Archival record label Numero Group excavates hidden artistic histories | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Archival record label Numero Group excavates hidden artistic histories 

I don't know what it was like for other people to have the staff of the archival record label Numero Group come to their home, but I can imagine: Two years ago, in my childhood quarters on Long Island, they set up an intern in my old bedroom.

It was even stranger for my father, who was the center of attention for two days. They were all very polite with their cameras and scanners and stuff, but there's a lot that can get dredged from the attic in a creaky old house where one has lived for 35 years. There was plenty of stress in the sediment; my father's not going to be in the house forever, after all.

For those few days, life turned hyperreal as the team dispatched from Numero's Chicago-based office sorted through film canisters, animation cels, file drawers, index cards, notebooks, gyroscopes, seashells and other remnants of my father's career as an experimental and educational filmmaker. Dad had thrived in the halcyon post-'60s days of public television, before curriculums and focus groups made it a less conducive environment for cosmic artistic expression. He made films for Sesame Street, The Electric Company and other PBS shows. But mostly he made films for himself and an amorphous group of freethinking intelligences, young and old, that he assumed to be somewhere on the far side of the magical flickering screen. Several decades later, Numero Group wanted to help find that crowd once again.

When the label released the resulting DVD, Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow, early in 2010, the set needed a marketing hook: "Tens of millions of people have seen these films," it went. "Nobody knows who made them."

"Somebody knows who made them," my father grumbled in one of a few dozen variants he crafted as the company arranged his first screenings in decades. Still he was excited for the films to find new eyes.

It's not that the Numero Group remembers history exactly; the label helps rewrite it—or, at the very least, augment it. Founded in 2004 by Ken Shipley, Rob Sevier and Tom Lunt, the company specializes in media that most people never knew to begin with—in expansive scope and detail at that. They've released 44 CDs, 32 LPs (mostly double), 17 45-RPM singles, eight 12-inch singles, two DVDs, one cassette and a mess of box sets. There's also a Grammy-nominated book of photographs called Light: On the South Side, collecting Michael Abramson's riveting images of mid-'70s Chicago nightlife. It naturally includes a double-LP set.

The Numero Group's archivists—or revivalists, if you prefer—have, in varying degrees, done what they did for (and to) my father to (and for) so many musicians and artists that a complete tally seems intimidating. Their work has ranged from a two-disc excavation of a basement studio south of Detroit (2007's Local Customs: Downriver Revival) to perfect autumnal archaeologies like 2008's Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli. In doing so, the group has helped launch numerous second careers, most recently producing a series of concerts and a tour named after their most durable release series, the Eccentric Soul Revue. The show is culled from the wide stable of musicians the label has come into contact with over the past eight years. Not all seemed like certain stage stars.

"Renaldo Domino was a big gamble," Shipley remembers. "When we first found him, the guy had no teeth."

Shipley asked the owner of the high, sweet voice behind the stunning "Not Too Cool To Cry," a Chicago R&B hit for the label Twinight in 1970, if he could still sing.

"I think so," Domino told him. "I sing in the shower."

No worries: Domino can still deliver the goods. His falsetto isn't exactly as it once was, but like a slightly faded bauble from the attic, it's almost exactly there. After a spectacular performance in Chicago, he has become one of the label's flagship artists, along with R&B legend Syl Johnson. Both Johnson and Domino will perform with the Eccentric Soul Revue, backed by New York's Sweet Divines, when they come to Duke University this week.

"Touring on a bus is a young man's game," Shipley says, reflecting on the time he accidentally revived the cramped conditions of an old-fashioned soul-package tour in almost too-perfect detail. "Syl didn't sleep any of the nights. He'd get to the club and would sleep for six hours when the bus was stopped. When you're in the septuagenarian world, that's not a doable kind of thing."

But that doesn't mean Johnson's going quietly into the night, either.

"I'm not old, but original," proclaims Syl Johnson. "And organic and authentic. Listen to me very closely: There are no more Beatles coming. There are no more James Browns, there are no more Bob Dylans, there are no more Otis Reddings, there are no more Sam Cookes."

Over the course of a 20-minute phone call from Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, Johnson alternately sings, imitates a disco beat and screams at me to name my favorite vegetables (I asked about his garden, admittedly). He soon says that he hates playing harmonica. "Too much wind," he exclaims before picking one up and blowing a solo.

When Johnson inquires about the veggies, I stammer, "Uh, corn. I like peppers. A good fat tomato."

"Oh, that's no problem, man!" he booms convivially. "Zucchini? Cucumbers? Okra? Bell peppers? Onions, garlic, navy beans, string beans, watermelons, honeydew melons. Pickles. Strawberries galore."

Johnson, 75, began his recording career in 1959, eventually building to a series of mid-'70s hits, including his No. 7 R&B/ No. 48 Pop rendition of Al Green's "Take Me to the River." Unlike Renaldo Domino, Johnson never entirely stopped making music, but his new status is still a surprise. He is thrilled at the new audience that arrived with Numero's lavish Complete Mythology box set (plus accompanying collection of 45s).

