Numero Group is an archival record label—the world’s best, in its own estimation—founded in 2003. Eccentric Soul: Omnibus Vol. 1 is a project the company has envisioned from its inception. The label’s founders explain that the early vision for this set was for a box of 10 “left-of-center,” “peculiar-soul” singles, characterized by “off-key vocalists,” “piecemeal brass lines,” and “mad-scientist” producers “working in jury-rigged, barely functional studio conditions.” What has finally seen fruition as Omnibus Vol. 1 is a limited edition set of 45 7-inch soul singles from the 1970s, each with a replica label from its original release, packed in a portable case and accompanied by a 108-page, hardback book of liner notes and band photos. (Note: The physical box set was not available for this review, which refers to digital versions of the book and music.)
Over the past couple of decades, numerous releases—notably Collectables’ Battle of the Bands and Green Crystal Ties, Sundazed’s Garage Beat, and Arf! Arf! Records’ Iowa Great Lakes and New England Teen Scene series—have rescued obscure, regional rock and roll records from oblivion. Numero’s Eccentric Soul series has endeavored to do the same for ‘70s soul. Though the records in this box (and previous, more modest releases) may represent “average talents and mediocre means,” like the rock and roll collections, these soul records provide an important, hidden history of pop music. While old record charts may chronicle the commercially popular hits of the past, sets like Omnibus Vol. 1 reveal how those hits were channeled into the music played by local radio and in live venues across the United States.
Over the course of these 90 songs, you hear then-current soul and R&B influences as filtered through bands with names like Black Soul Express, Hifidelics, Mixed Breed, Prophets of Peace, Stone Creations, and Suspicious Can Openers. They released their singles on such independent labels as Fly-By-Night, Fink, Poo-Pan, Pink Knip, Lusty, and S.E.X., peddling them at performances at places like the Mark-V Dis-Co Club, Ethel’s Cocktail Lounge, and the Affro-Arts Theater. Despite frequent disclaimers about the predominantly amateur nature of these acts, and some borderline low-fi recordings, nothing here is less than listenable, and quite a few of the tracks sound ready for prime time, material and performances that could easily have come from an early-‘70s radio rotation.
Some of the best, most striking tracks are those that are most obvious about the big name groups that influenced them. Founded by a rumored cousin to Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, who was no longer around when their sides were cut, Everyday People contribute two of set’s best songs. “(Loose Booty) Is A Real Thing” works a monster Family Stone-style bass and guitar riff and Sly-sounding vocals. “Get Next To You,” the killer flip side, has a slamming guitar rhythm and locked-in rhythm section that sounds like the missing link between Sly and Prince.
The Aggregation’s “A Child Is Born” also suggests The Family Stone with horns reminiscent of their “Underdog,” while the wah-wah guitar and high-hat-driven beat sound like a super-charged version of “Theme From Shaft,” just one of several indications of the huge influence of the Isaac Hayes smash. On hardcore dance tunes such as Black Soul Express’ “Party Time,” the horn lines were clearly informed by a Tower of Power side or two. Flack and Company’s “Disco-TNT” is an “interpretation” of Kool & The Gang’s “N.T.,” only with a flute (with questionable intonation) taking over the horn lead of the original. The Hifidelics’ “Quiptown” also suggests Kool & The Gang, only at their most manic.
“Fever In Your Hot Pants,” an instrumental by the incredibly named Suspicious Can Openers (motto: “We’ll open you up”) is, strangely, one of few here that show any aspirations to matching James Brown’s JBs. On the ridiculously catchy “Dig It (Shovel),” Intentions’ lead vocal and lyrics have some of the Charles Wright/”Express Yourself” feel. This track is on a par with the soul dance hits of the time, a perfect example where a better studio and big label budget could possibly have transformed it into a hit.
The 13th Amendment’s b-side instrumental, “The Stretch,” rides organ, horns, and wah-wah guitar to the place where the Bar-Kays evolved from “Soul Finger” to the Shaft soundtrack. On their flip side, 13th Amendment offers up an example of the smooth, slow-burning R&B that Luther Ingram had introduced and Teddy Pendergrass soon mastered.
Several groups managed surprising innovations on their meagerly-budgeted singles. The social awareness of “She’s A Junkie (Who’s The Blame)” by Deep Heat is backed with a cool descending melody and great ensemble backup vocals, sort of like Curtis Mayfield backed by ‘70s-vintage Temptations. On “You Make Me Nothing,” The Energetics use dual lead vocals and serpentine lines, played by a flute-like synth, to create a nearly Zappa-esque sound. Black Fur’s “Feel the Shock” is an instrumental horn jam, driven by remarkably fluid, jazzy drumming almost prefiguring Return To Forever or Weather Report in spots, or at least, suggesting the soul jazz fusion that was on the horizon.
This wealth of unearthed treasure is complemented by a well-researched book of the band’s histories, accompanied by publicity stills and onstage shots of the band that vividly picture the period and the ambitious young, aspiring stars.
Eccentric Soul: Omnibus Vol 1 is a fascinating glimpse of the vast body of little-known music that was developing in the shadow of the ‘70s national soul scene.