As we detailed in this blog post, Jeff Cowell’s corner of Michigan is a fascinating wonderland of locals, yokels, and all-around friendly folk from America’s Heartland. Issued privately four decades ago, Lucky Strikes and Liquid Gold is unknown to most, even in the neighborly community of Iron Mountain. Considered front page news to us at the Numero Group, we can’t be upset with these precious picas inside The Iron Mountain Daily News. Doubling down on our chances of engaging the reader, Cowell took out a few classified ads, reiterating the points of the article in retail parlance.
If it is in any way unclear where you can purchase this album at this point, you can buy it on our website by clicking this link. If you’ve got to wait until payday to pull the trigger on this remarkable long player, feel free to keep this business card in your e-wallet as a reminder.
Yesterday, our own Jon Kirby joined Way Out VP Bill Branch and Sound Of Applause host Dee Perry for a roundtable discussion on the history of Way Out Records, and the role the label played in the maturation of Cleveland’s music scene. The WCPN staffers picked their favorite tracks from Eccentric Soul: The Way Out Label, and Bill Branch discusses the heartache associated with hearing so many beautiful productions that failed to find an audience at the time of their initial release.
While traipsing through the prolific career of songwriter Lamont Dozier last Friday on The Morning Shift, host Tony Sarabia played a more curious cut from the Motown luminary’s catalog—1981’s “Cool Me Out.” Dozier declared (and Wikipedia decreed) that this song is a “beach music hit,” a term that perked the ears of Sarabia. Not wanting the music of his native Carolinas to go misunderstood, our own resident Shag-ologist Jon Kirby left a message at WBEZ, which aired yesterday inside The Morning Shift.
P.S. The song at that segment’s close is “Hey I Know You” by the Monzas, a certain contender should Numero ever mint a Beach Music compilation. Should said catalog entry ever materialize, this Lowlands-eque snapshot will certainly be in the running for cover images.
We stop by Hymie’s Vintage Records in Minneapolis each and every time we visit the Twin Cities, and were thrilled to learn that owner and proprietor Dave Hoenack had been solicited by the City Pages to write about our recently unleashed Lewis Connection LP. Basically, Dave gets it. He’s seen a few precious copies of this privately pressed oddity rise resurface over the years, and understands better than most the real reason why this 1979 release is significant (hint: it’s not because Prince Rogers Nelson plays on it).
If you can’t make it to Hymie’s, where The Lewis Connection is prominently displayed on the wall above their Local section, sled or snowshoe on over to our web store for sound clips and/or to purchase.
The Chicago Tribune’s Jessica Hopper followed us around for a few hours a couple weeks back. We talked at great length about the 500 reels cluttering up our office that we procured last fall. You may remember them from this photo:
Although the story has many other dimensions, particularly the involvement of group harmony guru Bob Abrahamian who had access to Joe Lopez’s transfers and discussed the Marlynns record (mentioned in the story) with him. He has also been instrumental in identifying material from the master reels, but this truncated version of the story doesn’t mention him.
Full transcript below:
Like many great mysteries, this one begins with the extraordinary claims of a strange man.
“Every record store like this (Record Dugout) has a character like Joe Lopez,” says Numero Group’s Ken Shipley. Shipley, along with Rob Sevier, one of his two partners in the Chicago-based record label, has spent the last six months untangling a mystery that spans five years and 500 reels of recording tape, though it begins with Lopez, decades earlier.
It’s a buried treasure tale that also gets at the core of what Numero Group does and why that work matters. Sevier explains that though he didn’t know Lopez, he knows the type. “One of those guys who just shows up and spins yarns, one of those ‘I’ve got all the Chi-Lites master tapes at my house,’ kind of guys.”
Numero, which Shipley and Sevier founded along with Tom Lunt a decade ago, has grown to become one of America’s premier reissue labels.
The label, which has garnered Grammy nominations, operates out of a bungalow in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and specializes in unearthing the lost legacies of boutique soul labels and artists of the ’60s and ’70s. The label then reissues new versions of the recordings.
But Numero’s true vocation is pulling a thread of truth from yarns such as Lopez’s and following it to a holy grail of old recordings rotting away in someone’s closet. With that task in mind, the two are headed to 63rd Street and Austin Boulevard with boxes of hundreds of old reel-to-reel tapes.
The story of the tapes begins in 2007 at Record Dugout where Steve Batinich, a lifelong collector, sells records as well as baseball and music memorabilia. It is a place where other collectors come to flip through vintage LPs and trade tales of their finds.