"They're young," he says of his crowd. "They got ears. For me to come and be authentic, because there ain't nobody to listen to who's authentic, so they can come and listen to one of the originals sing the shit. And I feel good about it and I want to take care of myself and keep on singing for a few more years for them."

He admires the work of the Numero Group, too. The label came looking for him and his music, giving him a chance to right previous wrongs: "They were smart. I was the ripped-off artist of the times. I started the [label] Twilight, L-I-G-H-T," he says. Here, Johnson sings a chorus of his 1967 single "Come On Sock It to Me," then continues, "and they took it, called it Twinight, N-I-G-H-T. It took me 'til July 10th, 2007, to get all that shit back. And that's how I cut a deal with the Numero Group."

Even before his second coming, Johnson had learned a new skill set: making rappers pay him for their samples. Well, mostly. "Them motherfuckers took my shit and somehow there was a judgment against me," he says of a loss to Cypress Hill, colorfully recounting the nitty-gritty of the case. He recently filed a lawsuit against Jay-Z and Kanye West, following an uncredited sample on their recent Watch the Throne. That case has earned Johnson wide attention, like notice on the front page of the music website Pitchfork Media.

"Kanye and Jay-Z have had multiple opportunities to clear the air with Syl, but they both chose to punt," comments Numero's Shipley, who is not involved in the case.

Numero has become something of a shepherd into the modern world for its artists. While a hit record for the label—like Johnson's Complete Mythology or the new Local Customs: Pressed at Boddie—constitutes something in the vicinity of 5,000 to 10,000 copies sold in the first year, the major source of income for Numero artists in the new world is licensing. In movies, commercials and television shows, never before has the past been so present, the cultural infrastructure weighted toward the forgotten. Numero artists have dotted the cultural landscape, on Mad Men, Parenthood, Eastbound and Down and elsewhere. Ms. Tyree "Sugar" Jones, from the Big Mack roster in Detroit, was on the Choke soundtrack. "They got me on a Halle Berry movie!" Johnson exclaims.

"We've helped get artists or families of artists some of the first money they've ever seen from those releases," says Lyle Hysen of Bank Robber Music, who helps the Numero artists get their songs into the world. "We have had the most success with supervisors working on period film and TV and they need music from a specific era. As long as it doesn't have to be recognizable, the Numero stuff has done very well in that regard."

Johnson is a few weeks out from the trip to North Carolina, where he hasn't performed since sometime in the '80s when he appeared with his one-time labelmate Al Green. No more buses: "I'm too old for that shit," he says. He'll fly.

Meanwhile, the Numero brass will hit the road once again.

The one-story building and garden-apartment-style basement that houses the Numero Group in Chicago's Little Village is an unassuming portal to the past. Next door, a woman sweeps the sidewalk of the falling autumn leaves. At least during business hours on this warm early November afternoon, both doors are unlocked. Despite its plain appearance, this building—until recently, Shipley's home, with Numero's operations confined to the basement—is a monument to one of the most monumental passions of the early 21st century.

To wit, Shipley is screaming inside. A shipment of Local Customs: Pressed at Boddie was supposed to have already arrived, but it seems there's been a mix-up: "Now they're messing with our schedule. I don't want to pay for late," he barks.

Lately, Numero has grown large enough that he vacated his home for elsewhere; they took over the upstairs, too. The move is so recent that the walls in Shipley's new office aren't yet lined with the record shelves that meticulously pack every corner of the basement. Rather, he proudly shows off the drawers in his former office, custom-built to hold 7-inch singles. "I'm not interested in owning records anymore," he notes. "I'm interested in owning master tapes."

For Shipley, who grew up as a skate-punk east of San Francisco in the mid-'80s, this obsession began with a few stolen Minor Threat and Dead Kennedys cassettes, an endless series of mixes and ordering 7-inches from far-off labels. Shipley moved through a series of record industry jobs, eventually meeting Rob Sevier, who got him a job working at Groove Distribution, where the two hatched the plan for Numero. They began with a French bossa nova record Shipley had become enchanted with by the band Antenna, and a compilation of the Cap-Soul label out of Columbus, Ohio.

Eventually, the present lost its luster. Shipley laments the overwhelmed world of cheap recording and cheaper distribution; in a way, those old works just felt more important, maybe more real.

"Going through MP3s in 30 years is going to be a task for whipping boys," he says of the crate diggers of the future or those who might spend time harvesting dead MySpace accounts. "Oneohtrix Point Never puts out a CD-R. You made this shit in your bedroom. I'm sorry, but it's garbage music for people who won't care about it in five minutes."

People cared about most of Numero's original artists for far less than five minutes.

"For somebody to fail at making a record, especially being black in the late '60s or early '70s, means they put a lot more than four or five hundred dollars on the line," he explains. "They put their life on the line, they put their well-being on the line, they put food on the line. For it not to work out was so much more major than anybody could possibly imagine. For all this failure to happen simultaneously is pretty amazing. I think that's what makes the recordings that much more special, even the not-good ones."

