CD Reviews for 03/24/06 – Eccentric Soul: Deep City Records

Compact Capsules for 03/24/06
by Dan Ferguson

Various Artists
Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label
Numero Group 007

It’s one of those television memories that has stuck in the craw for years, about 35 or so. An avid sports nut as a teen, the occasion was a college football game I happened to catch on the boob tube in the early 1970s between a couple of black colleges, one of which was Florida A&M. Always intrigued by the out-of-the-mainstream games no matter what the sport, this one captured my attention for the small college angle. However, while the game is long forgotten, what is not was the halftime performance by the Florida A&M marching band, or the Marching 100, as they were, and still are, known. I’d never seen anything like it. Aside from blowing the heck out of their instruments, the band, all one-hundred members strong, was as solid as a rock and had moves as good as a crafty tailback. What with being all of 13 or so and a member of my own school’s marching band playing baritone horn, let’s just say if I ever attempted the kind of moves when playing my instrument that the A&Mers made with ease, I’d have been toothless in a heartbeat. So what’s all this have to do with the CD above? Well it was as members of the Marching 100 during their undergraduate days at A&M that Willie Clarke, Johnny Pearsall and Arnold Albury struck up a friendship. It was also the Marching 100 days that would ingrain a sound in the fellows’ heads and form the foundation for what would later on lead to the formation of the South Florida soul label Deep City Records which is the focus of the latest entry in the Eccentric Soul series from the Chicago-based label The Numero Group. As the story goes, Deep City Records is where arguably the Miami soul scene began. From 1963 to 1968, the label released nearly 20 singles from cats like Clarence “Blowfly” Reid, Betty Wright, Paul Kelly, Helene Smith, Them Two, The Moovers, Freda Gray, Frank Williams, and Johnny K. Killens. While few, if any, are likely to ring a bell with folks in these parts, it was the records from this formidable collection of talent that helped Deep City Records rule the Miami soul roost for that five year chunk of the 1960s. It would also help lay the foundation for later acts from that South Florida metropolis such as KC & the Sunshine Band, George & Gwen McCrae, and Blowfly himself. Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label brings together 17 of the best from this fleeting enterprise. Whereas each would move onto teaching careers in the nearby Miami Dade school system after their A&M days, Clarke, Pearsall and Albury carried on the friendship developed at college. For Pearsall and Clarke, evening socializing was their opportunity to get together with chasing chicks on the club scene their primary activity. Albury, on the other hand, devoted his evenings to continuing his music career performing with various bands in the city’s nightclubs. It was the after hours scene, however, where the jamming went on until near daylight that he’d truly begin to make inroads as a musician. On the business end of things, Pearsall had gained some experience in the record business during his high school days by financing and releasing a single by a Tallahassee band. Even though the record was a complete bust, it gave him enough confidence to at least think he knew the business. After his A&M days, he’d take it a step further by tapping his mom for a loan to open a record store in the Liberty City section of Miami. Johnny’s Records was name of his shop and little did he know that it would become the base of operations for Deep City Records. Together with Clarke he’d also start Clarke-Pearsall Productions. The first artist they’d record? Why a high school gal named Helene Smith who Pearsall had hired to manage Johnny’s while he was at his teaching job. The twosome would tap the talents of their college pal Albury to help arrange the session. Smith’s first recording for Clarke-Pearsall Productions would be released by a local label. Around this time they’d also meet a local singer named Clarence Reid. Himself a hopeful songwriter, Clarke would ask Reid’s assistance in putting music to his notebook of songs. The next thing you know Clarke & Pearsall had Smith back in the studio cutting compositions from the Clarke-Reid pairing. Additional recordings financed by the Clarke-Pearsall team would see release on assorted labels and be met with varying degrees of success. They’d also start their own imprint, Lloyd Records, with the first release a song performed by Paul Kelly called “The Upset”, inspired by Cassius Clay’s surprising victory over Sonny Liston. Another single from Kelly, as well as one from Smith, would follow on Lloyd Records. Clarke & Pearsall’s next discovery would also come from the Johnny’s Records employee ranks, a 16-year-old named Freda Gray who was working as a clerk in the store. Even though Gray’s first single for Lloyd would be a flop, Clarke and Pearsall thought they had something. Thinking the local radio scene was overrun by Lloyd releases, they started another imprint called Deep City Records. Named for a speakeasy the fellows frequented during their A&M days, it was the ensuing releases under the Deep City imprint where the foursome of Clarke, Pearsall, Reid, and Albury would hit their stride as producers, songwriters and arrangers, and hearkening back to their Marching 100 roots. Those Marching 100 touches range from the subtle such as the marching bells tinkling in the background throughout Them Two’s “Am I a Good Man” to robust horns that fuel “The Upset” by Paul Kelly and the soul-stirring triplets that backdrop “I Am Controlled By Your Love” from Smith to the laid back cadence behind vocal group the Moovers’ “Someone to Fulfill My Needs”. The beginning of the end would come several years later with the entrance of twelve-year-old Betty Wright. As the story goes, Wright came into the record store to claim a prize she had won from a local radio station. While Billy Stewart’s “Summertime” was playing in the store she began singing. So wowed were those in the shop by her impromptu performance that next thing you know Wright was cutting her first single for the label. By that time married to Smith, Pearsall’s loyalty to his wife and her standing as the label’s top artist led to his refusal to record Wright leading to the end of his partnership with Clarke and effectively the end of Deep City Records. A single and a full-length album from Smith would be all she wrote for the label. While a short-lived operation in the grand scheme of things as far as record labels go, the highly recommended aural snapshot that is Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label sets the record straight on just what a diamond in the rough this label truly was. Just like the A&M Marching 100, they had moves, they had punch and most importantly, they had presence. (The Numero Group, 2217 North Hoyne Suite 3R, Chicago, IL 60647, or

(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at [email protected].)