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Archival record label Numero Group excavates hidden artistic histories

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I don't know what it was like for other people to have the staff of the archival record label Numero Group come to their home, but I can imagine: Two years ago, in my childhood quarters on Long Island, they set up an intern in my old bedroom.

It was even stranger for my father, who was the center of attention for two days. They were all very polite with their cameras and scanners and stuff, but there's a lot that can get dredged from the attic in a creaky old house where one has lived for 35 years. There was plenty of stress in the sediment; my father's not going to be in the house forever, after all.

For those few days, life turned hyperreal as the team dispatched from Numero's Chicago-based office sorted through film canisters, animation cels, file drawers, index cards, notebooks, gyroscopes, seashells and other remnants of my father's career as an experimental and educational filmmaker. Dad had thrived in the halcyon post-'60s days of public television, before curriculums and focus groups made it a less conducive environment for cosmic artistic expression. He made films for Sesame Street, The Electric Company and other PBS shows. But mostly he made films for himself and an amorphous group of freethinking intelligences, young and old, that he assumed to be somewhere on the far side of the magical flickering screen. Several decades later, Numero Group wanted to help find that crowd once again.

When the label released the resulting DVD, Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow, early in 2010, the set needed a marketing hook: "Tens of millions of people have seen these films," it went. "Nobody knows who made them."

"Somebody knows who made them," my father grumbled in one of a few dozen variants he crafted as the company arranged his first screenings in decades. Still he was excited for the films to find new eyes.

It's not that the Numero Group remembers history exactly; the label helps rewrite it—or, at the very least, augment it. Founded in 2004 by Ken Shipley, Rob Sevier and Tom Lunt, the company specializes in media that most people never knew to begin with—in expansive scope and detail at that. They've released 44 CDs, 32 LPs (mostly double), 17 45-RPM singles, eight 12-inch singles, two DVDs, one cassette and a mess of box sets. There's also a Grammy-nominated book of photographs called Light: On the South Side, collecting Michael Abramson's riveting images of mid-'70s Chicago nightlife. It naturally includes a double-LP set.

The Numero Group's archivists—or revivalists, if you prefer—have, in varying degrees, done what they did for (and to) my father to (and for) so many musicians and artists that a complete tally seems intimidating. Their work has ranged from a two-disc excavation of a basement studio south of Detroit (2007's Local Customs: Downriver Revival) to perfect autumnal archaeologies like 2008's Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli. In doing so, the group has helped launch numerous second careers, most recently producing a series of concerts and a tour named after their most durable release series, the Eccentric Soul Revue. The show is culled from the wide stable of musicians the label has come into contact with over the past eight years. Not all seemed like certain stage stars.

"Renaldo Domino was a big gamble," Shipley remembers. "When we first found him, the guy had no teeth."

Shipley asked the owner of the high, sweet voice behind the stunning "Not Too Cool To Cry," a Chicago R&B hit for the label Twinight in 1970, if he could still sing.

"I think so," Domino told him. "I sing in the shower."

No worries: Domino can still deliver the goods. His falsetto isn't exactly as it once was, but like a slightly faded bauble from the attic, it's almost exactly there. After a spectacular performance in Chicago, he has become one of the label's flagship artists, along with R&B legend Syl Johnson. Both Johnson and Domino will perform with the Eccentric Soul Revue, backed by New York's Sweet Divines, when they come to Duke University this week.

"Touring on a bus is a young man's game," Shipley says, reflecting on the time he accidentally revived the cramped conditions of an old-fashioned soul-package tour in almost too-perfect detail. "Syl didn't sleep any of the nights. He'd get to the club and would sleep for six hours when the bus was stopped. When you're in the septuagenarian world, that's not a doable kind of thing."

But that doesn't mean Johnson's going quietly into the night, either.

"I'm not old, but original," proclaims Syl Johnson. "And organic and authentic. Listen to me very closely: There are no more Beatles coming. There are no more James Browns, there are no more Bob Dylans, there are no more Otis Reddings, there are no more Sam Cookes."

Over the course of a 20-minute phone call from Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, Johnson alternately sings, imitates a disco beat and screams at me to name my favorite vegetables (I asked about his garden, admittedly). He soon says that he hates playing harmonica. "Too much wind," he exclaims before picking one up and blowing a solo.

When Johnson inquires about the veggies, I stammer, "Uh, corn. I like peppers. A good fat tomato."

"Oh, that's no problem, man!" he booms convivially. "Zucchini? Cucumbers? Okra? Bell peppers? Onions, garlic, navy beans, string beans, watermelons, honeydew melons. Pickles. Strawberries galore."

Johnson, 75, began his recording career in 1959, eventually building to a series of mid-'70s hits, including his No. 7 R&B/ No. 48 Pop rendition of Al Green's "Take Me to the River." Unlike Renaldo Domino, Johnson never entirely stopped making music, but his new status is still a surprise. He is thrilled at the new audience that arrived with Numero's lavish Complete Mythology box set (plus accompanying collection of 45s).

"They're young," he says of his crowd. "They got ears. For me to come and be authentic, because there ain't nobody to listen to who's authentic, so they can come and listen to one of the originals sing the shit. And I feel good about it and I want to take care of myself and keep on singing for a few more years for them."

He admires the work of the Numero Group, too. The label came looking for him and his music, giving him a chance to right previous wrongs: "They were smart. I was the ripped-off artist of the times. I started the [label] Twilight, L-I-G-H-T," he says. Here, Johnson sings a chorus of his 1967 single "Come On Sock It to Me," then continues, "and they took it, called it Twinight, N-I-G-H-T. It took me 'til July 10th, 2007, to get all that shit back. And that's how I cut a deal with the Numero Group."

Even before his second coming, Johnson had learned a new skill set: making rappers pay him for their samples. Well, mostly. "Them motherfuckers took my shit and somehow there was a judgment against me," he says of a loss to Cypress Hill, colorfully recounting the nitty-gritty of the case. He recently filed a lawsuit against Jay-Z and Kanye West, following an uncredited sample on their recent Watch the Throne. That case has earned Johnson wide attention, like notice on the front page of the music website Pitchfork Media.

"Kanye and Jay-Z have had multiple opportunities to clear the air with Syl, but they both chose to punt," comments Numero's Shipley, who is not involved in the case.

Numero has become something of a shepherd into the modern world for its artists. While a hit record for the label—like Johnson's Complete Mythology or the new Local Customs: Pressed at Boddie—constitutes something in the vicinity of 5,000 to 10,000 copies sold in the first year, the major source of income for Numero artists in the new world is licensing. In movies, commercials and television shows, never before has the past been so present, the cultural infrastructure weighted toward the forgotten. Numero artists have dotted the cultural landscape, on Mad Men, Parenthood, Eastbound and Down and elsewhere. Ms. Tyree "Sugar" Jones, from the Big Mack roster in Detroit, was on the Choke soundtrack. "They got me on a Halle Berry movie!" Johnson exclaims.

"We've helped get artists or families of artists some of the first money they've ever seen from those releases," says Lyle Hysen of Bank Robber Music, who helps the Numero artists get their songs into the world. "We have had the most success with supervisors working on period film and TV and they need music from a specific era. As long as it doesn't have to be recognizable, the Numero stuff has done very well in that regard."

Johnson is a few weeks out from the trip to North Carolina, where he hasn't performed since sometime in the '80s when he appeared with his one-time labelmate Al Green. No more buses: "I'm too old for that shit," he says. He'll fly.

Meanwhile, the Numero brass will hit the road once again.

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