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The Outskirts of Deep City

Talk with any serious record collector around these parts, and they'll tell you that Miami was once a rich haven for Southern soul music. Though tiny record labels often existed for only a few years at a time, they were good at finding cheap session players, raw talent, and cranking out enough singles to keep the bars and nightclubs in black neighborhoods alive with good local music. Singers like Clarence "Blowfly" Reid, Helene Smith, and the Mighty Dog Catchers were legends (depending on the neighborhood) and enjoyed popularity not because of extensive radio-play or performances around town but because their names were on small batches of locally-distributed 45s that folks purchased for a dollar or less, usually getting a lot more than their money's worth.

Whether or not any of it could actually cut it on a national level was a question that's taken decades to be answered. One re-issue company from Chicago wants music lovers around the world to scream, Yes!

Last week, the Numero Group released Eccentric Soul: The Outskirts of Deep City; it's a follow-up to last year's Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label. It's the second collection in a series of long forgotten local singles that have been cleaned up, re-mastered, and re-released just in time for the holiday shopping spree. Unfortunately, with so much re-issue material on the market, that might not mean anything to the average consumer. These days, re-issue labels across the globe are putting out records just like this every few months, and it's hard to dive into a disc of freshly unearthed material when a similar album is already percolating out through the production process. It's a headache for reissue companies that isn't going away anytime soon. But it shouldn't deter local music fans from supporting The Outskirts of Deep City, which not only captures songs and sounds from a particular period but also the heartbeat of a uniquely segregated city.

When Deep City Records was founded in the early 1960s by Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall, both alumni of Florida A&M University's Marching 100 Band, they created a vehicle for young black musicians and singers. A lot of the tunes here were regional hits at best. But that doesn't mean they weren't good. Perk Badger's "Do Your Stuff" is full of Overtown grit, and Helene Smith's "True Love Don't Grow on Trees" is one of the best 45s to be unearthed this century. You could scour every dustbin record shop in the South and not find any of the songs on this compilation, mainly because much of it was pressed in quantities of 500 or less.

The rarest record here is Helene Smith's "Pot Can't Talk About the Kettle," which local soul aficionado, Andrew Yeomanson, AKA DJ Le Spam, says is one of the hardest records to find in South Florida music history.

"None of the guys that are really hardcore Miami 45 collectors could find it," Yeomanson says. "Not even Willie Clark had it."

Only 300 copies of the single were pressed, and to date only two have surfaced. Local music collector Angelo Angione was able to find a dusty copy at a local Miami record store, and through restoration, it's been included on this disc. Stories like that make it easy to listen to The Outskirts of Deep City with two hands, one parsing the liner notes, the other holding the CD case to keep track of who's singing what as the songs change.

Clarke remembers the original session when "Pot Can't Talk About the Kettle" was cut, and he claims it was a miracle that anything from that session was salvageable the first time around.

"We were recording with two-tracks and four-tracks," Clark recalls. "'Pot Can't Talk About the Kettle,' that was a two-track recording. We had to mix everything as we did it. That's why it sounds so goddamn raggedy," he says while cracking up. "I can remember, clear as day, staring at the sky and saying, 'God, can you please do something for us.' We were only paying the musicians 15 or 20 dollars, and they sounded like it."

Of course, most of the musicians weren't professionals by any stretch of the imagination. "We used to have to go to Overtown to get a guitar player, Opa Locka for a bass player — man, we'd be riding all over town just to round up musicians," Clarke says. "Johnny would give 'em some wine, and we'd go straight to the studio. They weren't really disciplined, mainly guys that worked nightclubs, but it worked."

On tunes like Reid's "No Way Out" and Snoopy Dean's "Your Love Won't Let Me Leave You," the soulful singing alone makes up for the, at times, weak drumming and off-key guitar licks. Forget about comparing these guys to the Funk Brothers — neither the money nor the recording equipment that existed in Detroit was available to local labels like Deep City. But the stories and music that evolved from the few years that Deep City existed should make audiophiles even hungrier to find out about the local musicians who stood in the shadow of Motown.

For every song a 19-year-old Diana Ross cranked out with the Supremes in Detroit, a much younger Betty Wright of Miami was keeping pace, although it would take years for the rest of the world to know.

"When Betty came in, she told us she was 15, but she was only going on 12," says Clarke while laughing, recalling his initial encounter with Miami's Queen of Soul. "When we first met, she had thick pigtails, two big braids, and she sang her heart out. I knew we had a winner right away." Wright is just one of many female artists on the newly released disc who had an understanding of deep soul beyond her years.

On the surface, you can consider the album one of at least ten solid re-issue discs that have come out this year alone. But if you dare to listen with more than just your ears, the music and mystique of what's on this disc is hard to shake.