For the last decade the Chicago based company, The Numero Group, has been mining the long-ago discarded music recordings of now defunct independent record labels. Devoted to “dragging brilliant recordings, films, and photography out of unwarranted obscurity,” Numero has found gems from Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit and reissued these funk and soul treasures on their own label, Eccentric Soul. A few years ago, Numero contacted the only living partner of Miami’s own Deep City Records, Mr. Willie Clarke.
Deep City was started by Clarke and Johnny Pearsall in 1964 in Overtown. The two partners were college band mates at Florida A&M before embarking on their venture back in Miami. The big brass sound of their marching band days looms large over many of the tracks they recorded at Deep City.
Numero’s discussions with Clarke lead to Eccentric Soul, the Deep City Label, the resuscitation of 17 songs released on a double album in three formats: vinyl, CD, and MP3. The songs, mostly written and arranged by Clarke and Pearsall, featured the vocals of starlets Betty Wright and Helene Smith, or the big soul sound of The Moovers or Frank Williams & the Rocketeers. The Numero record was released January 31, 2006. NPR selected it as its Record of the Year: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6567709
Not long after, as the story goes, Dennis Scholl received a copy of the album from his business partner. After one listen, Scholl was “blown away.”
This is unbelievable, high quality, emotionally resonant music. And I was like: who are these people and how come no one knows about them?
And that was the beginning of the odyssey.
The odyssey he refers to is a film in production now for almost three years: Deep City, the Birth of the Miami Sound, inspired by the Numero compilation record. Scholl is co-producing the film along with local documentary filmmakers Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle. Its their first long feature together. They have co-produced short films, two of which have won Emmys. But the Deep City documentary is a big story, says Scholl, speaking from his downtown office at the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation where he serves as Vice President of the Arts. I met him and Marlon Johnson there last week for a discussion about the film.
These are big undertakings. They are hard. They are expensive. It is easy to make a film and hard to make a good film.
They knew this was not a film that would receive outside funding initially but they agreed to do it anyway. Tingle and Johnson invested the sweat equity while Scholl covered their hard expenses. They shot with a high-definition camera and did many hours of interviews. In the end, they knew they had something. They acquired footage from the Wolfson Moving Image Archives featuring life in Miami’s Overtown, the predominately black community, where the soul of Deep City’s music lived. Tingle and Johnson began stitching the film together and prepared an eight-minute teaser to drum up interest in the film.
Scholl said at the beginning they didn’t know what to do with it.
We didn’t want to do it as a commercial enterprise where we were trying to put the film in a theater and make money from it. So we went to our friends at WLRN (Miami’s NPR & PBS member station)… We showed them the trailer… and we played them the music. And they said, we’re doing this.
WLRN acquired the film but gave Scholl, Johnson and Tingle free reins to make the film and put it out in festivals. Referring to them as “unbelievably good partners,” Scholl says WLRN is the only institution telling Miami stories these days.
People forget that Miami’s history is very, very compressed. The fact that things happened here so quickly is great but it’s a very compressed time frame compared to the rest of the world and even the rest of America.
So we’re now starting to go back as a community and look at our heritage and look at what people accomplished here…That’s what these stories are about. They are stories made my Miamians, about Miamians, for Miamians. And in doing that, we found this story. And these are really special people.
The film highlights the stories of Willie Clarke, Helene Smith, and the late Johnny Pearsall. Singer-songwriter Clarence Reid also figures heavily in the Deep City music and thus, in this film as well.
These are people who deserve recognition, and should be paid homage to.
The partnership with WLRN allows them to consider applying to the Sundance Festival, Tribeca Film Festival,Toronto Film Festival and SXSW.
[WLRN] really understands the importance of telling this story nationally. They really want to hold off [on the television broadcast] until we have this festival run.
Fall of 2013 is the deadline to submit the film to the aforementioned festivals and they appear to be on schedule. After that run, PBS will release the film on public television.
But that’s tomorrow. For now, what they have in the works is a love letter to Deep City Records.
We just want to make sure that people know that music comes from artists and the people that made this music are really, really special.
Film screen shots courtesy of Marlon Johnson, Film Producer, The Johnson Administration.
Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami