Tagged: Deep City

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

Miami Sound Reissued

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.

For a while Miami Sound was comparable with some of the biggest R&B music labels of that time: Motown (Detroit), Stax Records (Memphis), “Sweet” Philly (Philadelphia).

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: