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Clip: Numero Group label unearths soul goldmine

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  • Carl Z.
    Numero Group label unearths soul goldmine June 4, 2006 BY THOMAS CONNER Sunday Show
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 4, 2006

      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
      it's nice."

      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:
      Why not?

      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."


      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.
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