On the current season of Bravo’s Project Runway, a frequent (or at least frequently edited in) criticism about designer Kara Janx is that each of her designs requires an excessive back story. Even to a fashion novice such as myself – and, I am sure, many other viewers of the show – the point is well taken. Echoing my favorite Chris Rock quote – how “if only smart people like your shit, it ain’t that smart” – I question the effectiveness of Janx’s work if it requires so much explanation. Similarly with my listening taste, I often feel I should be able to “get” a piece of music without an extensive liner-note detail. But even when the story becomes more intriguing than the subject itself, that is not to say the subject is without its merits.
Such is the case with The Deep City Label, the latest addition to Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series dedicated to the output of small record labels (previous compilations were dedicated to Chicago’s Bandit and Columbus, Ohio’s Capsoul labels). Focusing on the company of the same name from America’s southernmost metropolis, Miami, the compilation features the early efforts of several major figures within soul music: songwriter and XXX-proto-rapper Clarence “Blowfly” Reid, singer Betty Wright and her future manager and producer Willie Clarke. The role of each of these people in the Deep City story varies in time and importance (Reid and Clarke wrote the vast majority of the selections included here, whereas Wright only recorded one of the label’s final releases), but their participation only hints at the wellspring of stories bubbling from this label (many of which are discussed in the disc’s extensive liner notes). However, Deep City also delved in raw and amateur efforts – some of which met welcome refinement post-Deep City. That said, the material spans a range of ably performed Motown-inspired pop, soul and proto-funk recorded between 1964 and 1968 that joins a burgeoning reissue community of lost American treasures.
Initially formed around the efforts of Johnny Pearsall, Arnold Albury and Clarke, the Deep City label began as a leap-of-faith venture for the trio’s musical aspirations and/or business acumen. The label struck relative paydirt early on with Helene Smith, a vocalist somewhere between a bluer Diana Ross and a perkier Carla Thomas. As Deep City’s hands-down star (and eventual wife of Pearsall), she is featured extensively here, from the silly flirtation of “Thrills and Chills” to an airy reading of Otis Redding-by-way-of-Allen Toussaint’s Otis Redding-by-way-of-Allen Toussaint’s “Pain in My Heart.” In this manner, the compilation excels when the unknown and unexpected knock ’em out the park. Reid turns the affections of sixteen-year-old record-store clerk Freda Gray into the oddly pre-R.Kelly-ish “Stay Away From My Johnny.” While hardly a composition highlight, the steady rockin’ Rocketeers (including the famed guitarist William “Little Beaver” Hale in his youth) blaze through “Good Thing,” an up-tempo dance number that cuts its teeth on both pop swing and popcorn breakdowns.
However, some of Deep City Label‘s material remained buried with reason: Many of the performers’ abilities are amateur or “pre-professional,” at best. The Moovers often fall short with flat pitch here, out-of-tune instruments there, or simple amateur mistakes such as playing parts incorrectly. All of which is understandable and human, given the limited resources of this label and so many other fly-by-night organizations. However, they also highlight Deep City’s unattainable scope and limited means. As Betty Wright floats with gentle ease through “Paralyzed,” the limitations of Reid and Clarke’s simple blues-pop ballad become painfully clear. In a sense, the future star power threatens to build too much hubris around the label. That said, much of the material is a delight to listen to and helps fill in yet another corner of the American musical map.