Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label
here’s virtually nothing about Miami that suggests artistic inspiration. In a recent Fader article, Cat Power crooner Chan Marshall was found going to nightclubs and text-messaging a crush. If Miami can inspire that sort of behavior from capital-A Artist Marshall, then surely the city can’t be much more than the beaches, palm trees, and Bad Boys II police capers this Midwesterner imagines it to be. Besides—no artist could possibly take themselves seriously living in the same town as Shaq.
Unfortunately, Miami wasn’t always Shaq-land, and a couple of recent soul compilations—first Soul Jazz’s excellent Miami Sound and now the Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label—have forced me to re-think my processed view of Miami. A bastion of incredible soul and funk music in the 60s and 70s, Miami was underrated factory for creative, inspired artistry. And where Miami Sound showcased a city teeming with sugary funk, The Deep City Label focuses on a label impressively devoted to both the South’s horn-driven grit and the North’s commercially palatable rhythm and blues-pop.
Soul was a necessarily formulaic genre in the 60s, and even the best Stax and Motown comps can sound somewhat same-y. Soul compilations—even best-ofs—therefore operate in much the same way albums of the era did, earning replay capital with the standouts, and filling in the gaps with enjoyable, if interchangeable album tracks. The Numero Group extends their winning streak on The Deep City Label by packing the disc with a bevy of mix-tape worthy jams, coolly familiar in their sounds and themes, refreshing in their delivery.
Them Two start things off with the massive, doubting “Am I a Good Man,” a mini-epic aimed and preserving self-worth. It’s a fitting introduction to a label that built its sound off of the weight and exuberance of Florida A&M; University’s Incomparable Marching 100 Band, members of which sat in as the Deep City house band. The vast majority of the label’s tracks were written by some combination of Johnny Pearsall, Willie Clarke (both of whom were on their way to being public school teachers when the label broke), and Clarence Reid (presently Blowfly), a fierce performer playing sock hops with a vocal group when he was discovered. With members of the FAMU band at their disposal, Deep City became known for their huge, pounding arrangements.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the artist that became the face of both the label and the Miami soul sound was Helene Smith (also featured on Miami Sound), a honey-throated stunner who eschews the megaphone gasps that characterized so much Southern soul for a smoother, pop-oriented longing with its eyes and heart seemingly shipped in from Detroit. The huge, FAMU sound is present on deep, thrilling tracks like “I Am Controlled by Your Love” and “Thrills and Chills,” but, it’s the ornery, churning “Pain in my Heart,” on which Smith finally opens her lungs and skies that she most closely connects with the heaving arrangement behind her.
Smith takes the prize, performing five of the compilation’s 17 tracks, and male vocal ensemble Moovers are also repeat offenders, but it’s the one-off tracks here that really stick. Johnny K. Killers & the Dynamites sound bratty and inspired on “I Don’t Need no Help,” and Freda Gray & the Rocketeers hit the siren on “Stay Away from My Johnny,” a warning shot fired over the bow of the many girls Johnny may take interest in. The take-the-cake winner, though, is Paul Kelly on “The Upset.” The track, inspired by Cassius Clay’s upset of Sonny Liston, finds Kelly on some don’t-tell-me-the-odds, Harrison Ford-type shit, gunning for the gal. It’s a singular, thrilling boast, its well-worn message still showing plenty of tread here.
Though there are certainly some tracks on here that fade from memory, even after multiple listens, it’s hard to consider Deep City anything but an unqualified success. There are plenty of after-the-fact reasons to buy into the Miami soul/funk sound, but fuck the history lesson: Deep City is as expansive, thoughtful, and ass-shakingly gratifying as soul comps get. The consistency and brilliance shown here suggests volumes of worthy classics from this label, but if these 17 tracks are all we ever get, they’re enough to solidify Miami as one of soul music’s outer planets, and Deep City as its gooey, calorie-rich core.