Numero Group’s Ken Shipley picks his favorite Eccentric Soul tracks
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In I Made You A Mixtape, we ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.
The mixer: Ken Shipley co-founded reissue label The Numero Group in 2003, and it’s since evolved into a multi-format, multi-genre music company. It’s discovered and resurrected long-lost soul acts, punk bands, and avant-garde films. One of Numero’s most important roles is as a curator of what’s now called the Eccentric Soul universe, which seeks to document what the label dubs “lovingly mishandled soul labels” like Columbus, Ohio’s Capsoul and Miami’s Deep City. The label’s latest and greatest project is its Eccentric Soul box set, Eccentric Soul: Omnibus, which includes 45 different 45s from different long-forgotten artists, plus a 108-page book documenting the scene from which each act came. Given that—especially after this project—Shipley knows so much about the world of forgotten soul cuts, The A.V. Club asked him to make a mixtape of his favorite Eccentric Soul tracks the label’s ever reissued.
The A.V. Club: How do you define Eccentric Soul?
Ken Shipley: Eccentric Soul is hardly my concept. It’s a concept built by one of my partners, Rob Sevier, and it started out as a mix CD that he made for me that was all off-the-wall, left-of-center soul stuff—out-of-key singers, weird instrumentation, kid groups—things that never really had a shot at being on the radio.
Once I heard the CD, I really loved the name and we began piecing together a project that ultimately failed because it wasn’t a very good idea. [Laughs.] But from there sprung a great idea, which is to compile these really small and obscure labels and scenes and producers into one cohesive package, as a way to preserve some of the history and great music that we thought was in danger of falling through the cracks.
As far as the musical content is concerned, the parameters have expanded over the years. The first one where we realized we weren’t really making true eccentric soul anymore was Twinight [Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation]. These are hits—well, they really weren’t hits. They had a tremendous pedigree: great session players, great musicians, and great singers. But for the most part, Eccentric Soul before that was real left-of-center, underground, mixed-up, sometimes amateurish soul music, and we’ve expanded the parameters from there. For Omnibus, we went back to our original roots, which was to look at really cool one-off records and find unique opportunities for them. Things that we really wanted to do something with, but there was just no project that they ever fit into.
Theron And Darrell, “I Was Made To Love Her”
Smart’s Palace is a record that came together very unexpectedly. It was one of those things where Dante Carfagna and Josh Davis said, “You guys should look into this stuff,” and we said, “We’ll get to it, we’ll get to it.” Finally we were on this trip that was getting us near Wichita, and I said, “Let’s try to go to Wichita.” As soon as we sat down with Dick Smart—Darrell came over that same day and John Smart and all these Wichita cats came out—we realized that there was a great record here. They drove us around Wichita and showed us where their original club was, the original record store, and the studio and all these great little places. The record emerged out of the experience of going to Wichita and living there for a little while.
KS: Summits… even their name is great because it’s the name of the bus stop that was at the end of the line. That record, Red, Black, And Green Productions, came together because we’d used a song by The Promise on Home Schooled: The ABCs Of Kid Soul, and the producer, R. Hosea Williams, was someone who for years I had tried to convince to do more than just license us this one song. I said, “Look, we’ve paid you thousands of dollars over the years on just one song. Think of what we could do with 20.” And he finally relented.
We went to his house in Maryland, and he took us out to his garage and was like, “This is everything I still have,” and it ended up being so much tremendous material. Summits were just one of five or six groups that we discovered in that garage. There was this brilliant Father’s Children LP that really makes me want to go harder and faster in some ways, as far as discovery is concerned, because you realize how many things are just rotting away in a garage. They’re a year away from being put in the trash.