One day Sevier was visiting with Batinich when Dugout regular Lopez came in and began bragging about his piece of a fabled trove of Chicago soul recordings. This particular collection has gained an almost mythological stature among Chicago soul music die-hards: the Ed Cody tapes. Lopez tells them that he used to work with Cody in the mid-’60s when Cody was an engineer at Stereosonic, and he has many reels of Cody’s work in his possession, including tapes of unreleased sessions of The Jackson 5 and Chicago harmony soul group The Marlynns. Lopez says he is considering pressing some recordings, as The Marlynns records are quite valuable on the soul music collector market.
Sevier was skeptical. “It seemed unlikely that Joe Lopez could have worked on these sessions, because he would have been, like, 12 at the time.” Cody, who spent the ’60s and ’70s bouncing between Chicago studios and running small labels and is what Sevier calls “a bit of a hermit,” flatly refused all offers and entreaties for his audio archive. The prospect that somehow the tapes had been parsed out to Lopez seemed dubious.
Sevier thought little of the exchange with Lopez until several months later in 2008, when a freshly pressed Marlynns 45 rpm single showed up for auction on eBay, with the seller feigning ignorance of its provenance. Sevier created an alias to bid on it, and after winning the auction left public feedback saying the singles were bootlegs. The alias he created for no reason other than a humorous whim, BobMiner2007, was the name of an employee of Record Dugout. What happened as a result kicked off the odyssey of the Joe Lopez-Ed Cody tapes and another amazing Numero Group find.
Shortly after Sevier won the auction, Lopez stormed into Record Dugout and accused the real Bob Miner of ripping him off, effectively proving that Lopez did have the Marlynns masters he claimed and possibly others.
“That is our opening salvo,” Shipley explains. “That is our first knowledge of the existence of the tapes.”
From there, the tale of the tapes begins a circuitous route: A record dealer from Madison, Wis., contacted Shipley with a report of a storage unit in Rockford that contained hundreds of reels purported to be Chicago soul recordings. The unit’s owner was asking a half-million dollars for the collection. Then, acetates from various small labels Ed Cody worked with over the years began showing up at record fairs. By 2011, it became clear that someone who had access to sessions Cody recorded was parsing bits of them into the music collector underground.
Then a year goes by with no news of Lopez or his tapes, until Batinich gets a call in August from Lopez’s widow (he died of cancer). She had a storage locker full of these reels and was wondering if Batinich might be interested in them. Batinich struck a deal with her for the 500 unlabeled, decaying boxes of tape. Having no idea what was on them, only hopes of what could be, he reached out to the people who might know: Numero.
The terms of the deal were simple: Batinich would sell Numero whatever it wanted, but on the label had to identify and mark what it could. Fearful of missing something important or unheralded, Numero began dutifully combing through each and every tape, inventorying and labeling as best it could.
What was there? According to Sevier, “Dross, mostly. Recordings of baseball games. Transfers of LPs. Polka. Unknown gospel choirs. A Kool & The Gang radio spot. Someone’s anti-drug version of ‘Purple Rain.'” But Lopez had, at some point, separated some of the tapes, labeling them in a rudimentary way — “blues” and “good soul” — and had set aside a batch of recordings he felt were notable. Sometimes he was right, sometimes not, but his efforts gave Numero a little bit of a head start.
“Eighty-eight tapes,” Shipley says. That’s how many Numero ended up buying. The other 400-odd are in boxes with Sevier and Shipley, headed back to Batinich’s shop to continue their journey, whatever that may be, possibly to be parsed out to other labels, other interested parties or the trash collector.
“Did you burn CDs of the good stuff for me?” Batinich asks. Sevier shakes his head. “Any rockabilly?” Sevier’s answer is again, no. “This is a second copy of Amazing Farmer Singers’ ‘I’ve Got a Telephone In My Bosom,'” offers Sevier, holding up a small reel. He has no encouraging news for Batinich, as Numero has picked these boxes clean of their gems.
Of the 88 tapes Numero acquired, more than half have been identified, Sevier guesses.
“It’s about 25 percent is stuff that’s already been released, most of it legitimately,” he says. “About 10 or 15 are masters of Clarence Johnson-produced recordings. The next 25 percent is stuff that is in a real gray area; we know how complicated it would be to license and release it, and it’s not even worth it. Another 25 percent is indie stuff, our wheelhouse, that we have identified and in some cases people we already know and have worked with. Then the other 25 percent is stuff we have no idea what it is, and it runs from pretty awesome to totally awesome.”
