Clip: Numero Group label unearths soul goldmine
Numero Group label unearths soul goldmine
June 4, 2006
BY THOMAS CONNER Sunday Show Editor
Ed McCoy went broke chasing his dream -- and not a darn thing came of it.
He lost a job, struggled to feed his family and borrowed thousands
from relatives before giving up and heeding his original calling: the
ministry. Today, he's the Rev. Ed McCoy, pastor of the New Harmony
Baptist Church in Detroit, but 40 years ago -- in an era he dismisses
casually as "a whole other life, a whole different time" -- he was a
record producer at one of the best times to have such a title and in
one of the nation's hottest musical centers. But the audience for his
rhythm-and-blues records rarely grew beyond the five-block radius of
his makeshift warehouse studio, and scores of hot soul singles went
"Until now!" exclaims Ken Shipley, cheekily heralding the expected
turning point in such a story.
He's the turning point, in fact. Shipley, along with Tom Lunt and Rob
Sevier, his mates at The Numero Group record label, has made it his
mission to unearth such lost musical gems from around the country and
give them a second chance via a smartly curated and beautifully
packaged series of CDs.
McCoy's story is moving, but it's a snowflake on the tip of an
iceberg. The landscape of America is littered (often literally) with
the broken dreams and broken platters of musicians and backers who
made great music that, because of whatever vagaries of the business or
their personal lives, never saw the proverbial light of day. Numero
No. 008 (each title is numbered, thus the label's name) is "Wayfaring
Strangers: Ladies From the Canyon," a roundup of '60s and '70s female
folksingers who cut albums in church basements and whose scuffed LPs
might be found only in Salvation Army thrift shops. No. 007 summed up
the influential but briefly lived Deep City label in Miami. Numero's
third collection chronicled Chicago's own Bandit label, a doomed
effort of the late Arrow Brown but a powder keg packed with explosive
No one's kidding themselves that landing a track on a Numero
compilation offers a new chance at stardom, but many of the artists --
fine performers who simply missed the music business boat the first
time out -- are grateful someone out there finally might hear and
appreciate their tunes.
"Becky [Severson] was so surprised when we contacted her," Shipley
says of the singer whose simply strummed, Joan Baez-inspired "A
Special Path" opens the "Ladies From the Canyon" CD. "She didn't think
anyone ever cared. ... I mean, we're not anyone's savior here, but
Where in the world is ...?
Finding an artist like Becky Severson, however, takes determination
and detective work. If the Numero Group never turns a profit, its
founders can moonlight as gumshoes.
Shipley's Bucktown apartment is piled with vinyl records. As he talks
about each Numero Group CD, he doesn't point to or play from the
digital tracks -- he's grabbing LPs and 45s out of rickety crates and
throwing them on his turntable, sometimes with a preface such as, "You
gotta hear this one -- it'll destroy your brain!" These are the
platters that feed and form each compilation. He presents Severson's
LP, a homemade relic from the age of "Godspell" graphic design.
"We love ['A Special Path'], and we knew we wanted to lead the CD with
it, but we had no idea how to get a hold of her," Shipley says of
Severson. Then, pointing to various elements of the album's liner
notes, he explains the "CSI" process that precedes the addition of
almost every track to a Numero CD. The ladies from this "Canyon" were
particularly difficult to find, given that most had married and taken
new last names during the last three or more decades.
"See, it was recorded at Studio A in St. Paul. We Googled 'Severson'
and found 10 in Minnesota, and called them. None of them were her.
"We narrowed it down to St. Cloud [Minn.] and called every Severson in
the book. The 24th of 25 that we called was her father. He's an
80-year-old guy who lives an hour away from her. He says he's got 500
copies of the record in his attic."
The same process unearthed Judy Tomlinson. The title track to her
"Window" LP, recorded as Judy Kelly, is a centerpiece of "Ladies From
the Canyon," a soaring, early-Joni Mitchell metaphor of vision with
voice and piano. If you're reading this and your name happens to be
Judy Kelly, you already know this part of the hunt.
"We called every Judy Kelly [listed] in the United States," Shipley says.
"It took a lot of detective work to find me," Tomlinson wrote to the
Sun-Times in an e-mail. "God has a way of working things out, but I'm
still completely amazed that two guys from Chicago knew about me and
the 'Window' album and had taken the time and trouble to track me
Caroline Peyton's soulful "Engram" made the CD, though she was easier
to find. Peyton's tracks are all over Chicago -- a theater student at
Northwestern University in the late '60s, she wound up with a stage
career that included "The Pirates of Penzance" here beginning in 1981.
"James Belushi was our pirate king," she says, "and we were there when
his brother John died."
