Nothing on this record was recorded less than 30 years ago, so what makes it so modern? It’s a good question, one that embarrasses some of those who love this music in the UK’s underground club scenes. Yet for all the fact that it is a misnomer, despite a myriad attempts to come up with a new name, the category holds. Those new names usually cover a fraction of the great music and don’t quite capture the beauty of Modern Soul.
Ignoring claims that the name was used earlier—and it was—the golden age of modern soul was the mid-’80s, when refugees from the increasingly fractured northern soul scene, looked to regain their enthusiasm for Black American music by digging deep into the lo-fi independent soul releases of the era. These were plentiful, and could be bought for a few pounds from Rod Dearlove’s Voices From The Shadows or John Anderson’s Soul Bowl, amongst others. Such sounds were augmented by records from the ’70s that just didn’t fit the northern soul template, either too funky, too disco, or perhaps even too pop sounding.
Of course Ian Levine and Colin Curtis at the Blackpool Mecca had started that fracture in the northern soul scene when they had begun to play contemporary records a decade earlier. Whilst they continued to play obscure independent releases, within a couple of years their sets had become dominated by the New York sound of the late ’70s and was no longer an underground scene.
In the time since these historic events records have filtered back into the northern scene, been lent to the funk crowd, and been coveted by collectors of all stripes. People have laughed that records from late ’60s and early ’70s Chicago could be classed as modern and decided that they would be named crossover, and that those original independent discoveries must just been called ’80s soul. Our compilation covers most of the main bases, from the ’80s dance groove of Donnel Pittman back to two-step Chicago soul from the likes of Nate Evans. This is modern soul at its most vibrant and exciting.
We open up in the Windy City with Pittman’s “Love Explosion.” With a soulful vocal that flirts with the edges of disco, this is a sought after rarity on both 7 & 12 inch formats, released on Archie Russell’s ARPCO. Pittman released a handful of singles including the equally sought after “Your Love Is Dynamite” which featured local legends the Chi-Lites on backing vocals, before he slipped back into obscurity.
The bulk of our Chicago recordings come from an earlier period in the city’s musical development when the predominant hit sound was Tyrone Davis’ recordings for Dakar. As ever when there is a hit there’s are multiple attempts to replicate it, and many with their own slightly warped brilliance. Nate Evans “Main Squeeze” takes the template and slows it down. Produced by Syl Johnson, it was written by Memphis legend Earl Randle. Johnson’s “Try My Love Again” is in the same vein and is an excellent showcase for the great singer’s talents. El Anthony is a further example of the style but with a slightly dirtier more rudimentary production style. He only recorded a handful of sides all for labels related to Hillary and Clarence Johnson (no relation), and all are now highly sought after collector’s items.
One of the greatest Chicago records of this period was Elvin Spencer’s “Lift This Hurt.” Once again this was built around the Tyrone Davis format, but was taken to new heights by the relocated Memphian on this self-written song, produced by Syl Johnson for the Twinight label. It was issued a number of times both under Elvin’s name and later as the Chosen Few on Bandit and on the Chosen Few label. Each time it sounded as fresh as the day it was minted.
Eula Cooper was just 17 when the excellent “Standing By Love” was released on Jesse Jones Note label. Raised in both Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta where Jones ran his operation, she was discovered in 1968 singing in the clothes shop located below the offices of the label. Her early singles included the northern soul stomper “Let Our Love Grow Higher,” before she released this monster. The other artist recorded for Note that year was the excellent funky-grooved “I Think It’s Time (You Were Mine),” by Alice Swoboda. This was licensed to Roulette records, but was in an atypical style for the singer and she soon returned to the local folk scene.
Jones didn’t just specialise in female singers, he also had a nice line in vocal groups. The Four Tracks were introduced to Jones via his connection with Moonsong Publishing in the group’s hometown of Birmingham. “Charade” is a wonderful piece influenced by the big hits coming out of Philadelphia at the time. Our final Jesse Jones production is the Young Divines “Deep In Your Heart,” a slice of vocal harmony soul which came out on the New London International label and was picked up for national release by Cotillion.
In a similar style is the wonderful “I’ll Never Say No” by the Summits. Recorded by Robert Hosea Williams at his DB studio in Silver Springs, Maryland, the group were managed by Joe Tate. Williams also produced the debut album by Clifton Dyson—including the exceptional “We’re Two Fools In Love”—which was released under the name Dyson’s Faces.
The sound on some of these vocal group records is beginning to edge towards disco. It is a sound which is more fully realised on some of our records. For instance, Los Angeles based Rokk, who recorded an album’s worth of material in 1976, managed to issue only one single “Patience.” Jackie Stoudermire’s “Guilty” is from five years later but is a cousin in rhythm. Interestingly, this is written by Gene Redd, whose production “It Really Hurts Me Girl” by the Carstairs started off the Blackpool Mecca’s foray into new records. Kariem’s obscurity for the Pash-Lo label has never been played in a modern soul club, but it really should be.
Minneapolis music is overshadowed by Prince’s giant success and skill. One of his earliest recordings was with 94 East, a group led by Pepe Willie. These sessions have often been reissued, in garish purple sleeves, that have led some of the tracks to be overlooked if you weren’t looking to get a fix of Prince. Which meant that for years the gently swaying and deeply soulful “If You See Me” was only on CD and unknown. At that time of recording in 1975 the local black music scene was a vibrant affair and could throw up something as amazing as Mind & Matter’s “I’m Under Your Spell.”
Bill Spoon is one of those singers who has never quite gotten the success his great voice deserved. The Louisiana-born singer worked with Lou Ragland as a member of the Soul Notes on the Way Out label, as well as recording at Stax, although nothing was released. His 1979 recording “Love Is On The Way” was recorded with the help of Ragland and released on the Highland label.
Both Wee and La’Fez emanate from Columbus, Ohio. The former was songwriter Norman Whiteside’s project from the moment he took over the reins from founder Joe King. “Try Me” has been sought after for some time and no wonder—the rich vocal is slightly on edge which gives the record its distinct sound. La’Fez was a studio project put together by Mickey Wallace and lasted for two hard to find 45s released on his MJW label. Recorded at Bill Moss’ Capsoul studio, the project was headed up by the vocals of Frans Ackers and Vess Jackson. Finally we have a true rarity with the Cosmos Universal Band’s ‘Third Eye’. Originally released on the tiny API label out of Marieta, Georgia, it is one of the great discoveries of recent years.
We really do hope that the music within gives you some answers as to why this is called Modern Soul. But if it doesn’t, never mind, because the music is exceptional in its own right.
2xLP2 140g LPs
1 wide spine LP direct to board jacket
- Donnell Pittman Love Explosion
- Rokk Patience
- Bill Spoon Love Is On The Way
- Eula Cooper Standing By Love
- Syl Johnson Try My Love
- Elvin Spencer Lift This Hurt
- El Anthony That's What My Lady Says
- Dyson's Faces We're Two Fools In Love
- Four Tracks Charade
- Summits I'll Never Say No
- Jackie Stoudemire Guilty
- Mind & Matter I'm Under Your Spell
- 94 East If You See Me
- La Fez No Matter
- Young Divines Deep In Your Heart
- Karriem I Love You
- Wee Try Me (45 Version)
- Nate Evans Main Squeeze
- Alice Swoboda I Think It’s Time
- Cosmos Universal Band Third Eye