Before a young and visionary Emilio Estefan usurped “Miami Sound” for his Latin crossover band of the late 1970s, the term had existed for about a decade as a nationally recognized musical style and genre.
In the mid 1960s, while the country spiraled towards a long and painful war in Vietnam a group of local talented musicians, writers, producers and arrangers came together under the genius of TK Records and its founder, Henry Stone, an independent record distributor who had settled in Miami after making records for years in California. Stone set up shop in a warehouse in Hialeah just a few blocks east of LeJuene Road. He recruited local producers Willie Clarke and Clarence Reid (“BlowFly”) who ran their own small record label – Deep City Records – and had laid solid groundwork for what was to come.
Clarke, a former member of the Florida A&M (“FAMU”) 100 Band, recalled during a recent panel discussion one of the key and fundamental elements of this unique sound:
Every time we came home [from college] for spring break or Christmas holidays, we’d get together and walk the streets of Overtown from club to club and the horn players would go and sit in with groups like Dizzy Jones and Frank Williams & the Rocketeers… We developed a style of playing that was almost equal to: you gotta march when you hear the song. We developed this big brass sound with horns… which was traditional in the FAMU sound.
The TK Group combined the songwriting talents of Clarke and Reid, and Stone’s connections to national record labels and distribution skills, and under TK, they recorded funk and R&B influenced by Miami’s cultural dynamic at the time. According to Clarke:
We had hillbillies, Gospel singers, Bahamian guitar players,… The Miami Sound came from a real integration of different styles of music and we blended it together.
Big horns, deep bass grooves, tight guitar riffs, sometimes a piano, sometimes an organ, always soul.
Early contributors to the Miami Sound included James Knight and the Butlers, the aforementioned Frank Williams, Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, Joey Gilmore, and Timmy Thomas. And the women – strong, no-nonsense, in-your-face. There was Helene Smith, considered Miami’s first lady of soul, Betty Wright, Gwen McCrae. Smith and Wright were holdovers from the Deep City days. McCrae would become a star in her own right with the top ten hit Rockin’ Chair in 1974.
So what happened?
Well, TK’s music would evolve and cross over into dance and specifically disco in the mid 1970s. Harry Casey (aka KC) and Richard Finch were two aspiring musicians who started working at the TK studio packing records. Soon they were writing music for Gwen’s husband, George McCrae (Rock Your Baby, a #1 hit in 1974) and others before they formed their own group and exploded onto the disco scene as KC & The Sunshine Band scoring TK Records a string of #1 hits that became iconic with the era. A great run indeed but disco quickly floundered in the early 1980s, and TK, facing financial difficulties from a severe drop in record sales, filed for bankruptcy.
Soul Jazz Records, a reissue label in London, has reprinted copies of a compilation record, Miami Sound: Rare Funk & Soul from 1967-1974 [http://www.souljazzrecords.co.uk/index.php] featuring a wonderful sampling of the early pre-disco funk, soul and R&B that made music history in Miami.
Here’s a taste: