A couple of award-winning documentary filmmakers and an avid art collector & philanthropist have teamed up to produce a very charming documentary about the first black-owned record production company in Florida: Deep City Records. Deep City operated in Miami from about 1964 to 1968. It was founded by two friends who first got the idea to make records when they were college mates at Florida A&M. Willie Clarke was the creative; Johnny Pearsall was the entrepreneur. They enlisted the multi-talented Clarence Reid and the three of them set the course for Miami’s special contribution to the soul music landscape of the 1960s.
Deep City recorded local musicians, many of them native Miamians culled from the churches of Liberty City and the night clubs of Overtown, while others were transplants from Jacksonville, Georgia, Arkansas, and other far away places. The record label released songs by Helene Smith, Betty Wright, Them Two, Frank Williams & the Rocketeers, Freda Gray, and Johnny Killens & The Dynamites, to name a few. Local R&B legend Little Beaver played guitar on some of Deep City’s deepest cuts.
The film, titled Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, had its world premiere last night at the SXSW [South by Southwest] Festival in Austin, Texas.
Next stop on the festival circuit is Miami where this Friday, March 14th, the movie will have its Florida debut at the Miami International Film Festival (8:30 PM, Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center). Tickets for the film can be purchased here.
Long Play Miami is honored to be among the first to receive a copy of the movie’s trailer, and, with the filmmakers’ permission, shares it here for all music and film fans to enjoy.
Read the previous Long Play Miami post on the making of the film from January 2013.
46 years ago this month, Miami-made soul music was hitting its stride. It was the year before the scene would break nationally with a couple of big hits in 1968 from local teen sensations Betty Wright and Della Humphrey. Here are 5 very solid tracks all recorded in Miami that debuted in May 1967, a sample of what was just around the corner for Miami Soul.
Sweet Sweet Lovin’ – Paul Kelly
Released on the Philips label, this song became a local hit by July 1967. Paul Kelly was a Miami-born vocalist who enjoyed an extensive career well through the 1980s. His biggest hit was Stealing in the Name of the Lord, which reportedly created a stir among some black communities because it exposed the hypocrisies of some church leaders. But controversy sells; the song reached #14 on Billboard’s R&B chart in July 1970. Three years earlier, Kelly released the song featured here, Sweet Sweet Lovin’. There was no controversy about this very upbeat song, which was produced by Buddy Killen, a music producer from Alabama who made his bones in country music but also had slightly comparable success with R&B hits.
Girl I Got News For You – Benny Latimore
Benny Latimore is a keyboardist from Charleston, TN who moved to Miami and became an integral part of Henry Stone’s TK Records as a session musician and singer-songwriter. He had 2 national hit records of his own in the mid 1970s with Let’s Straighten It Out (#1 in R&B, #31 in Top 40) and Something ‘Bout Cha (#7 in R&B). Girl I Got News For You, issued on one of Stone’s first R&B record labels (Dade), was released in May 1967. One month later, this catchy, pre-disco track was one of the top songs jamming on local soul stations, and probably would have been a bigger hit if it had been (re)released during TK’s impressive disco run a few years later.
Willie “Little Beaver” Hale moved to Miami as a teenager from Forrest City, AR. He joined the Miami nightclub band, Frank Williams & the Rocketeers as lead guitarist in 1964 and later recorded a few tracks as a solo artist including this one, which was released on Octavia Records. Beaver later joined up with Henry Stone’s TK Records and had five hit songs including the 1974 Party Down which reached #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart. He is considered the grand master of Miami Soul guitarists and is most revered for, among many of his musical accomplishments, playing all three guitar tracks on Betty Wright’s exceptional gold record Clean Up Woman (1971).
I Love You Baby – The Moovers
The Moovers recorded their first 2 songs, including this one, with Deep City Records, Miami’s first black-owned independent label which was run by partners Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall. The Moovers later changed their name to The Prolifics and released the song If Only I Could Fly in December 1968. They later recorded under the band name Living Proof in the 1970s. The song featured here was written and arranged by Willie Clarke, Johnny Pearsall, and Arnold Albury. The song has a Delfonics’ flavor to it (and incidentally would have been suitable for the soundtrack of Tarantino’s 1997 film, Jackie Brown). Favorite lyric? “With you, I’m a king, without you, I’m not a dog-gone thing.”
