Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label
here’s plenty of hyper-obscure soul—volumes produced in the 60’s and 70’s have proven hard to suppress—but what of the copycat labels that sprung up in the nation’s soul-centers? Hundreds, maybe thousands of such labels existed, and so few of them ever made an impact on national airwaves; the labels that didn’t even make an impression locally? Material that has fallen through the cracks that record collectors desperately try to plug, like so many little Dutch boys?
The Big Mack Label, the latest installment of the Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series, continues the label’s recent trend of compiling ultra-rare, eclectic musics. Even so, most Numero Group releases arrive in my mailbox jewel cases bursting, the no-longer rare music accompanied by a small novel explaining why the recordings were scarce in the first place. When The Big Mack Label’s slim booklet presented an incomplete timeline and truncated story, however, I knew we were probing new depths of obscurantism.
Essentially, The Big Mack Label was a tiny Detroit record company started sometime in the early 60’s (no year was specified) by Ed McCoy. Like all small labels—especially soul labels—Big Mack’s story is as interesting as the music. Big Mack started normal—with a dream and a loan from daddy—but got weird fairly quickly. At one point, the label, operating out of a storefront formerly owned by a women’s clothing store, offered anyone walking in off the street a chance to make a record for $14.95, a fairly ingenuous marketing ploy.
It was more than that, though. Many 60’s label owners were businessmen, more of them failed businessmen, and the effect this had on their labels was probably much greater than generally acknowledged. Motown and Stax got lucky—they found an audience using a unique sound mostly recorded by regional artists. McCoy wasn’t so fortunate, and his attempts to establish his label were as smart and hilarious as they were desperate. The aforementioned recording deal served not only as a steady source of income, but as a low-maintenance recruiting pool as well, eventually producing Bob and Fred, authors of the label’s biggest “hit,” “I’ll Be On My Way,” a silky string-soaked ballad that melded Motown texture with roughshod drums.
McCoy was constantly leaning towards the dollar, however, and that meant leasing out the label’s recording space to weddings and dances. He also branched out to other markets, re-releasing a single by Soul President that flopped in San Francisco. The loose funk of “Got to Have It” is comically out of place here, especially when the front man calls out, “psychedelic guitar…let’s do it hippie style!” There’s nothing else so egregiously out of place, but the label’s desire to break itself knew few bounds—doo wop, garage rock, girl-groups. McCoy even turned Essence, a female vocal trio, into a sexually charged “nightclub act.”
The label’s output does have a common element—spastic, loose, borderline unprofessional session playing. The label recorded in a range of less than ideal places, include garages and the aforementioned storefront studio. The musicians were whatever Detroit had left, and the mastering is often obviously flawed. Sometimes, this resulted in charmingly off-color combinations: a Detroit garage band provided the backing track for the Performers’ marvelous “Mini Skirt,” and hearing the voices of the five Manhattens [sic] fight each other against a muted, reggae-inflected rhythm is the type of happy accident that happens when you throw talented people against the wall to see who sticks.
For the most part, however, the recordings serve as a reminder of the gap that existed between Big Mack and its contemporaries. It would be generous revisionism to sit here and say that there are any “lost hits” on this compilation; in fact, Big Mack struggled mightily for reasons that seem somewhat obvious. Those reasons were enough to keep Big Mack off the map, but they fortunately failed to drown out the joy and ambition that is present in these performances. Even then, it’s hard to recommend The Big Mack Label in the face of a bajillion other soul recordings from this time period, but it is a touching reminder that the great soul pipeline of the 60’s was tainted with commerce and, more often that we’re led to believe, failure.