Family Connection, “This Time”
Pat Stallworth, “Questions”
KS: Two very different groups. Pat Stallworth had been a dream for years. Since we got into the Boddie Recording Company archives three years ago, we’d been calling Bill Jacocks saying, “Hey, we’ve got this tape of yours that we’ve found in here,” and he’d keep rebuffing us. He was the first black news anchor in Cleveland, a longtime sort of minor celebrity, and really didn’t rank Numero as a company that could do anything for him. He tried to do it by himself for a while. Finally, I really sort of raked him. [Laughs.] “Hey, you keep talking about how you’re going to do this, and then nothing ever happens. Why don’t we actually do something?” After months and months of negotiation, I think we went to 10 or 15 drafts on that deal to get it done.
As far as the Family Connection is concerned, that was a record that I had fallen in love with half a decade ago and always wanted to do something with, but seemingly there was no way to really thread them into anything larger. They’re from Middlebury, Connecticut, and there’s not a lot of soul music that came out of Middlebury, Connecticut, much less all of Connecticut. So there was just never any opportunity to do anything with it, but I reached out to the group and we found the master tapes, we found these business cards, we found all these little details and elements that convinced us it was a song that had to be done.
Family Connection really is the epitome of eccentric soul. It’s a group that wasn’t in the major soul scene, even though they participated in Boston and New York and as far South as D.C., but they’re off the path, they’re not working in the same sort of circles as in Philly or Chicago or L.A. They never had the opportunities that a group stationed in a major city would. Even though they were so close to New York, they never were able to break free in the way they probably should have.
Bob & Fred, “I’ll Be On My Way”
KS: Two guys that we know so very little about still. We made The Big Mack Label in 2006, but we still know so little about label owner Ed McCoy. The first time we met him, he insisted on meeting in a restaurant. The second time we met him, he insisted on meeting in a radio station. The guy’s not necessarily trustworthy of people who want to come in from the outside world.
In the early ’90s, all these British people were looking for Bob & Fred and The Grand Prixx, and they were coming to him and buying those records for five dollars. He later found out they were selling for thousands of dollars. He felt burned by the business; he was just so untrusting that it took us years to get him to be interested in working with us. Finally he was.
Kool Blues, “I’m Gonna Keep On Loving You”
KS: This is from Capsoul [Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label], where it all really began. Me, Tom [Lunt], and Rob going down to Columbus, Ohio and sitting in this guy’s living room and trying to pitch him on the idea that we were the guys to resurrect his legacy and preserve it. I remember we had this little white MacBook, which probably seemed really chic in 2003. We had this little PowerPoint presentation we put together that was like, “This is what we want to do. This is how we envision doing it. This is where we think the consumer is and the marketplace is going.” It was this very professional thing, and it actually worked. Now we would probably never do anything like that. We do this much more loose kind of thing where we go in and say, “These are successes that we’ve had before.” There’s not as much speculation when we make a record in 2012 as there was when we made one in 2003.
But [Capsoul label owner] Bill Moss is such a trooper. He really made Numero able to be a company because without doing that record, we would never have been able to make any of the records that came after it. It set the tone for the entire label.
AVC: Do you get nervous about going into people’s homes and trying to convince them to work with you? You guys were recently the subject of a Spin feature that made the process sound a little hairy.
KS: I don’t really get nervous going into bad neighborhoods or going into people’s houses anymore. I get more nervous that we’re not going to be able to get something done in time more than anything. I’m always concerned that I didn’t do a good enough job of selling the concept of, “Hey, your legacy should be preserved, and even if we’re not the right people to do it, somebody should do it or you should do it. Someone should take on the idea that your music is in order and your photographs are in order, so if people in the future want to come back and say, ‘Who were the Soul Emotions?’, somebody can say, ‘The Soul Emotions were these three girls from New Orleans. They made two records.’”
Those are important things that I think are just on the cusp of being lost. And my disappointment only really comes from not being able to get something done that I really feel should be done. Really, otherwise, the worst thing that can happen is that you get shot.
AVC: That’s no big deal.
KS: That’s a story. “Guy from reissue label goes to dangerous neighborhood, gets shot, emerges victorious with master tapes.” [Laughs.] There’s almost something poetic to it.
