Despite the tenacious efforts of diggers and reissue labels like Jazzman and Numero Group, seldom does one forgotten artist’s complete discography resurface. Certainly, this is in large part due to the sheer nonexistence of multiple recordings; many artists who recorded for fly-by-night labels were just as transient and released only a single or two in their entire “career.” Occasionally, a Mickey and the Soul Generation or a J.C. Davis will emerge and actually reveal a stupefying treasure chest. But these are rare occasions. Subsequently, when such an occurrence happens, it comes with a fittingly incredible story. The story of Bob & Gene is a welcome addition to this canon.
Bob Nunn and Eugene Coplin were childhood friends growing up in Buffalo, New York. It was the late ’60s and, like many other post-war industrial cities, Buffalo was experiencing a dramatic economic implosion and population decrease. In spite of these tense circumstances — not to mention the race and civil rights struggles making international headlines — Bob’s father William started a record company with the hope of attracting and cultivating local talent. Opening a recording studio in his basement, he invited local youth and aspiring musicians to use the facilities in exchange for hard, disciplined work. Bob and Gene, already aspiring singers and songwriters, naturally fell in with William’s newly christened Mo Do Records.
Over the next four years, Bob and Gene became local stars, scoring some radio airplay and performing around town. The two recorded steadily with the intention of releasing an album, but the label ran out of money, and Mo Do collapsed like so many other indies of the time. Bob & Gene’s recordings soon became reels collecting dust in a closet.
That is, until 2001, when deejay and music historian David Griffiths came across a Bob & Gene seven-inch. Enthralled by what he heard, he began looking for more music from the group. Noting an inscription on the record’s label promising an “upcoming album If This World Were Mine,” Griffiths began calling around to see if anyone knew of this album’s existence, soon leading him directly to Coplin. Surprised that someone would show so much interest, Coplin and Nunn bequeathed their original reel-to-reel recordings to Griffiths, who in turn brought the tapes to Daptone Records.
If This World Were Mine is one of the most complete discoveries of its kind. The album is hardly the next coming of Smile, an underground soul masterpiece of a fan’s wet dream, but it is astonishing when placed in context. The record is a complete amateur and independent effort. The music commits a litany of fouls, from out-of-tune notes, to rushed or dragged tempos, to painful chord changes. The recording occasionally makes Sebadoh’s music sound hi-fi, with fuzz and background noise spread liberally. But Bob and Gene’s performances are consistently modest and graceful. The songwriting is an inspired blend of soul influences from both its period and past. And all of these flaws work to the record’s benefit.
An out-of-tune and out-of-breath saxophonist leads a one-horn charge at the beginning of “Your Name” but comes off with such rusty charm that the introduction to Bob and Gene still comes off as regal, in spite of the patches on their coats and the coppered tints in their crowns. Much of the lo-fi aspects add a welcome layer of atmosphere and warmth that could not have been present with the barebones arrangements and backing. The muted xylophone on “You Gave Me Love” becomes smeared across the track and creates a mysterious, almost ominous, backing while Bob and Gene recite the familiar pleas of love.
If anything, the recordings evidence terrific creativity with limited resources. In this manner, a chipper piccolo, as opposed to the period strings and horns, adds the appropriate amount of cheer to Bob and Gene’s breezy falsetto on “I Can Be Cool.” And the songs take unpredictable turns: “You Don’t Need Me” begins as a quasi crib of Kool and the Gang’s “Let the Music Take Your Mind” but switches to uptown soul instead of downtown funk before fading out with a traditional doo-wop loop. Taken together, these recordings actually form a cogent and cohesive album — perfect autumnal soul pop for slow strolls through orange- and red-leaved streets.
Certainly, If This World Were Mine was a record that was seemingly not meant to be. A just world could have arguably given the precocious Bob and Gene a broader platform. But the making of their album remains a remarkable story that has finally closed. Bob & Gene’s legacy now returns to its rightful place: the listener’s ears.