Thursday, March 9, 2006

THE FORGOTTEN CITY

Posted on Thu, Mar 9, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label
Label: The Numero Group
Rated: NONE
WorkNameSort: Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label

It's important to remember that before Miami was fashionable and flashy, it was just hot and Southern. Thanks to decades of Latinization and overdevelopment, the period between the city's Art Deco glory and its glammy Miami Vice resurrection is often forgotten. Yet this transitional period was one that found this distant metropolis all but neglected by anyone other than retirees, on-the-make mobsters and Deep South swamp rats. Remember the setting for the chainsaw scene in Scarface? That run-down, degenerate-looking area? That's what most of Miami Beach looked like for a long time.

Now, of course, if Tony Montana were to go looking for the Sun Ray Apartments, he'd find a Johnny Rockets at the address. But before the Mariel boatlift transformed the city's demographics and, eventually, its international image, Miami was just another misunderstood Southern metropolis, partitioned by race and off the cultural radar. Sure, the ridiculously rich called the city home even then, and in-the-know music-business types were glad to draw on the city's wealth of amenities (great weather, cheap rent and even cheaper session musicians), but nobody took Miami seriously as a cultural hotspot.

Nobody, except the people who lived in Miami.

During the mid-'60s, three public school teachers focused their extracurricular attention on the area's soul music scene. Willie Clarke, Johnny Persall and Arnold Albury acted variously as musicians, record store operators and, ultimately, record label proprietors. During this era, every small label venture struggled in the shadow of Motown, which stimulated extreme entrepreneurial creativity. Multiple labels would operate under the same ownership, and musicians were often only "signed" to do a single or two at a pop. As the scene progressed, these three teachers settled into their roles as the men behind Deep City Records, a label that was successful by local standards, thanks mainly to the continued collaboration of one Clarence Reid.

Much better known in his later incarnation as the X-rated disco-rapper Blowfly, Reid's true talents as a soul music polymath are in ample evidence on this new 17-track compilation of Deep City's best moments. Acting not only as a songwriter, but also as an arranger and pianist (insert Blowfly-worthy double entendre here), Reid's input quickly elevated Deep City's material above the predictable output of their contemporaries. Although these skills would ultimately reap him the most benefit while working on disco records at the much more high-profile TK Records, those later tracks have none of the raw power of the cuts on this disc.

The music on Eccentric Soul isn't very eccentric, but it is far from standard. Hard-driving and visceral, most of the cuts bristle with the energy of one-take sessions but benefit from sparkling and sophisticated arrangements. Surprisingly, there's only one cover song – a wrenching version of "Pain in My Heart" sung in switch-up fashion by the estimable Helene Smith. The rest of the material is courtesy of various permutations of Clarke, Persall, Albury and Reid. Betty Wright, who would go on to find tremendous success with Reid and Clarke at TK, struts her stuff on two stunning tracks. The rest of the lineup is hardly remembered today – especially the deep-soul group sounds of the Moovers. Good thing excellent compilations like this make it a lot harder for condos and crime shows to completely erase the memories of Miami's music past.

Blowfly
with Cracker Jackson, Fashion Fashion and the Image Boys

9 pm Friday, March 10
Will's Pub

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