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 around the United States. Devoted to “dragging brilliant recordings, films, and photography out of unwarranted obscurity,” Numero has found gems in closets, warehouses, crates and bins in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and reissued these funk and soul treasures on their own label, Eccentric Soul.
A few years ago, Numero reached out to the only living partner of Miami’s own Deep City Records, Willie Clarke.
Deep City was started by Clarke and Johnny Pearsall around 1963 in Miami’s Overtown section. Clarke and Pearsall met while attending college in Tallahassee at Florida A&M. Clarke was a drummer in A&M’s Marching 100 Band. He and another local, Arnold “Hoss” Albury, a trumpet player in the same band, brought that big brass sound to the Deep City vision in Miami years later; big horns loom large over many of the tracks they recorded under their label.
Numero’s discussions with Clarke lead to Eccentric Soul, the Deep City Label, the resuscitation of seventeen Deep City originals released on a double album in three formats: vinyl, CD, and MP3. The songs, mostly written and arranged by Clarke and Clarence Reid, featured the vocals of starlets Betty Wright and Helene Smith, or the big soul sound of The Moovers, or Miami #1 soul band at the time, Frank Williams & the Rocketeers.
The Numero Deep City compilation record was released January 31, 2006. NPR chose it for it’s 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. It’s their first long feature together. They have previously 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 with him and Marlon Johnson there last week for a discussion about the upcoming 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, the heart and soul of Deep City’s sound. 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 it as they intended and put it on the film festival circuit. 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 Deep City film highlights the stories of Willie Clarke, Helene Smith, the late Johnny Pearsall, and singer-songwriter Clarence Reid.
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, Co-Producer.
March 2014 Update:
Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound is complete and has been accepted at SXSW, Cleveland International Film Festival and will have its Florida debut on March 14, 2014 at the Miami International Film Festival.
Music docs are all the rage again since 20 Feet From Stardom won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars last week and Sugar Man won it the year before.
Here’s wishing similarly good vibes to Deep City.
Link to the film’s trailer is here: http://longplaymiami.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/deep-city-has-arrived/
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