Soul Deep

One day in 1951, a light bulb flashed over the head of Ernie Young, the white proprietor of Ernie's Record Mart in Nashville, Tennessee. After watching his customers buy black gospel and R&B records, Young figured that if he made the records, there'd be that much more money for him -- sort of like a drugstore making its own pills. Granted, it wasn't an entirely novel idea: Young's competitor, Randy's Record Store owner Randy Wood, started the Dot label that same year and went on to huge success with Pat Boone's white-rice covers of R&B hits along the lines of "Ain't That a Shame" and "At My Front Door."

So Young started the Nashboro label, and followed it the next year with Excello. Nashboro eventually cut some tough, soul-influenced gospel acts in the Sixties, but it was Excello that made the big splash. Young bought innovative swamp blues from Louisiana studios, including Slim Harpo's understated masterpieces and the rough-house work of Lightnin' Slim and Lazy Lester, and had DJs hawk the records on late-night radio. In 1966 Young sold the company to employee Shannon Williams, who was keen to experiment with soul music.

Like the blues Young put out, Williams cut and bought material that, to this day, keeps collectors haunting used-record bins and auction lists: deep Southern soul marked by gospel-rooted vocalists, countrified backing bands, soaring brass charts, and stately 6/8 tempos. If that sounds like the recipe for a musical mess, consider that it has produced some of the pithiest American music.

Many of the singles Williams put out were regional hits that all but disappeared for a quarter of a century. When the AVI Entertainment Group in Los Angeles acquired the Excello and Nashboro masters two years ago, they embarked on an ambitious repackaging plan that yielded a slew of ace compilations, including last year's intriguing collection The Heart of Southern Soul: From Nashville to Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Now they've extended the set with a companion volume that's nearly as terrific as the first: No Brags -- Just Facts: The Heart of Southern Soul Volume 2.

Most of the artists on both discs -- the Kelly Brothers, Roshell Anderson, the Exotics, Eugene Kemp -- were little-known in their prime and are altogether obscure today. While there are no Otis Reddings or Al Greens waiting to be discovered, both sets nonetheless offer a glimpse at many fine, second-tier artists. DJs and secretaries by day, they saw in soul music a vehicle for their material dreams and poured their church-schooled voices into tales of cheating and love gone bad, intuitively marrying the sacred and the profane. They burned like fireflies on a track or two, then vanished into obscurity, back into their workaday worlds.

No Brags -- Just Facts features sixteen artists on twenty-four tracks, many of whom were included on the first set. Standouts include the Wallace Brothers' minor 1964 hit "Precious Words," replete with aching, high-register vocals and marching organ; previously unissued takes of Kip Anderson's greasy, down-home ballads "Letter From My Darling" and "You'll Lose a Good Thing"; a searing leftover by Marva Whitney ("Here I Am"), who put in time as a back-up vocalist with James Brown; and Lattimore Brown backed by the crack Muscle Shoals rhythm section on the incandescent ballad "I Will."

The highlight track appears compliments of Jerry Washington, a native of Denmark, South Carolina. His "Right Here Is Where You Belong" opens with a man walking down the street, his footsteps set to a loping beat, looking for the house of his estranged girlfriend. After some ersatz knocking, Washington delivers a passionately bumbled monologue:

"I got something I would like to say to you. You see, I was just released from the hospital. The reason why I was released, because the doctor told me medicine can't do me no good. He told me what I had is beyond medical science. So he released me because -- they told me they haven't found a remedy for my condition. He told me what I have is more serious than cancer. He told me what I have is a very, very bad case of the blues."

The song enjoyed a modicum of success in the South upon its 1973 release and even cracked the Top 50 R&B chart. But the rest of the Jerry Washington story, as told by co-compiler John Ridley in the liner notes, is what makes the whole disc such a pleasure: "After one further minor hit and an engaging LP, he seems to have gone back to his day job as a hair stylist."

AVI discs can be mail-ordered by writing Atomic Beat, 10390 Santa Monica Blvd, suite 210, Los Angeles,

 
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