True Love Don’t Grow on Trees – Helene Smith
Widely considered among people in the know as Miami’s first queen of soul, Helene Smith recorded more than 20 songs between 1966 and 1969, mostly with the aforementioned Deep City, and then a couple with Phil-LA-of Soul out of Philadelphia, after Deep City’s partners split in 1968. Smith released True Love Don’t Grow on Trees in May 1967, a modest hit. But her big break would come three months later with A Woman Will Do Wrong, which reached #20 on Billboard’s R&B and #128 on the crossover pop singles charts. Today, she is a public school teacher in Miami-Dade County.
Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami
NOTE: “Soul Flashback” will be an ongoing feature on this site. Check back periodically for updates or sign up for email alerts (see Sidebar). Also follow Long Play Miami on Twitter & Facebook.
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: https://longplaymiami.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/deep-city-has-arrived/
Copyright © 2014 Long Play Miami
The interview in his Hialeah apartment begins with my showing him a compilation double album I bought a few months ago – Miami Sound: Rare Funk & Soul from 1967-1974. The songwriter and music producer says it reminds him of the worst thing that happened to him in the music business, that he was just so in love with the writing and creating, he didn’t manage his business affairs right. Then he adds that he wonders why he doesn’t get paid “real money” as a result of having so much “material” out there. He tells me he doesn’t want to talk about the re-issue label from Chicago that, with his assistance and support, produced compilation records like the one I just showed him featuring a lot of the music he wrote back in the day. They made him promises, he says. Financial promises. He says he’s “still keeping what you might call faith” but it makes him nauseous how they failed him.
Clarke goes on. He says the worst offenders are musicians who use his music as their own. (Artists steal music from each other time and again, especially hip hop artists who sample music. And the more original and unique songs, especially from an era when licensing fees and royalties weren’t considered a priority, are the most vulnerable.)
I think he’s being particularly hard on himself. After all, some things you can’t control.
Clarke reaches for some papers on his desk and hands them to me. It’s his BMI royalty statement. BMI is a global company that collects licensing fees and distributes them as royalties to songwriters and musicians.
10 cents here, 5 cents there, he says, just enough to pay the light bill.*
The man who’s written soul lyrics about women, advising them not to be done in by the men in their lives, has been done in.
But then the good man changes his tune and fires into nostalgia.
We had 6 or 8 rhythm sections. There were certain sounds. If we wanted to do a ballad, we’d get Little Beaver, my blues guy was best for that. If we wanted to cut something really fast and danceable, I’d get KC [of Sunshine Band notoriety]. .. He was funky. There was keyboard player Timmy Thomas, …Robert ‘Shotgun’ Johnson, … a Cuban guy named Julio… We had jazz people, blues people, even a guy from Belle Glades named Melvin Carter who sang if you see a man walking the streets tonight, don’t be afraid. Don’t worry, its only me, I got pains in my heart. And Snoopy Dean [guitar], he was good. He’d start chewing that bubblegum and lean back.
Throughout all this, Clarke mimicks a bass player, a piano player, even Snoopy Dean leaning way back jamming his guitar. He makes this sound or that sound. The soul man is on a roll.
Clarke was born in the small rural community of Fort Gaines, Georgia but moved to Miami when he was four. He attended college at Florida A&M and played tenor drum in the marching band. There, he began composing music. He says voices would come to him and recite poetry in his head. He then tells me he can write a song in 10, 15 minutes. I think about testing him on the spot but I can’t fathom a topic that would meet his criteria. Clarke wrote songs with meaning, with a message, a strong message. Many of them were about empowering women. He didn’t write about racial discrimination or racial injustices. There were broader themes he wanted to address in the music. These songs were about love, loss, and everything in between.
His peers were strong songwriters too. He talks about Willie “Little Beaver” Hale. Mama forgot to tell me that the world was about to change. Can you tell me who’s to blame. Nothing can remain the same, people even change their name… And my papa was even nowhere around, my papa was somewhere getting down. He tells me this is the story of the ghetto child, the hard life that you gotta face.
After college he spent a lot of time at Johnnys Record Shop in Liberty City which belonged to his business partner Johnny Pearsall. (The two of them later would start Deep City Records, which ran from 1964-68 and produced some of the best soul music around.)
In the back room we had a little rehearsal room. Just enough to jam a piano in there. We’d rehearse every day before we went to the studio… The girls would come by. We’d have late night parties there.
But Clarke was serious about the music. So serious he set goals for himself. Three goals, in fact. (1) To get radio play; (2) to have a gold record (back then, 1 million records sold), and (3) to have a platinum record (2 million sold).