Them Two, “Am I A Good Man”
KS: That song was the reason I knew we had to make the Deep City record, because it was so haunting and so beautiful. The world has sort of proved us right. It’s been sampled by Ghostface Killah, 50 Cent, and a bunch of other rappers. It’s been in a bunch of television shows like Luck and Hung, two funny four-letter shows. It’s an infectious groove from a very infectious label.
All the stuff that came out of Florida at the time was being ruled by these two schoolteachers who were selling blood to make records. They were funneling every dollar they had into trying to make records, trying to make hit records. They ended up succeeding, just not at Deep City. Willie Clark went on to produce Betty Wright’s big hits, won a couple Grammys, and then when the money train ran out, went back to teaching. That’s a classic Eccentric Soul story: the guy that, despite the fact that he’s got gold records on the wall, lives in a two-bedroom condo. [Laughs.]
The Commands, “Hey It’s Love”
The Webs, “Little Girl Blue”
AVC: These are from a new compilation about the Dynamic label you have coming out.
KS: It’s a preview of some things that we have coming out.
Abie Epstein was a guy that ruled San Antonio in the ’60s. He had more labels than I could probably name right now, and he did Tex-Mex, he did soul, he did garage, he did country, he did rockabilly, he did everything. But Dynamic was primarily a soul label that he ran, and The Commands were the top band that he’d ever produced.
They had a pretty large hit in “No Time For You.” They were four guys who were all stationed at the nearby Lackland Air Force Base, and that Air Force base had a circuit where you could go and perform, and that circuit was called Command. So they were The Commands. They produced five records for the label; one of them ended up being kind of a largish hit, and the rest didn’t do anything. The group disbanded as they got drafted to Vietnam, and they never lived up to their potential because they never got the opportunity to.
The Webs were a group that later cut an incredible song called “It’s So Hard To Break A Habit.” That was probably their most widely known song, but before that they were just some guys managed by a guy named Walter Whisenhunt. I think they were from Houston, and they ended up getting in touch with this wild character in San Antonio who had a studio and access to some money and the ability to make a go of it.
Dynamic closed in early 1969 with hardly a bang; it was more of a dull whimper. Epstein moved on to become a massive real-estate magnate in San Antonio. He basically built San Antonio.
AVC: How do you decide where to go on your scouting trips and how many to take a year?
KS: We have three and a half A&R people who work here, and we have various guys like Dante [Cafagna] and Josh [Davis] who are out there saying, “You should look in this direction.” We make our decisions on what we want to do based on what we’re listening to. Good A&R is always driven by people who have a love for what they’re listening to.
So if you work here, and you really have a love for music from Minneapolis, for instance, you might spend a lot of time going to Minneapolis because you’re looking to discover more things that are coming out of that world.
As far as trips a year, I think we did 10 or 11 trips this last year, and they were all sorts of different people going to all sorts of different places. When Rob [Sevier] and Zach [Myers] went down to San Antonio recently to work on that record, they went to San Antonio; then they went to Houston and worked Houston.
We’ll try to kind of wrap a bunch of different things. We go to Minneapolis and stop in Wisconsin on the way back, or if you go to Columbus, you stop in Cleveland and Akron. There are so many different opportunities to go to these places, especially in the Midwest, which is a little like the center of the wagon wheel. You can shoot down somewhere and go look into something so easily, and then shoot a little to the left and go look into something else. We’re in a sort of fortunate position compared to if we were trapped in the Northwest or trapped in Los Angeles. It’s so much harder to get from Los Angeles to Florida without taking a plane.
We’re very attached to the idea of driving around, of having a car, of being able to turn on a turn on a dime and say, “Hey we need to drive a hundred miles away, let’s do that.” You can’t really do the same thing when you’re pegged into an airline schedule or miles on a rental car. It’s always much better when you drive somewhere. You have a base of operations in the driver and passenger’s seats of a car.