Shipley relishes his discoveries. "They don't know this stuff his
value," he says. "Most of them have forgotten about it. This is a
long-gone part of their lives. My challenge is: There's a million
records out there -- let's find the best. Anyone could throw an
unheard-gospel compilation together, but let's be the guys who
assemble the best lost treasures."
He'll be on his way
Ed McCoy's phone had rung off and on since the '80s with people trying
to get their hands on his stash. A few singles from his fledgling Big
Mack label had managed to travel and impress a few other archive label
"One of the songs we did had become a cult classic in Europe, a
collector's item -- 'I'll Be on My Way,' by Bob and Fred," McCoy says.
The song, recorded by McCoy in '66, is on Numero No. 009, "Eccentric
Soul: The Big Mack Label," which comes out Tuesday. "For a number of
years this has been going on. ... I told 'em, 'I'm just not in that
line now.' ... The Numero boys, they came with a plan, and we said,
'OK, fine.' It's not an issue I'm looking to get rich on. If it does
something, fine. If not, OK."
McCoy got into the record business in his native Detroit without stars
in his eyes. A social worker for the city of Detroit and married with
kids by his early 20s, McCoy needed to supplement his income. Fellow
Detroiter Berry Gordy was scoring big hits at Motown. McCoy thought:
To get his side business as a record producer started, McCoy borrowed
$1,000 from his dad in 1961. Then, realizing his passion for the music
was significantly stronger than that for his city job, he decided to
make it more than a side business.
"I walked into the house on a Friday and told my wife I quit my job,"
he says. "We had a kid and one on the way, and a big house note. I
went out and cut four or five sides, spent all of the thousand
dollars. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought all you had to do
was record it and get it done and go back and collect your money. But
no promotion, no money. I was losing my shirt."
He went back to work for the city -- in fact, he also picked up
another job, working nights at Chrysler Motors, then later bought into
a franchise of ice cream trucks -- but he also managed to get use of a
vacant building on Detroit's Warren Street for McCoy Recording &
Distribution, which included three different labels: R&B and soul on
Big Mack Records, blue-eyed soul on Wildcat Records and gospel on
Brighter Day Records.
The Numero compilation chronicles a decade of scorching soul singles
at Big Mack, from '63 to '72. The sound of the singles -- the "pure
car chase" of "Bui Bui" by L. Hollis & the Mackadoos, the off-the-wall
"Why Should I Cry?" by the purposefully misspelled Manhattens, the
"Animal House"-like stomp of the Sleepwalkers' "Mini Skirt" -- is the
sound of transition. These are Detroit singers, saturated in the
moment of Motown but beginning to hear the grittier soul records
coming out of the South.
"A lotta good folks came through there," McCoy says. Anyone could walk
in off Warren Street and record a one-take, one-off song for $14.95.
McCoy took all comers. "Folks were in that building every day
rehearsing and working, and I didn't have any money. How the heck did
we get it done? Why were these people hanging around? To do it now,
I'd need a million dollars. But I'm one of these crazy folk. I dare."
McCoy closed down the recording company in 1981 to become a pastor,
which has been his main method of making joyful noise for the last 17
years. But he's still in a band -- a gospel band. And they're about to
record a CD.
"But, you know, I'm content with this life. That's why we talked with
these [Numero] guys so long," he says. "It's not anything I felt we
had to do. It's just what we did. I can't help but be flattered by
their interest. ... And if folks out there get to hear the music, even
after all these years, well then, we did it. It took us longer than
most, but we did it."
BY THE NUMEROS
The Numero Group (www.numerogroup.com) thus far has released these
nine compilations of lost musical treasures:
No. 001: "Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label" -- Short for "Capital
City Soul," the Columbus, Ohio, Capsoul label had just a few regional
No. 002: "Antena: Camino Del Sol" -- The best French-Belgian
electro-samba record you've never heard, first released in 1982.
No. 003: "Eccentric Soul: The Bandit Label" -- The underside of
Chicago soul in 20 tracks of blistering R&B, sweet soul, and discofied
No. 004: "Yellow Pills: Prefill" -- A prequel of sorts to the 1990s
series of "Yellow Pills" popwer-pop compilations. These tracks are
even more obscure.
No. 005: "Fern Jones: The Glory Road" -- Jones was a gospel singer who
sounded like Saturday night on a Sunday morning. Patsy on Jesus. Elvis
without the pelvis.
No. 006: "Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up" -- Mix equal parts R&B,
calypso, disco, funk, reggae, bruckdown, soul, folk, and whatever else
can be found.
No. 007: "Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label" -- The Deep City sound
not only changed the Miami area, but set the tone for disco in the
No. 008: "Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies From the Canyon" -- The folk
that began in the hills and caught fire on the lower east side of
Manhattan was being reborn in the '70s in the canyons of California.
No. 009: "Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label" -- If Detroit was once
an ocean of soul, the Big Mack label was certainly an island.