Even though I started seriously listening to music as a teenager, it wasn’t until college that I picked up my first rare music compilation. I could hardly consider myself a serious collector (unless you counted my archive of well-worn dime and quarter LPs), but I still approached music with what I perceived to be a purist’s mentality: no compilations, only original albums and singles cosigned by the artist(s). I know, makes no sense.
The compilation that changed my mind was Trippin’: The Groove Merchant Compilation. Released by Cool Chris, the owner of the Bay Area record-collector institution, and a then-fledgling record company called Ubiquity, the disc compiled deep-funk cuts, all of which were new to me — and, more important, all of which were ridiculously hot. Well, I think they were, anyway. In truth I became fixated on the opening track, Eugene Blacknell and the New Breed’s “Gettin’ Down.” The aptly titled number contained all the elements of what would become my favorite deep-funk records: a bruising break, loping bass, tambourines, and a hustle and shuffle that rocked and swung. “Gettin’ Down” single-handedly opened my mind (and record collection) to a new format for learning about new music, and it raised a high standard for subsequent indie-funk excursions.
So my teenage self’s blood pressure roils again as Ubiquity spills the beans on Eugene Blacknell. Working with Blacknell’s son Gino (a record producer and member of the New Breed), the label has comprehensively compiled Blacknell’s output into the twenty-five track single-disc We Can’t Take Life for Granted. What we learn is that Blacknell’s life mirrored his music. A talented guitarist with a long career spanning from the early ’60s to late ’80s, his music constantly reflected the changing styles and times. From the rhythm ‘n’ blues hustle of “Jump Back” to the pimpy title track, he proves to be an adroit artist with an ear for solid hooks and disciplined musicians. Liner notes also reveal him to be a business entrepreneur and legal activist who broke color barriers to perform in formerly restricted clubs, thereby paving the way for better pay for Bay Area African-American musicians. The collection is rounded out by collector’s oddities, such as radio spots, impromptu jam sessions, and vocal/instrumental takes. It not only definitively sheds light on a forgotten artist, but it also demonstrates the power of compilations in disseminating knowledge. Any other diggers care to share?