I ask him what song broke the cherry as far as radio play. It was The Pot Can’t Talk About the Kettle by Helene Smith, considered Miami’s First Lady of Soul. Released on one of Clarke’s labels, Blue Star, in 1963, it has been called the “ultimate Miami collectible” record. The first pressing of the 45 RPMs totaled only 300 records.
Thank God for DJs who were, what you might call, compassionate. That was one of the wildest recordings… It’s about the rawest sound you ever want to hear on a record.
He tells me if he could record that song today it would sound much better but he likes the raw sound.
The ironic thing about having a good song. ..Sometimes you cannot sacrifice feel for perfection. Perfection is boring. Every now and then you have a little tweety bird over here, a little bow wow in this corner. People will say, hey what’s coming out next? They start grooving to it.
When local music impresario Henry Stone came looking for Clarke (circa 1968) to entice him to come work for him and what would become TK Records in Miami, Clarke says he and Johnny Pearsall couldn’t agree on the move. (Reportedly, Pearsall wanted to go in a different direction with Helene Smith, i.e., sign with a national label. But on this day, Clarke recounts a different motive for Pearsall’s resistance.)
Johnny didn’t want to go [with Henry Stone]. We don’t need him, he’d say. We can do this ourselves. To be realistic, Johnny didn’t like mingling too much with white people ’cause as a little boy he grew up seeing the brothers being tarred and feathered. He was exposed to some prejudices and bigotry up there [in Tallahassee]… I wasn’t exposed to that kind of stuff in Miami. Johnny tried real hard to overcome these things but there are some things in life you can’t overcome.
Clarke and Pearsall eventually split, and so went Deep City Records. Clarke took his talents to Hialeah [site of Henry Stone’s recording and distribution business]. And I mean all of his talents. Guitarist Little Beaver, diva Betty Wright, James Knight & the Butlers. Songwriters, vocalists, musicians. And that FAMU sound.
Joining with Henry Stone was a genius move. Success came quick with the 1968 Betty Wright single Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do. And times were good.
I used to get up early in the morning especially during the summer when school closed [his other job was as a middle school art teacher]. When I’d get to the studio, they’d be waiting outside, the drummer and the guitar player. And they’d say, come on, lets cut somethin’ [music]… But first lets start with this.
Oh, you brought some Red Rooster [wine]?
…and we’d drink a couple of bottles of Red Rooster and get up there and jam all morning, all day long.
One day I came to TK Records from teaching in South Miami. Henry Stone was happy sitting behind the desk. He said, Willie, have some rum and coke.
I said, whats all the party about, Henry?
He said, remember those guys from Atlantic Records that were here? Well, they told me to tell you you got a big smash hit with Clean Up Woman.
Clarke called the principal at the middle school and submitted his resignation.
The platinum record came a few years later.
Since I first started writing about this topic I have heard varying opinions about what exactly is the Miami Sound. Henry Stone has said that it was during the disco years of the 70s when they had hit after hit at TK Records. They even marketed the moniker under the TK label circa 1978. But Clarke disagrees with that notion. He says it started with the Deep City music.
[Local musicians] Them Two, The Moovers, Helene Smith, and Little Beaver, that’s what I would say was the Miami Sound. Why? Because that was the music that was the attention-getter here in Miami. When it hit the radio, it made a big bang. Henry Stone wanted to know who we were.
I ask him what made this Miami Sound unique.
Two words, he says, “color blind.”
It was the most integrated society. People from everywhere. It was so mixed. When you look around there’d be different colors playing the same music.
Man, we had stiff competition. Motown, Philly, LA, Birmingham, all over. But because of the uniqueness of our sound, we were able to kind of like… ease right on through. We were different.
I can’t tell the difference between an LA sound and a NY sound. But you know a Miami Sound (snap his fingers) right off the bat.
Clarke receives a check every once in a while. A few cents here and there. Sometimes more. For example, Beyonce sampled Girls Can’t Do. She paid royalties. He says it was a big hit.**
Then he says,
Thank God for samples. Without samples, my life wouldn’t be all right, right now.
Copyright © 2012 Long Play Miami
Update: December 6, 2012
* After reading this blog post recently, Willie Clarke called me and said he wanted me to acknowledge that “BMI is very important to him. They take really good care of Willie Clarke.” I get where he’s coming from. [see next point]
** Occasionally, royalty checks sum up to a lot more than just a few cents.
On July 18, 2012, this post was recognized: