Maybe it’s the male collector’s instinct, but I’ve always had a fondness for record labels with a consistent numeric aesthetic string to them – think Factory Records as a fantastic UK example.
A couple of years ago I was wandering around Sounds Of The Universe record shop in SoHo. Sounds Of The Universe are affiliated to the fantastic Soul Jazz label. Soul Jazz have put out some wonderful reissues over the last twenty years or so. I was particularly fond of their reggae and ska compilations, pulling together choice cuts from Studio One in Jamaica amongst other places – but that’s another story for another day. Anyway on this particular day, my interest was piqued by a particular CD. It came in a white card slip case with no track listing or notes on the outside but a photo of a couple of guys hunched over a recording desk and “NUM041 – A Red Black Green Production” on the spine.
I took the CD over to the listening desk and gave it a spin. It was bunch of lovely slick early seventies soul with falsetto Stylistics-like vocals, none of which I was familiar with and worthy of a punt. It transpired that it was a gateway to a whole load of unknown pleasures.
Numero Group is based in Chicago and has been releasing records since 2004. Their strategy is to release records which will sell slow and long. They generally look for music that is relatively mainstream in terms of its content (very little in their catalogue is excessively difficult or challenging to listen to) but has fallen between the cracks commercially and historically. They foster relationships to build trust with the owners of the master tapes, many of whom have been ripped off previously or let down by the music industry. These tapes are often in poor condition and need substantial TLC to return them to a listenable quality. They may have been damaged by fire, flood or just pure neglect.
In terms of rip offs, for example, some of the old label owners sold their 7 inch singles to British Northern Soul collectors in the seventies and eighties for $5 a pop, only to see them change hands for £50 and upwards in the overheated UK record market.
There are a number of series within the label’s canon.
“Eccentric Soul” features 60’s and 70’s soul from labels and studios of incredibly high quality that just did not have the reach of the Motown, Stax, Hi etc. It shows that often the story of these albums success was not just in the talent in their roster but also in their ability to distribute their product.
The “Good God” series is gospel but often with a heavy funk influence.
“Wayfaring Strangers” are releases from singer songwriters, troubadors and primitive guitarists.
The “Buttons” releases are skinny tie power pop from the 70s and 80s. If you like the Cars, Cheap Trick or the Ramones, you’ll find something to enjoy.
“Local Customs” are perhaps the most wide ranging of releases. These consist of regional neighbourhood studios who just opened their doors to whoever could stump up the cash to cut a record. For example, “Cavern Sound” isn’t music from 60s Merseyside but is from a studio in a redundant limestone mine in Missouri.
There’s other stuff including re-releases of some of the label owner’s favourite music that has fallen out of distribution including Nikki Sudden, Codeine and Unwound.
There’s a commonality in approach to their releases. The albums come with extensive sleeve notes in separate booklets. The vinyl editions come in high quality cardboard sleeves built to last or boxes for the larger sets. Often there are bonus 7 inches included and little collectable random baseball cards tucked in. I’ve met both of the main men behind the album, Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier, a couple of times at record fairs and pop-up shops and their passion for what they do is evident.
I’m eager to write about so many of their releases but I’ll start with a little more on the one that got me hooked.
“Red Black Green Productions” is from Silver String in Maryland. It focuses on the studio in which Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson’s “Winter In America” and Gil’s subsequent albums were recorded. Robert Hosea Williams engineered Gil’s albums and the Numero compilation is drawn from Williams’ own production work.
Williams was born in 1936 in Indiana. His father worked in the defence industry escaping racial discrimination using his mechanical engineering skills and landing in Silver Spring. There were plenty of doo woo groups in Robert’s new school but he chose instead to gain experience using a tape recorder he had bought in a pawn shop. He said:
“Musicians would run out of money and take their stuff to Chuck Levin’s pawn shop. Every time someone left a mic, I’d get it. If they left a tape recorder, I’d get it.”
He went to university in Ohio where he joined the Four Tones, which quickly became the Bobby Williams Group. Returning to Silver Spring, he expanded his recording skills and learned to use a record plate lathe and eventually headed up db Productions in 1973.
He set up his own freelance production company (Red Black and Green Productions) with the aim of getting major record labels who he had worked with as an engineer to pick up the songs. In the absence of hits, he started using the local D.C. International to distribute his work.
Brian Jackson had heard Williams’ work with the large ensemble band Father’s Children and suggested to Gil Scott Heron that it would be good having Williams record their next album. Whilst the studio in Silver Spring was barely large enough for Gil’s nine piece band, the sessions were a success and built Williams reputation. In particular Williams enjoyed cutting ballads with clear vocals.
“I would always get vocals clean,” he says. “I felt a song was a story, so it has to have a clean storyteller.”
More musicians came looking for Williams’ expertise and he started manufacturing as well as producing via his own New Directions label. He reached his peak in 1975 but work petered out as the decade drew to a close. Whilst Williams had done well financially, it was a rollercoaster at times and he got off getting a salaried position in a radio ratings company. His recordings were shelved in his garage and there the master tapes stayed until he moved house.
A local music historian Kevin Coombe who was writing a book on the local music scene and struck a friendship with Williams around 2006. Coombe saw the master tapes now in Williams’ garage and recognising Father’s Children on the spine, contacted Rob Sevier at the Numero Group and the rest was history.
The compilation doesn’t cover some of Williams more high profile work with Heron, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack or Hugh Masekela. It does give a feeling of the house style. This isn’t stomping strident Northern Soul or funky seventies Blaxploitation. The music is generally quiet, reflective with mid tempo songs and ballads being most evident.
I’ve chosen a couple of picks from the album.
Firstly one of the four Skip Mahaoney and The Casuals tracks, “Town Called Nowhere”. Harrison Hoaney had avoided the Vietnam draft via being flat footed. Assuming the nickname Skip Mahoaney, he pulled a band together and recorded seven tracks with Williams. The band were known simply as the Casuals with James Purdie leading the writing and arrangements. However, when the DC International labels were printed up, Skip got top billing. Three of the band quit in disgust. The Williams recordings were issued under the title “Your Funny Moods” in 1974.
The band recorded another album with a fuller production in 1976 but couldn’t get into the pop charts despite R&B airplay. As disco took over in 1978, the band slipped away.
The track I’ve chosen is “Town Called Nowhere” which isn’t a million miles away from Curtis Mayfield’s sound. It’s a real low rider of a song.
The other track is “We’re Two Fools In Love” by Dyson’s Faces. This was the most upbeat track on the album and is a real dance floor number. Dyson’s Faces were Clifton Dyson plus a revolving set of backing musicians (hence Williams’ suggestion that the band be called the Faces). “Two Fools” was the b-side of a single coupled with the more funky “Don’t Worry About The Joneses”. An album was put together from the sessions which didn’t sell a huge amount.
Clifton made a few more records before passing away in 2004.
I’ll no doubt write about some of Numero’s other varied releases but in the meantime, I hope you enjoyed some of rare deep soul on Red Green Black.