Jerry Townes, “Just Say The Word”
KS: Again, Jerry Townes is not a guy we know a ton about, but the guy who produced that record is a guy named Richard Pegue. He was a longtime DJ in the city of Chicago, had shows on WVON, WGCI, and had done a ton of radio. We had gotten in touch with him because he’d produced a handful of things on the Twinight label, and for years before he died we were taking meetings with him to be like, “Hey, what about your two labels, these Nickel and Penny labels? We should try to do what we did for Twinight.” He was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely do that. I just need a minute.” He was always the kind of guy that was pushing things because he never had time and was constantly overbooked.
After he died, it was terribly sad. We’re talking about a funeral where three, four hundred people showed up. It was massive. There were just so many people who were shocked by his death.
We waited about a year and reached out to his widow and said, “We want to discuss honoring Richard’s legacy now that he’s gone. It would have been nice to be able to do it while he was still here, but would you give us the opportunity?” And she said, “Sure, come on down.” So we went down into this basement, and it was, like, every record he’d ever bought, all of his masters and a tape machine, CD players, unused cassette tapes, lamps, mildew, and Christmas-tree ornaments. It was just a mess of life. It ended up being a really tremendous opportunity to look at the remnants of somebody who’d kept everything about their life, including tickets to their first junior-high dance. He was just a really remarkable collector of his own life, and you so rarely find that when you work in this world.
AVC: All of that volume had to be overwhelming for his widow to deal with.
KS: There’s relief for some people who don’t know how to really catalog a life. In that Spin article I said, “People just don’t want to deal with their own shit.” Some of it is that they’re lazy, and some of it is they have no idea how to do it.
I’m sure you’ve got a box of photos from the end of the ’90s and you’re like, “I should do something with these,” but you’re never going to do anything with them because the reality is that you’re too busy trying to live now. That goes back to all sorts of things that you make in your life. We spend a whole life creating bullshit, and so rarely does anybody want to dig through it and find the corn kernels, that it gets put off and put off. Finally, when people do come around, you’re not even sure where to start.
Lynn Williams, “Don’t Be Surprised”
KS: Lynn is the daughter of Hank Ballard, and we didn’t even know that when we first made the record. We didn’t even know how to find her.
Her producer at the time was a guy who, when we met him in Miami, had recently had a stroke and didn’t have a ton of information. Finally over the years, this information [came] out and we found Williams, which isn’t an easy name to find in the world. Williamses, Browns, Smiths are a needle-in-a-haystack kind of thing.
But we finally found Lynn Williams, and she was just incredible. She had so much of a story. She was battling cancer when we first found her, and the first royalty check we sent her was the first one she’d ever gotten. I think it was for like, $380 or something, but she called in tears and said, “Thank you, this means so much to me right now.” And thankfully she beat cancer, and she’s going strong.
Joe King, “Speak On Up”
KS: Joe King is a guy who was a Vietnam veteran, and when we found him he had almost no interest in his music whatsoever, on the flipside of some, like, bad trip from a previous life. Over the years, he’s softened up.
The Prix Label was an incredible story. That’s not even the song that most people are really crazy about off that record. The song that really does it for people is by a group called Penny & The Quarters, and it’s a song called “You And Me.”
[“You And Me” was included on the soundtrack of the 2010 film Blue Valentine. —ed.]
All the master tapes for The Prix Label were discovered at a garage sale. One of the principals for the label had died, and after a few years his family put the things essentially right near the curb. If they didn’t sell that day, they’d probably just go out into the street. A guy named Oliver happened to come across them and say, “Hey, this is some important stuff.” I don’t even remember how much he bought them for; it couldn’t have been very much. And what is so remarkable about it is all the people who have been able to generate money out of it, like Penny & The Quarters. All of that would have been thrown away, and those people would have never gotten any of the money that they’ve gotten. It’s a great kind of happy accident that we were able to find that stuff.
AVC: When a Penny & The Quarters song gets licensed, do the actual Quarters get that money?
KS: Oh yeah. They’ve made a very decent amount of money at this point.
AVC: It’s almost like passive income. They didn’t expect to get it, so it’s a nice bonus years later.
