"We subscribe to the idea that great music doesn't have to stay lost, that timeless artists will find their time and that there are no 're-issues,' only records whose issues have finally been resolved."The Numero Group
Look around every corner and you'll find reminders of ghostly music scenes. Ones easily brought back to life with the spin of a scratchy 45 or the glimpse of a smudged black-and-white photo. Michigan, and Detroit in particular, has far more than its share of languishing musical tales. But here are five that, with the aid of the visionary out-of-state label attention they deserve, will languish no more.
The York Brothers
Long Time Gone: The King and DeLuxe Acetate Series
Natives of Kentucky, George and Leslie York are remembered as a guitar-picking duo that harmonized in the style of the great hillbilly brother acts. Like their more famous peers, the brothers Delmore and Louvin, the York Brothers were influential; the Everly Brothers even covered the Yorks' "Long Time Gone" on their 1958 Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album. They were also original and prolific, recording mostly self-penned songs for a half-dozen labels in their two-decade career. Nevertheless, they remain criminally underrated, which is why Long Time Gone is an essential slice of rural musical history. After gaining radio popularity in Portsmouth, Ohio, in the 1930s, the Yorks moved to Detroit in time to kick-start the city's burgeoning country music scene. Their 1939 jukebox hit "Hamtramck Mama" solidified their local rep and became the duo's calling card.
The first in a long line of tawdry Detroit hillbilly gems which included Johnny Bucket's "Griddle Greasin' Daddy," Rufus Shoffner's "At The Burlesque Show" and Roy Hall's "Dirty Boogie" "Hamtramck Mama" was promptly banned in the Polish enclave, which only increased its notoriety. The single reportedly sold more than 300,000 copies in Detroit alone, paving the way for the more explicit "Highland Park Girl." (These and other early sides are available on Woodward Records' The York Brothers in Detroit). The Brothers were now full-on Detroiters and this disc opens with a love letter to their adopted hometown, the rocking "Motor City Boogie." Having had releases on labels as minuscule as Hot Wax and as high-powered as Decca in the first decade of their career, the Yorks' 1947 signing to Cincinnati's King Records produced some of their finest sides, 24 of which are presented here; many of them previously unissued. (See acerecords.co.uk.)
Lou Beatty's Detroit Soul
In the mid- to late '60s, with Motown ruling the charts and countless local labels vying for the Motor City's wellspring of soul talent, Lou Beatty's La Beat Records may have been a drop in the bucket, but enough of a threat that Berry Gordy once allegedly gave him the old "This town isn't big enough for the both of us!" line. Thankfully, Beatty soldiered on his roster ran the gamut from Edward Hamilton's smoothly rendered R&B to Nelson Sanders' James Brown-styled wails. Label house band the LPTs (short for La Beat Production Team) injected Beatty's records with chitlin' circuit authenticity, earned from countless nights holding down the stage at Detroit's Raven Lounge. The label's "stars" were Texans the Masqueraders, who, after receiving a cool reception at their Motown audition, were dejectedly strolling down 14th Street when they spied a microphone in the picture window of Beatty's stately two-story studio. The rest is history. Hitsville's loss was La Beat's gain Beatty soon cut the band's stomping "I'm Gonna Make It" tough guitar, raw vocals and all. With no national hits, La Beat shut down in 1972, leaving behind a cache of some of the finest Detroit soul sounds of all time. (See grapevine-soul.com.)
Battle of Hastings Street
Hastings Street record shop owner Joe Von Battle was known for recording gospel, most notably Motor City superstar C.L. Franklin, whom he advertised shamelessly in every window as well as the main sign of his store. No fan of fancy production, Von Battle's recording style was even for the late '40s and early '50s gutbucket. He'd simply power up the recorder and let it rip. This method produced many gospel discs that might've sounded better had he moved a few mics around. The blues artists Von Battle recorded in the back of his record shop suffered similar low-fi fates, which lends the music on this collection an air of chaos. (That's not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, what passes for blues nowadays could use a lot more of it.)
The comp kicks off with Detroit pianist Joe Weaver and his Blue Notes (featuring Johnny Bassett slashing away on slide guitar). Weaver and Bassett, you'll note, would later make their name at Detroit's Fortune Records, as would the Richard Brothers and Eddie Kirkland. Together with Eddie Burns, these artists highlight Battle, almost half of which has never been issued before. Memo to aspiring punks: Put down that Stooges album and dig Kirkland's four long-out-of-print solo sides particularly the brooding "I Mistreated a Woman" and its flip "No Shoes" which feature guitar tones so distorted they border revolutionary. (See acerecords.co.uk.)
Scream Loud!! The Fenton Story
Foreshadowed only by a haunting, minor-keyed guitar, the lyrics are plodding, deliberately chosen and unrepentant. Spoken rather than sung, the would-be teenage philosopher spits his words out with underlying menace: "You expected me to ... believe ... every word you said/ But now those words are dead." A fuzz guitar, cranked so loud it could be a horn section, punctuates this last word as the band crescendos to a fever pitch. Pounding drums frame a menagerie of eerie backup vocals, pummeling bass and a single, constantly hammering piano chord. Our man hits the chorus with resigned desperation: "I ... don't know why ... love ... had to die." Only the punishing guitar solo could top this latest shot of venom. The song is the Plagues' "I've Been Through It Before" and it ranks as one of the greatest '60s garage punk anthems of all time; up there with similarly foreboding titles such as the Fugitives' "You Can't Blame That on Me" and the Beaux Jens' "She Was Mine." But here's the kicker: all of the above songs along with a startling array of others rose from the Great Lakes Recording Studio, headquartered in an old movie theater in Kent County's Sparta. It's where Fenton Records' Dave Kalmbach who's been described as "something of a genius" produced his masterpieces. Detroit had a garage gold mine in Hideout Records, but a single listen to Scream Loud!! proves that the state's western side boasted a disproportionate number of teenage titans with bad 'tudes and remarkable musical visions. From Holland, South Haven, Muskegon, Grand Ledge and a myriad of other settlements they came; all beating paths to Kalmbach's door, almost always to incredible result. Thirty-two of those bands (and 61 of their tunes) reside in this beautifully assembled overview, available in a deluxe CD box set or a triple vinyl LP. From the music to the finely executed liners, Scream Loud!! is a shining testament, not only to Kalmbach, his label and musicians, but to the entire region from whence they came. (See rimpo.de/muma.htm.)
Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal
Chicago's Numero Group doesn't so much reissue as they reinvent. A musical detective agency blazing a trail uniquely its own, this trio of self-described "recovering record collectors," will stop at nothing to seek out, license and release music that needs to be heard collective passion and faith being their sole barometer. Hot on the heels of a recent anthology of Detroit's Big Mack label comes Good God!, which unearths a genre that many never knew existed: gospel funk. Equal parts James Brown and Rev. James Cleveland, it mirrored the funk movement of the '60s and '70s. Not surprisingly, Detroit's contribution to this sliver of the religious underground is phenomenal, from Ecorse's Revival Studio to the original local church musical that hatched LaVice and Company's "Thoughs Were the Days" [sic]. The former was home to the Mighty Voices of Wonder, the Apostles of Music and the Mighty Walker Brothers, whose 1980 side "God Been Good to Me" transcends time, reverberating the rawness of 1968. The latter, meanwhile, is a half-spoken, half-rapped horn-drenched testimony starring a nostalgic demon who bemoans that the Lord is winning too many followers. "It doesn't seem like nobody's comin' down here no more," he complains, cheering up slightly to reminisce about the days when "Hell was some kind of a swingin' place!" (See numerogroup.com.)Mike Hurtt is Detroit-based freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].