All three of Numero's primaries all slipped slowly into the world of record collecting, pulling away at the past until it became fully present. The past now courses through the bustling office like a phantom current. In an alcove next door to Shipley's office, Sevier scours old publishing directories for addresses and possible leads. Once, after spotting an address on a 45 at Reckless Records, he got on his bike and headed directly there. Sometimes, he spends years tracking down artists. It took him a half-decade to locate Darnell Glover, a singer with the Bandit label.

"I sent so many letters. I found his sister, but she was out of touch—one thing after another after another," says Sevier. After a half-decade, Glover actually contacted Numero. Sevier visited him in a project a few miles down the freeway. "There was nothing on the walls except one piece of paper in a frame, and I wondered what it was. On our way out, I walked around to get a look at what was on it. The thing on the wall was a letter from me, and it was from 2004, and by then it was like 2009. I asked him why he didn't reply."

"Well," Glover told him. "I just liked the letter because you laid out all my accomplishments in one place."

When the Numero crew travels to North Carolina for its showcase at Duke, Shipley, Sevier and a Southern specialist will load a rented minivan with Numero wares. There will be stops at local record shops to sell their goods wholesale, and there will be investigations. They rarely go into towns without a plan, a lead or a connection. If something looks promising, they'll send out more troops to pore through session logs and budget sheets and other miscellaneous papers and to do lots of interviews. In the middle, somewhere, there are likely stories, music and some brilliant intersection that might come alive when laid into Numero's loving packages. Only time will tell.

Down in the basement, though, Shipley has tracked down the Boddie shipment. He has dispatched some people to go get the lost music.

In high school, we had a friend named Dan Hecht, whom we called Head. We were amused, on occasion, when we spotted books by a novelist of the same name. "Check it out," we'd say. "Somebody's got the same name as Head."

Years later, when Numero's Guitar Soli came out, I noticed a track by Daniel Hecht. "Dude," I told my friend. "There's another Dan Hecht."

His girlfriend interrupted the memory. The author and the guitarist were the same person, she said: "He was our family's best friend when I was growing up." The point of recounting this unlikely and obscure trio of coincidences isn't necessarily that it's a small world but rather that there is music everywhere in it. Who knows what our neighbors did in their youth? Or the guy at the coffee shop?

On the current installment of the Eccentric Soul Revue, there are no North or South Carolina artists, though there are a few throughout the Numero catalog. Shipley cites Elijah and the Ebonites. There could be many more sometime in the future. He's excited about the possibilities of the region, especially having a Carolina native, Jon Kirby, along for this trip. Kirby is one of the newest Numero employees, at a time when most labels continue to make cuts with staff and otherwise. In an odd twist, at the Numero Group, the future seems as limitless as the past.

"I think we paid $400 for the Numero logo, which seemed like a lot at the time," Shipley says. These days, the shelves in the Numero basement are pleasing, endless rows of the label's iconic sleeve. Each collectible edition represents the end point of a narrative, years of history sorted into clean liner notes with careful discographies and research.

But even second comings aren't always clean; not everything sells. Shipley acknowledged that Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow hasn't exactly moved myriad units, scoring in the bottom third for all Numero releases.

"Not everything will be a hit out of the gate, but we don't make anything that'll be a hit anyway," Ken says, perhaps diplomatically.

These days, my dad makes computer programs and designs wondrous exhibits for children's museums. He's looking for a smartphone app developer to work with. He also just directed his first Sesame Street short in 20 years—not necessarily because of the DVD, but it didn't hurt, either.

Mostly, though, he likes to make Andy Goldsworthy-meets-Joseph Cornell-like beach sculptures that he documents on his website, Protozone, before letting them wash back into the surf. One of his new medium's chief virtues is that it doesn't take up much space in the attic.

"Cosmic Clock"

And then, a snap of the proverbial long tail: Influential tech/ design blogger Jason Kottke wrote up "Cosmic Clock," a clip I uploaded to YouTube [also embedded below] before Numero Group was in the picture. It's my dad at his psychedelic best, I think. In it, a boy sits on a hillside overlooking a city while a voice (not my dad) intones, "We are going to take a trip, not in space but in time."

A billion years pass in two minutes while the city and landscape rise and fall. "One of my favorite things on one of my favorite shows," Kottke wrote. "This is one of those things I thought I'd just never see again." The link went modestly viral and scored 60,000 views over the mid-November week after my visit to Numero office. Some other people blogged, tweeted and podcasted about it.

The social media activity didn't exactly electrify the company's sales division, translating (at least initially) to a rather peckish and barely distinguishable bump. Still, it is out there, on the best possible footing. If it took a while for Numero to find artists almost everybody else missed, it's only natural that it might take everybody else a while to find Numero. The Numero Group is not in the business of manufacturing warm and fuzzy feelings, but they do that well, too.

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