In the ’60s and early ’70s, nearly everyone seemed to be saving their funkiest horn blasts, most penetrable hooks and sweetest croons for the one 45 that would hopefully be a sensation. With one record, any makeshift, small-budget label could be lifted from anonymity and jettisoned to soul stardom. That’s all it took – one artist to turn some mid-sized American city into the next Motown.
The reality is that most of these records, whether they were potential hit-makers or not, were immediately forgotten and stowed away in some dank basement corner. In this vein, an unbelievable collection has been found scattered around in a ragged cardboard box in a home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Numero Group, the record label ridiculously adept at compiling lost soul, R&B and funk singles from times past, is responsible for resurrecting a wide swath of these lost gems, and they found a particularly strong success with this one.
Numero’s Outskirts of Deep City is a Miami-based imprint with more than a couple artists with potential for national success. Voices like Betty Wright and Helene Smith seem to possess all the right qualities to make it. Deep City takes a closer look at this catalogue as well as some smaller tributary labels, providing more cuts from Wright and Smith and some soul-step gems from artists that never made it out of Miami’s suburban sprawl, let alone Florida.
Soul music, at its heart, is formula. “You Send Me” is the same four-step guitar strum as Sam Cooke’s lesser-known track “I Need You Now,” just with background cooing and altered lyrics – but it’s no less transcendent. When Otis Redding pulls out his devastating “Pain in My Heart,” it’s simply taking Irma Thomas’s original in a different direction.
Sources say that the impetus for this new compilation was the discovery of the record’s first track. The Rollers’ “Knockin’ At The Wrong Door” is a blatant reworking of “I Want You Back,” and it’s every bit as energetic, beat-your-feet worthy and kick-ass as the Jackson 5 original. The melody and the rhythm are exactly the same, but instead of Michael’s years-beyond-his-age vocals, you’ve got a spunky girl group dishing out retro adages like, “you’re knockin’ on the wrong door, if you can dig what it is.”
On “There Goes My Baby,” James Knight and the Butlers offer a counterfeit “Tighten Up,” lacking vocal range but offering solid instrumentation that remains constant throughout. There’s no dance like with the original, and the track never veers into the kind of frenetic chaos found on Billy Ball and the Upsetters’ “Tighten Up Tighter.” But despite this, the song is wholly enjoyable.
On the track “Do What You’re Doin’,” The Rising Sun spins a lesson on creating texture by beautifully utilizing silence and methodical rhythm. The song could go on for 10 minutes with the same melody and the same lyrics, and it would still be sad to see it come to an end.
For years now, Numero Group has been resurrecting lost treasures, salvaging them from obscurity and giving them the audience they could never quite reach. In listening to all of their compilations, a staggering amount of contradictions arise. How could success prove elusive for artists this talented and tracks as flat-out stunning as a lot of the ones preserved on these records? One has to hope the country was so rich in homespun soul talent that these artists deservedly remain in obscurity – otherwise, it would be cruel and unjust.
What makes Outskirts stand out from the preceding comps is its noticeable embrace of emulation. Even though these artists never reached the same level of commercial success as the songs they set out to imitate, these tracks prove it was in no way because of a lack of resourcefulness or ingenuity. After all, it wasn’t derivation that catapulted soul in the ’60s, but formula.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Eccentric Soul: Outskirts of Deep City