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Bull City Soul Revival digs Durham's musical history from a dusty drawer

Exhibit through May 31 at Hayti Heritage Center



Bull City Soul: Say it out loud. At first, the words crawl from the mouth, snarling and then a bit forceful. As you reach the end, though, the phrase smooths itself out, becoming calming and even seductive as it reaches the last vowel. It's the crack of the snare followed by the tickle of the bass. Both aggressive and charming, it suggests Durham's equilibrium of neighborhoods and start-up enclaves.

That balance seems historically accurate, too, at least as reflected in the sounds of the hardest funk and sultriest soul music from the heyday of Durham's thriving black music scene for nearly three decades.

That essence comes captured by Bull City Soul Revival, a month-and-a-half-long, multimedia series of panel discussions, concerts, installations and lectures devoted to Durham's rich history of soul music culture. Anchored by an exhibit at Hayti Heritage Center titled Soul Souvenirs: Durham's Musical Memories from the 1960s and 1970s, the series sheds light on a musical legacy that has been widely neglected both in and outside the region that birthed it.

Soul Souvenirs is part of a much larger network of record labels, writers and archivists digging deeper into the almost-lost archives of American music in the last few years; these Carolina fields, it seems, have long been fertile.

Jason Perlmutter operates the website carolinasoul.org, an online trove of tunes and information about the forgotten music made in North and South Carolina. He co-curated Soul Souvenirs with historian Joshua Clark Davis. Funded by the North Carolina Humanities Council, Soul Souvenirs compiles showbills, newspaper articles, 45 rpm records and other memorabilia from that bygone era. According to Perlmutter, as many as 75 bands helped shape the city's soulful sound; in fact, since the exhibit opened, additional information about other Durham bands has been uncovered, though sometimes finding artifacts that verify their existence or connections has proven difficult.

Acts such as the smartly named New Central Connection Unlimited (NCCU), The Black Experience and Wall Street were a direct reflection of Durham's black community during the post-civil rights era, when the country's turbulent racial climate influenced a large chunk of such music.

"There was black pride in the 1970s, and previously the word 'black' might have been insulting," explains Perlmutter in regard to The Black Experience. "But the band incorporated that into their name and took pride in that, and some of their music was socially conscious. They had a song called 'Has Time Really Changed' that addressed the dynamic between blacks and whites. It argued that, even in 1974, things hadn't changed in their eyes."

Surprisingly, the name Wall Street wasn't an homage to the Parrish Street area of downtown Durham then known as Black Wall Street, where black businesses thrived in the early 1920s. That handle was happenstance, Perlmutter believes, simply an ode to one band member's fondness for reading The Wall Street Journal. Still, it does offer a coincidental narrative line for considering the city's somewhat rough-and-tumble history and the music that was made here.

"Not all of them sound like they were going to be commercial hits," says Perlmutter of the repertoire. "They might have some charm in the fact that they weren't made at the most professional recording studios or didn't have all of the resources to perfect the sound. Especially when it comes to funk music—that rawness, that grittiness can really enhance the sound and the character of the recording in the way that it was recorded live as opposed to being multi-tracked in a professional studio somewhere out of town."

Much of that grit drew its inspiration from obvious places—stalwart labels Motown and Stax and key figures James Brown and The Meters. The foundation for Duralcha's (a conflation of Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill) "Ghet-to Funk," for instance, is a dirt-crisp break beat that pounds just beneath the super-horn work present in a lot of Brown's best recordings.

Nearly five decades ago, for instance, Johnny White started a band called The Fabulous Flames, in deference to James Brown's famous backing crew. White identifies this as a distinct characteristic of Durham's signature style: "As it relates to Motown, they were known for their singing groups per se. All of us loved to write and arrange for horns. I personally loved having a man out front, a three or four piece horn section and rhythm section."

White later joined The Mighty Crusaders and continues to perform around the country at corporate-sponsored functions. The Crusaders' biggest commercial hit was the 1975 ballad "Surely," on which the horns and rhythms that White loved ring out like sirens of romance. White makes the desperate plea for love to let him down easy if it's going to let him down at all.

No matter which part of the country was cranking out soul music, it always vocalized the torn emotions of both romance and socio-political issues. But plenty of Durham's great soul bands banked on high-spirited club hits that were mostly meant to entertain—The Soul Company's "Hump That Bump," for instance, or The Essence of Truth's "Gator Time," a more college-party oriented remake of "Squeeze That Dollar" by the Durham band The Positive Approach.

Only two groups from the area achieved substantial nationwide attention. After legendary saxophonist Donald Byrd arrived at N.C. Central to start its jazz program, saxophonist and teacher Stanley Baird assembled the group New Central Connection Unlimited. They eventually toured nationwide with Byrd's band, The Blackbyrds, and recorded an album for United Artists. Meanwhile, The Modulations received their notoriety by performing on Soul Train in 1976 alongside Wilson Pickett and Betty Wright. But other local bands kept busy, with their music in constant rotation at the black-owned Durham radio station WAFR and in constant supply at the black-owned record store Snoopy's. They performed at black fraternity houses and popular live music venues such as Times Square, Goodwill Club, The Vanguard Club, The Stallion Club and Craftsman's Lounge.

Johnny White misses the availability of these types of live spaces: "Being able to perform and have the Durham community come out and support you is a far cry from just going to hear a DJ," he says, adding a touch of sarcastic laughter.

Perlmutter hopes that, as more people show interest in Durham's rich soul music history and as extra recordings and artifacts are discovered, there will be an opportunity to license and reissue some of this music. In fact, he runs Paradise of Bachelors, a label that's already worked to unearth some buried North Carolina musical treasures. Soul Souvenirs closes at Hayti May 31, but the music that led to the exhibit survived nearly half a century in obscurity. Perhaps this way, it can stick around a lot longer.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Resurrection funk."

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