ECCENTRIC SOUL: The Nickel & Penny Labels

The Numero Group’s
latest deep-vault excursion yields a trove of Windy City
soul that’s obscure even by the label’s high standards – and no less
revelatory.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

Eccentric Soul releases from Chicago archival record label The Numero Group each have strong
individual identities yet also fit together as one major national
music-reclamation project. Across the country, especially in big cities, small
and deeply obscure labels featuring African-American music came alive in the
wake of the national successes of Motown and Stax/Volt. And there was no
shortage of talent – entrepreneurs, producers, arrangers, writers and singers –
to keep their operations busy.

 

Most were too tiny to ever get attention outside their
hometowns (if there), and would have been lost to history without the
after-the-fact interest of hard-core collectors and a supportive label like
Numero Group.

 

The recent holiday season brought two new Eccentric Soul
releases, the previously
reviewed
(and superb) Boddie
Recording Company: Cleveland, Ohio
and now The Nickel & Penny Labels (from Chicago). The latter
release has a touching back story: A gifted young man named Richard Pegue, who
was just three when his father – a Chicago policeman – was killed, turned to
music as an interest and found himself able to express it in numerous ways. He
taped it off radio with a reel-to-reel, played piano and had a singing group,
earned a living as an R&B/oldies radio deejay, and started these two
labels. For them, he provided material and supervised recording sessions for
singers whom he knew or sought out.

 

Listening to the 24 tracks on this single disc (which comes
with a 38-page booklet), you can hear how Pegue had his ear to what was
happening in black music of the 1960s and 1970s – various acts recall the Temptations, Sly & the Family Stone, Isaac Hayes
and more successful Chicago acts like the Impressions, Jerry Butler and the
Chi-Lites.

 

But that doesn’t matter, really. The singers are talented
with emotionally committed voices. And on the better material, which is
plentiful, Pegue has a strong knack for memorable melodies, often sweetened by
strings and dreamy and alluring background-vocal arrangements. The production
doesn’t always meet the sonic-clarity standards of the major labels of the
time, but that makes the records all the more mysteriously attractive today. It
gives them the aura of being exciting rediscoveries – “lost” soul.

 

For the stirring “I’ve Got to Find a Way,” from 1973 and
this record’s standout track, he assembled the 30-member Halleluiah Chorus to
provide a hauntingly full dimension to a melancholy ballad that lures you into
its sense of movement like a shadowy hallway. On 1968’s “Never More,” he found
a powerfully resonant voice in Little Ben Norfleet who sings counterpoint to
the layered, introspective harmonies of girl-group the Cheers. And Jerry
Townes’ sweet tenor, which slips lower and grittier for emphasis, lets 1967’s
“Three Sides To a Triangle” swirl with romanticism. (He also does a nice
version of “Never More.”)

 

So the music is rewarding and appealing. There are some
places, however, where Numero Group can improve on its presentation. The
booklet, for all its meticulously collected and reported information, is hard
to follow – one wishes the information about the artists was organized
track-by-track rather than in narrative form. And on the back cover, track
listings are in a small, orange-red small typeface against a light-pink
background. You almost need a magnifying glass to read it and it isn’t also
repeated in the booklet.

 

But this is a fine tribute to Pegue, who died in 2009. And
it’s another triumph in Numero Group’s quest to show us how rich our nation is
in old, forgotten record labels awaiting rediscovery. They are our modern-day
deserted gold mines.

 

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