms this utterly prosaic domestic tale into poetry as elemental as the blues it descended from.
Moss’ own warm a.m. voice—after hearing it once, you could wake up to it every day—provides one of The Capsoul Label’s two stabs at ghetto uplift. Over a cheap samba beat and strings rising like sunshine, Moss’ “Number One” shows you exactly how much the man believed in himself. “My daddy said/Son, the time’s done come/You got to look all around find a solid stone,” he sings. “You got to make things ready and build yourself a home/’Cause you’ve been put down here to be Number One.” It’s just as bloated and over-the-top as anything Johnny Cash put out after he left Sun for Columbia. But more important, it’s also just as convincing.CP