Sevier’s favorite track among the pile of still unknowns is the strangest song they’ve found.
“It’s mysterious in origin and in what the band was trying to achieve,” he says with a laugh. “It was only labeled ‘Cemetery Song,’ and it’s a 14-minute psychedelic soul opus that is maybe Halloween-themed. We have no idea. There are no clues, no hints.”
The big finds among Lopez’s tape stash include a very rare single by Chicago vocal group The Ivories, two unreleased Don Gardner songs from his most famous session and the odd album of German hard rock band Epitaph, which happened to record for a local label. There were three unreleased songs from Stax recording artists Sons of Slum and a reel containing “This Love For Real” by Hands of Time, which was produced by Leroy Hutson of The Impressions.
While it’s exciting for Numero to be able to issue crucial singles from known artists, for Shipley and Sevier the most significant work that they have identified is a six-song session by long-dead soul singer Calvin Harris. How they did it makes it seem like these tapes were fated to fall into their hands.
About a year before Lopez’s tape cache took over the Numero office, Sevier was talking to Earl Wiley, a local booking agent-turned-producer, for research on an unrelated project. Wiley told him a story about a group “stealing” a song from him. In 1972, Wiley was in Cody’s Stereosonic studio producing a recording with an unknown but talented singer, Harris — a demo meant to showcase both Harris and Wiley’s talents. Nothing ever came of it, and the tapes essentially disappear. The following year, Wiley hears a song from his Harris demo, “Love Won’t Pay the Bills,” but it’s being performed by another group, Elevation, but has no idea how they got the song. Cody was the engineer on both sessions.
Forty years go by and then, one day, Numero engineer Haley Fohr cues up a tape at the Numero office, and Sevier and Shipley immediately recognize “Love Won’t Pay The Bills” as it comes out of the speakers. And it’s not the Elevation version; it’s the original. This is the lost Calvin Harris session.
“We had to be there, at that house, at that moment, in order to identify what was on this tape,” Shipley says.
From the 88 tapes, Shipley says, Numero will issue, tops, a handful of 45s. The rest they will archive for safekeeping.
“Someday, someone — a museum, another label, an archive — is going to want this,” Shipley says. “We are interested in saving what are historically significant. If Lopez’s widow just hadn’t called Record Dugout, I can guarantee these tapes would be in some landfill right now.”
“First Step Beyond’s decontextualised Neanderthal heaviness confuses itself and everyone who comes into contact with it, like a caveman in a Disney film who gets transported to 60s suburbia, takes a dump in Mom’s Tupperware and wears her diaphragm as a hat.”
With lines like that, he could easily land a job as Numero Group’s in-house publicist. Unfortunately, he’s already employed as Britain’s leading expert on Derek Bailey (not to mention being officially the 41st Best Stand Up Ever).
Just when we were prepared to take our 45 box and go home, NPR’s Oliver Wang went ahead and unleashed a thousand and a half words on Eccentric Soul: Omnibus. Mea Culpa.
The salient bit is this:
Reissue labels generally fly below the radar: it’s the albums or compilations they put out that are supposed to be the main focus. With Numero though, from very early on, the label itself established its imprimatur via a few distinctive features: a consistent packaging style, meticulous liner notes featuring interviews with original artists and producers and perhaps most importantly, a sense of exclusivity without snobbery, education without pedantry. Numero releases often make you feel like you’re learning something important without overselling that point.
Not to be outdone, the Onion’s AV Club has a longish Q&A with Numero ringleader Ken Shipley.
Here’s the take home quote:
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.
Finally, last night this little Boston Phoenix gem showed up in our Google Alerts:
A massive cup-runneth-over of 45 45s that gives lavish treatment to 90 sides of criminally ignored funk and soul radness.
Here’s a few more while we have you here:
Numero has achieved a reputation for quality both in content and in presentation andOmnibus certainly lives up it, raising the bar such that I can’t imagine what they have in store for their second collection.—Consequence Of Sound
Numero Group, one of the country’s leading reissue labels, crams 45 45’s and a hardback book into a portable case that’ll appeal to anyone curious about the genre’s golden years.—New York Magazine
Chicago Magazine stuffed it into their gift guide.
But really, that’s kinda it. To the many freelance writers and magazine editors out there who will point to not being serviced with the release we ask, “How many $250 box sets are showing up in your mailbox on a regular basis?”
Hop to kids, we’ve got less than 100 copies in our warehouse.