Deep City Soul

In the early 1960s, when Miami Beach was experiencing its first boom, hotels played host to top notch performers and artists from around the country. But black musicians like Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, and Billie Holiday who would perform at, say, the Fountainbleu for white audiences, weren’t permitted to stay there due to segregation laws. Once their sets were over they had to head to hotels in Miami’s black neighborhoods. On many late nights these artists and their band members would go out and mix in with the local musicians at the Overtown bars like the Knight Beat Club in the Sir John Hotel or The Fiesta lounge inside the Mary Elizabeth Hotel.  It made for a vibrant jazz and soul scene.

Jeff Lemlich, a music historian (and über record collector) describes that time as a significant moment in Miami’s soul music history. He says that while segration laws existed at the official establishments, the local, somewhat under the radar, Miami scene didn’t have those racial barriers in the clubs. It was “a color blind sort of thing” he says, taking place in the midst of the civil rights movement and the turmoil surrounding that time.

You had [white] guys that really rocked out in their garage bands playing guitar, bass and drums.  And they were mixing with black Gospel singers…, and with horn sections that were influenced by college marching bands. There was also a Bahamian influence, as well, that was prevalent down here.

Lemlich, author of the book Savage Lost: Florida Garage Bands – The ’60s and Beyond, said that all these diverse influences came together and it worked on both a musical and social level. It really made the Miami sound unique in comparison to Motown, for example.

I asked him if there was a song that personified the Miami soul scene of the 1960s. 

I got one, he said.

Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do [And Still Be a Lady] by Betty Wright.

Written by Willie Clarke and Clarence Reid, formerly of Deep City Records, the song is a concise yet assertive plea to women – who are done wrong by their guys – to maintain their dignity and self respect.

Betty Wright was first discovered when she was about 13 years old. As the story goes, she walked into a Miami record shop owned by Johnny Pearsall who, with Willie Clarke, co-founded Deep City Records circa 1965. The young teenager belted out a rendition of “Summertime” that was a top 10 hit by Billy Stewart.  Just like that, a star was born.

Clarke and Pearsall got her in the recording studio immediately. They cut two records that played well locally but never broke nationally. In 1968, Clarke and Pearsall split amid philosphical differences.  Pearsall took Helene Smith, Deep City’s queen of soul, and signed on with a national label out of Philadelphia.  Clarke and writing partner Reid, with Betty Wright on board, joined up with record producer Henry Stone.  Stone had the connections to get records played locally on the radio but he also had a recording studio, his own labels, and most importantly he had relationships with nationally recognized labels like Atlantic.

Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do was the first song recorded by the former Deep City team under Stone. It was released in 1968 as a single (45) on Stone’s Alston label and on her debut album My First Time Around.

“Mucho successful,” says Lemlich. It got up to #2 on the WQAM Top 40 Chart. And it wasn’t just a local hit. The song broke nationally and became the #1 R&B song in the country.

It was a hit all the way, not slick though, no excesses. Black and white musicians together.. you know what I call that?  Soul without borders.

Everything just right.

Copyright © 2012 Long Play Miami

2 comments

  1. Pingback: The Resilient Soul of Mr. Clarke « long play miami
  2. Pingback: Looking for Della « long play miami

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s