It’s hard to think of a single instance—other than my current fascination with Numero Group—when I’ve become a big fan of a record label but not by way of any particular artist.
I may be a huge Beatles devotee, for example, or even a Duran Duran fan, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a Capitol Records enthusiast (the label both bands recorded for) or even aware of the label in any identifiable stylistic or historic way.
In the early 1990s, when I was taking a year off from school and living with friends in a band (who recorded for renowned punk label Dischord, home to and owned by the seminal band Fugazi), their influence made me a fan of not only Dischord but certain indie-rock or punk labels like Matador (home to Liz Phair) and Rykodisk (Morphine, Sugar). Had I gone to college here in the Northwest instead of being on the east coast (school in New York, my year off in DC), I might also have become a fan of labels like Seattle and Olympia-based Sub Pop and K Records.
Numero Group is something different. It specializes in reissues and collections of lesser-known soul and R&B artists of the past. In that way, though, it’s not unlike a label I loved as a kid: K-Tel Records, which produced several collections of pop hits in the 1970s and 80s. K-Tel’s name came from advertising on TV frequently, tangentially related to the “only $19.95!” genre.
I still have two K-Tel albums, by the way. One, Neon Nights, features dance and new-wave hits from the early 80s, from familiar songs like Rick James’ “Super Freak” and The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” to now forgotten fare by artists and groups like Skyye, Atlantic Starr and Junior. My other K-Tel album is 25 Rock Revival Greats, featuring early rock songs from the 1950s and early ’60s like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Chantilly Lace,” and “Wipe Out”. It was one of the first albums I listened to regularly on my own as a child that wasn’t children’s fare like my Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers records, or Marlo Thomas & Friends' Free To Be You and Be, and one of the first two or three albums I acquired independently of my parents. It had been given to me by a neighbor friend, Joe, out of a pile his older brother had left behind after moving out of the house.
1950s rock of this vintage, picked up from listening to 25 Rock Revival Greats, also represents some of the first music that my dad and I connected on. He loved hearing oldies like “Black Slacks” and “Rockin’ Robin”. In fact, my dad wound up taking me to what would be my first concert: Chuck Berry at Civic Auditorium in Portland. Until then, my tastes had been shaped more by my mom’s love of The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Elton John.
Numero Group is less crassly commercial than K-Tel, oriented to the past rather than mostly the present. It’s also a much deeper ongoing delve into a treasure-trove of lesser known music, particularly R&B and soul from the 1960s and 70s, be it from a host of different American cities and regions as well as imported sounds from the Caribbean and even Israel (a funk gospel album).
The funny thing is, while I certainly always have enjoyed the occasional Motown song, I was never a huge fan of the label or its trademark sound. A lot of the Motown glory years—the mid-1960s, were a little before the time period of a few years later that I like best, musically speaking, when R&B was ready to give way to funk.
That difference could be distinguished by the work Motown artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder did in each period. I adore Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On from the early 1970s, but don’t feel strongly about earlier hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” More importantly, I’m resistant to hit golden-oldie songs that have permeated popular culture enough to be played constantly over the years in movies, TV shows and commercials. Part of what I love about songs from Twinight’s Lunar Rotation and some of the other Numero Uno soul collections is that it’s music I haven’t already heard played to death.
The first Numero album I bought on the label was the soundtrack (never before released) of a 1974 blaxploitation movie called Brotherman that was never actually made. The producer commissioned the soundtrack from an unfortunately titled but talented Chicago act called The Final Solution. Their style is similar to Curtis Mayfield, whose Superfly soundtrack is arguably the gold standard of blaxploitation movie-inspired albums. Its songs are about drug dealers and pimps, but the sound is bright and uplifting, the guitar-bass-drums combination firmly at root yet enlivened with a wide array of horns and strings. (I previously blogged about Brotherman separately a few months ago.)
Yet Numero Group is really about its collections of old soul music by a varity of artists. As they write on the label's website, "The mission was simple: to dig deep into the recesses of our record collections with the goal of finding the dustiest gems begging to be released from their exile on geek street. No longer would $500 singles sit in a temperature-controlled room dying for a chance to be played. No more would the artists, writers, and entrepreneurs who made these records happen go unknown and unappreciated."
My favorite collection so far is called Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation. All the music was culled from a Chicago label, first called Twilight and then later Twinight. The label was a kind of side project for a couple of music-industry insiders who specialized in signing artists to bigger major national labels but reserved their own brand for an assortment of singers and groups in the Chicago area, some of whom were on the cusp of breaking through with radio hits and some who were little more than dreamers saving up their money to satisfy the dream of recording a song or two in a professional studio.
One group in particular, The Notations, seem wondrous. Imagine the warm, heartfelt tones of Marvin Gaye and the early '70s sub-era of the Motown sound, with just a touch of the harmonizing earlier Motown groups predating like The Temptations that can be heard in songs like "A New Day" and "I'm Still Here".
In all the Twinight’s Lunar Rotation songs I enjoy the warm, bright tones: brass sections of saxes and trumpets with jangly guitar and the occasional organ. The lyrics are often quite melancholy, yet underscored with an unrepentant sense of optimism. This is non-cynical music mostly coming out of an African-American culture of the 1960s and 70s with plenty of reason to be. And decades after the civil rights and antiwar movements from whence these songs came, the subjects (mostly love and relationships) and sounds are transcendent.
There are too many different artists and songs to talk about individually, but I have to at least mention the great band and artist names on Twinight’s Lunar Rotation, such as Renaldo Domino, Harrison & The Majestic Kind, Velma Perkins, and Nate Evans.
Another Numer Group collection I’ve played countless times over the past few months is called Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay (pictured at right). Besides the music being produced in large American cities like Chicago, Philadelphia or Miami, Numero Group has shown there to be a rich patchwork quilt of international locales that produced very listenable soul music scenes of their own. I would have expected Bahamas music to have been much more exclusively reggae-like, but Grand Bahama Goombay is closer to straight-up rock or R&B with small flourishes of calypso and other Latin American sounds.
My favorite artist on this collection is definitely Cyril Ferguson, who also goes by the stage name Dry Bread. In fact, of his two songs on the album, each is under one of the monikers. This actually seems oddly fitting given how different they are lyrically, or at least thematically. “Gonna Build a Nation,” which leads off Grand Bahama Goombay, is inspiring ‘60s rhetoric about brothers and sisters joining hand in hand to create a new, less violent, more egalitarian society. “Words to My Song,” is a witty track composed on the spot during a recording session when some impromptu jamming on guitar and drums with fellow musicians called for some lyrics on the spot. It presents the author as fed up because someone has stolen the words to his recording. He writes, “The next time I write a song/there ain’t gonna be no words/let the music go on.”
One other song from Grand Bahama Goombay is really worth mentioning: a cover of Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five,” by Ozzie Hall. It’s one of my favorite jazz covers, because Hall manages to maintain the sense of precision that exists in the original work but to give it a warmer, more…soulful feel than even Brubeck’s version ever had.
Two other collections I've either bought or received recently (my birthday a couple weeks ago) are Eccentric Soul: The Bick Mack Label (Big Mack was a Detroit-based Motown competitor); Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up, featuring music from Belize; and Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label (pictured in the marching band shot above), music from south Florida. Of these, I know Deep City the best. As often happens with these albums, the first song seems to be one of the best: "Am I A Good Man" by Them Two, a soul-searching soul song if there ever was one.
Another favorite track on Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label, "I Am Controlled By Your Love" by Helene Smith, typifies a type of song I've heard numerous times on these collections. In it, Smith sings of how no matter what hardships may threaten her relationship, and regardless of what mistakes or transgressions her lover commits, she is happily and unrepentantly at the mercy of her affection. Her love is undying no matter what. It gets to a level of absurdity, but the purity of the lyrics' passion is palpable and very memorable. The same could be said for "Yes, My Goodness Yes" by Velma Perkins (pictured at left) on Eccentric Soul: Twinight's Lunar Rotation.In that song, Perkins reaches a kind of estatic level of romance that is totally unpractical but again, impressive in its intensity. These women really, really love their fellas.
Not every song or artist on these Numero Uno albums is great, of course. And even after hundreds of listening hours, I’ve only scratched the surface of the label’s catalog. Yet in that time, Numero Group has done nothing less than to reshape my sense and impression of American music during the years leading up to and immediately after the time I was born, which also happened to be some of the most socially tumultuous and artistically fruitful.