Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound (WLRN/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Gates program PBS showed a second episode of Soundbreaking — a British TV miniseries produced with the involvement of the late Sir George Martin, which explains why he’s depicted essentially as the touchstone of music production and its advancement to a central creative role in record-making — and then a fascinating little show from the PBS affiliate in Miami, WLRN (whose call letters are the consonants in the word “learn,” reflecting PBS’s origins as National Educational Television), called Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound. When I first heard the promos for this the KPBS announcer seemed to be saying that Deep City was the first Black-owned record label, which was hardly true — they formed in 1963, when Motown already existed (and indeed was a role model for them) and 42 years after W. C. Handy and his business partner Harry Pace founded Black Swan Records, the first widely distributed label owned by people of African descent. (The Wikipedia page on Black Swan lists an even earlier Black-owned label, Broome Special Phonograph Records, but it had only limited distribution.) Deep City was a product of the Black community of Overtown in Miami, though its proprietors were two schoolteachers, Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall, who had met at the all-Black Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University — known affectionately by its alumni as “Fam-You,” their pronunciation of its initials FAMU.

Johnny Pearsall owned a record store in Overtown whose window sign advertised “Spirituals and Jazz” — which Charles commented were about as far removed from each other as two forms of African-American music could be — though their merchandise also included all the top-selling soul records from the major Black-oriented labels of the day, Motown, Atlantic and Stax. Willie Clarke had also started writing song lyrics as a hobby, and he and Pearsall decided to start a record label to record them — using their salaries as schoolteachers as capital; every time they got paid they’d book a session at one of the local recording studios, where they were charged $15 per hour for a four-hour session and therefore needed musicians who would come in well-rehearsed and not waste any time cutting the actual records. They also had only two tracks, one for vocals and one for everything else (this was how the early Motown records were made, too, though Motown founder Berry Gordy soon acquired a three-track machine so he could have two instrumental tracks and release stereo LP’s as well as mono singles). The man they picked as their musical director was Clarence Reid, a talented composer, arranger and bandleader (he supplied melodies to Clarke’s lyrics and most of Deep City’s best-sellers were credited to both of them as songwriters) with a fondness for the bottle — sometimes he didn’t show up at all and sometimes he was so under the weather his musicians had to play without his guidance — but mostly he came through and delivered tight soul grooves for Deep City’s vocal artists, including a group called the Moovers (that’s how they spelled it), Paul Kelly, Frank Williams and the Rocketeers and the label’s two top artists, women singers Betty Wright (who went on to become a major star) and Helene Smith (who didn’t).

It’s hard to tell what Deep City’s records sounded like from the snippets we get to hear here, but it seems that they managed to achieve an appealing blend of the smoother Motown and the raunchier Stax styles with admixtures of the Cuban influence in Miami and also the use of FAMU’s marching band, or members thereof, as their horn sections (over a decade before the story told in the second episode of Soundbreaking about how Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac was considered oh so innovative for using the USC Marching Band on Fleetwood Mac’s song “Tusk”). Deep City ran into the usual problems facing an independent record label in the early 1960’s, including difficulties with distribution (their network extended only about as far as Palm Beach and they never acquired a national distributor) and the need to pay DJ’s, sometimes in money, sometimes in meals, sometimes in female companionship (the show never comes right out and says that the proprietors of Deep City pimped out their woman artists to DJ’s to get their records on radio, and indeed they might not have, but you do get that impression) to get their records played on the air. Deep City also had another problem relative to the followings of their two most important artists, woman soul singers Helene Smith and Betty Wright. Both of them had distinctive voices somewhat between the two biggest woman soul singers of the era, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin, and Wright had that voice from the tender age of 12 — sort of a Black soul version of Judy Garland: a prepubescent girl who sang with the volume, character and richness of sound of an adult woman. Betty Wright was also fiercely ambitions, whereas Helene Smith was painfully shy and could barely be induced to get on stage and perform for a live audience — she had to close her eyes and pretend she was somewhere else to be able to do it. Helene Smith was also the girlfriend, and later the wife, of Deep City co-owner Johnny Pearsall — they had met as fellow aspiring teachers in the education department of FAMU — and not surprisingly Pearsall was incredibly protective of her and her career.

The partnership broke up when a white distributor, Henry Stone of TK Records, who wanted — the show is unclear on this point — either to distribute Deep City as part of his line or buy out the label altogether, make it an imprint of TK and let Pearsall and Clarke continue to run it. The main reason he wanted Deep City Records was he wanted Betty Wright — he could tell she had the makings of a nationwide star and only needed the clout of a label who could get her music out past Florida — and Clarke desperately wanted to do the deal with TK. Pearsall didn’t because he feared that Helene Smith would get lost in the shuffle. As things turned out, Deep City folded, TK picked up Betty Wright (and did indeed build her into a nationwide star with songs like “Clean-Up Woman”), Pearsall and Smith broke up and Smith retired from performing, going back to being a schoolteacher and only recently returning to singing in the gospel choir of her church. Ultimately Deep City records began resurfacing, at least partly thanks to an audience for them in, of all places, Manchester, England, where they were a major influence on the “Northern Soul” scene (remember this is “Northern” as in Northern England, which is looked down upon by sophisticates much the way the South is in the U.S. — indeed, when the Beatles formed their own music publishing company in 1963, in a spit-in-your-face gesture to the London showbiz establishment, they called it “Northern Songs” to emphasize that they were from Liverpool in the north of England and they had done something a London-based act hadn’t been able to do in 50 years: become world-class superstars). Eventually Deep City records were reissued and frequently used as the source for “samples” by artists like Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Sublime and Afrika Bambaataa — thereby finally giving Willie Clarke, who as co-composer was entitled to sampling royalties, some money for all his hard work way back when. But the term “Miami sound” in pop music usually means the bands like K.C. and the Sunshine Band and the Miami Sound Machine, both signed to TK Records after Deep City folded and both considerably more commercial and less soulful.