KS: It’s like Social Security. Every week you get money taken out of your check, right? And you’re like, “Fuck it, man. This shit’s never gonna come back to me.” And all of a sudden, you’re going to be 65 or 80 or however old it’ll be by the time we get there, and you’re going to be like, “Shit, I’m getting $300.” It’s probably going to feel pretty good.
Eula Cooper, “Try”
Four Tracks, “Charade”
KS: Jesse Jones is the guy who is the proprietor of the Tragar label. He is a longtime L.A. session guy who moved back to Atlanta with his tail between his legs and started up another label.
Atlanta didn’t have the best black-music business at the time. There wasn’t enough distribution, not enough labels; it just was not a center. Despite being the black Mecca now, it was not a center for generating an incredible wealth of black music and exporting it to the universe. That said, there was just so much music being made there. Jesse was one of the more prolific label owners at the time.
That Eula Cooper record ended up coming out under a license at Atlantic in, like, 1967, promptly failed, and was returned shortly after that and forgotten about. Four Tracks… I can’t even remember anything about that group, but I know we ended up finding them. I always really liked “Charade.” It has a really modern sound.
Ames Harris Desert Water Bag Co., “People”
KS: One of the greatest names of any Eccentric Soul artist.
Allen Merry ran a youth center in East St. Louis, which at the time was—and remains even today to be—just a cesspool of murder. But he ran this youth center getting kids out of gangs and putting instruments in their hands. Groups like Ames Harris Desert Water Bag Co., The Young Disciples Co., The Debonettes and the Georgettes—there were all these kids that were sort of coming out of it and Allen Merry was getting grants from the government to actually keep the center alive and put out records.
I always thought that Ames Harris song was really special. That’s the secondary Young Disciples. Young Disciples got so big at one point that they had to split apart and make two groups. There were too many horn players, drummers, and guitar players. It was like a youth orchestra. Ames Harris is one of those cats at the top of the queue to get a group named after him.
AVC: Do you know why they named it that, besides one of the guys in the band being named Ames Harris?
KS: I have no idea. I don’t think we ever actually found Ames Harris. We know a bit about him, but it would be great to know more. Even Allen Merry was like, “It’s just some name.” It sounds like some water company or some kind of official Pony Express, a snake-oil salesman or something.
Chuck And Mac, “Powerful Love”
KS: I threw this one on there because it’s become sort of an “it” track for us recently. It’s a classic story of Eccentric Soul. We put out Twinight’s Lunar Rotation record in early 2007, and five years later we’ve had a bunch of hits come out of that record.
The Notations, Annette Poindexter, Renaldo Domino, songs that we always really love—you can never tell what’s really going to happen to them. Chuck And Mac’s “Powerful Love” is one of those that we’re like, “This is such a great song. Someday something’s going to happen with this song.” And very recently a guy named Rian Johnson put it in a movie he was making called Looper. And it’s featured not once, but twice in the movie. Rian was super-touched by the song and sent it around to all these people. It’s kind of taken on the life that it probably should have had when it came out in 1968 or ’69.
AVC: It has to be exciting for acts like Chuck And Mac to show up in a movie almost 50 years after they were recording.
KS: Oh yeah, we’re constantly getting people who are like, “Can we do that again?” And we say, “Well, it doesn’t really work like that.” It’s always a surprise. I always tell people, “Look, here’s some successes that we’ve had in the past.” You explain Blue Valentine or this Looper placement or Syl Johnson being in a million different things. You explain this to people and you say, “This is work we’ve done in the past, but you never know what’s going to happen.”
We have really passionate people over here who look for these great moments of recorded history that have fallen between the cracks. The hope is that if you keep the entire catalog in print, if you keep everything out there and in circulation, songs really can’t be lost. They’re just waiting to be discovered by somebody else. Rian Johnson wasn’t with us in 2005 when we started working on Twinight, but he was there in 2011 when he had this idea for a movie and the song struck him. It’s an important part of the movie for him, and when you touch people like that with music, you’ve done the job that the song was supposed to do in the first place. It just took a lot longer to get there.