Report: Eccentric Soul Revue in Columbus

 

Syl Johnson (pictured,
above) and other alumni of Chicago’s
Twinight label do the Numero Group
proud.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

Although the curatorial reissue label Numero
Group is based in Chicago, its
roots are in Columbus, Ohio. Its first release, in early 2004, and
the inaugural title in the acclaimed Eccentric
Soul
series, was devoted to Capsoul Records, an obscure, suitably eccentric
Columbus record label of the late 1960s/early 1970s.

 

“We launched our label with Capsoul, and we’ve done four
albums from Columbus, more than any city,”
announced Ken Shipley, one of the archival label’s founders, at the start of
Numero’s Eccentric Soul Revue roadshow stand in Columbus on Nov. 9.

 

So
not only was the city an appropriate stop for this short U.S. tour, but so was
the venue – the Egyptian Revival-style Lincoln Theater, which had opened as a
vaudeville/jazz house in the city’s historic African-American King-Lincoln
District back in 1928 and, legend has it, was where a young Sammy Davis Jr.
started his career. It had been vacant for decades until this year, when the
city spearheaded a $13.5 million renovation to restore it to its old glories, with
updated sound and lighting as well as a glisteningly colorful interior

 

The show was presented in Columbus
by the innovative Wexner Center for the Arts, which meant it attracted
arts/pop culture devotees as well as middle-aged and older blacks who remembered
when Capsoul was a big deal in Ohio’s
capitol city.

 

Primarily, the Eccentric Soul Revue was meant to
showcase Numero Group’s recent
reissue of material from Chicago’s
late-1960s Twinight label, Twinight’s
Lunar Rotation
. Twinight is best known as home to the prescient
soul-blues-funk-protest singles of Syl Johnson (“Different Strokes,” “Is It
Because I’m Black,” “Concrete Reservation”). To fans of Windy City
soul, he occupies a position something like Otis Rush’s Cobra blues releases of
the 1950s – great songs somewhat overlooked today because the label just didn’t
last for long. Next year, Numero is releasing a definitive box set of Johnson’s
recordings.

 

The house/backing band was JC Brooks & the
six-member Uptown Sound, with the young, talented Brooks doing yeoman’s work of
singing warm-up between featured acts, emceeing and providing harmony support
when needed. His songs, such as “I Used to Hold You, Now I Hold You Back” had
punch and grit and were unexpected pleasures.

 

For Columbus,
the revue added one of Capsoul’s finest vocal groups, the Four Mints. Wearing
bright-red and black outfits straight out of the 1970s, with a lead singer
struggling to stay in tune, their two-song set featured their danceable, sweet
1971 local hit “Row My Boat.” Afterward, the writer of the song – Dean Francis
– took the stage to express his gratitude.

 

The show’s sole disappointment was that Capsoul
artist Marion Black – who recorded the sublime “Go On Fool,” a complaint about
his wife’s lack of appreciation for his hard work – didn’t sing as billed. He
stood from the audience when announced, acknowledging applause, but that was
it.

 

There were three Twinight acts on the bill –
Renaldo Domino, the Notations and Johnson himself, still trim, quick-witted and
hard-working at 73. Domino, his voice Smokey-like with its high vulnerable
falsetto, was just a kid in 1969 when he recorded the memorable ballad “Not Too
Cool to Cry,” and in Columbus
he sang it with its lovely, dreamy sweetness intact.

 

The Notations, a quartet decked out in stylish
white sport coats and light-green slacks, owe plenty to Chicago soul’s most important figure, the
late Curtis Mayfield. He was a mentor to its lead vocalist, Cliff Curry, whose
onstage kindness and sense of gratitude was reminiscent of Mayfield’s own
personality.

 

It was fitting the Notations did an a cappella version of the Impressions’
“It’s Alright,” and high tenor Michael Thurman opened the set with Mayfield’s
mid-1970s nugget, “Super People.” But the group also sang its own regional hit,
“I’m Still Here,” with impressive authority.

 

Johnson, whether performing blues or soul material,
has always been too idiosyncratic to allow himself to become slick and stylized
– one reason he’s a hero to the Ponderosa Stomp crowd rather than an oldies-circuit
lounge act.

 

As a singer, there’s still nothing formulaic about
his approach – he was tough and impassioned and brought a commanding sense of
relevance to his material. For instance, on his old hit “Is It Because I’m
Black,” a melancholy, anti-racist drifting-blues number that has the same kind
of chillingly ethereal feel as B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” Johnson ended
with a defiant shout-out: “But they can’t hold me back anymore because I am
President!”

 

For the Numero revue, he didn’t play his guitar but
did pull out the harmonica on a few songs, even dropping to his knees to draw
more volume on set-closer “Take Me to the River.” (As Johnson pointed out, he
was the first person to recognize that song’s potential, releasing the obscure Al
Green album track as a single when he and Green were both Hi Records label
mates in the 1970s.)

 

Johnson’s Twinight singles held up amazingly well
live – his 1967 hit “Come on Sock It To Me” has a James Brown-like polyrhythmic
funk that is more rock-steady than what Brown, himself, was doing at the time.
On stage, Johnson shook his hips to it with aplomb, a veritable dancing
machine.

 

The show ended with Brooks calling all the
performers on stage for a rousing, extended and unexpected version of the
Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Actually, for devotees of
classic soul, you absolutely could get what you want at the Eccentric Soul
Revue in Columbus.

 

[Photo of Syl Johnson: Rebecca Gizicki / courtesy Numero Group]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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