BY FRED MILLS
Minneapolis-based Secret Stash has, in its relatively brief existence, amassed a sterling reputation for its crate-digging diligence and archival production excellence, unearthing choice rarities from Africa, Latin America, Asia and of course the United States, typically with an eye (and ear) for the most fonkified sounds available. As this latest project’s title and subtitle might suggest, Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves From Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979 finds the label pondering the musical legacy in its own back yard. Given the international prominence of local hero Prince Rogers Nelson, it’s not as if the Minneapolis-St. Paul nexus is unnecessarily obscure, and at least one of the artists here, The Lewis Connection, for whom a very young, pre-fame Prince did some session work, is seeing its own compilation being issued this month by Chicago’s soul-centric Numero Group label. That said, to date most outside observers have typically treated Minneapolis’ musical history as commencing with Prince, The Time, the Replacements and Husker Du, so any chance to peer behind the pre-late ‘70s veil is not only welcome but a necessary correction.
And boy, does Secret Stash pull it off.
Any funk/soul compilation worth its fatback will include at least cursory track annotations and mini-bios of the artists, but for TCF&S you get a massive 32-page tabloid-sized newspaper boasting not only full feature/interviews but also articles sketching out the parameters of the local music scene back in the day, including original newspaper clippings, details on the clubs, the radio, the studios, the print media (Secret Stash’s newspaper is an homage to Minneapolis’ Insider Magazine, which published from 1967-80), even a local community center that was involved with youth activities and employment issues and, not coincidentally, offered rehearsal space for musicians – including the aforementioned Mr. P.R. Nelson. Given the full-sized visual and tactile pleasure provided, it is strongly recommended that you, gentle consumers, spring for the 2-LP vinyl edition of TCF&S, if not for those liners then certainly for the huge, in-your-face photo of Maurice McKinnies & The Blazers that appears on both panels of the front cover’s gatefold sleeve, suitable for framing, natch.
Of the music, which is superbly remastered and generally free of vintage source-material flaws, the journey through the Twin Cities past touches on all the expected aspects of a regional scene of the era, from R&B hipshakers and dirty-ass blasts of funk to sleek soul struts and teary-eyed balladry to proto-disco and positivity-inspired funk/psych. It’s when you start digging into the 21-track anthology’s innards, however, that the surprises come tumbling fourth. There’s gravel-and-honey throated “Wee” Willie Walker, serving up some sweet, Muscle Shoals soul on “There Goes My Used to Be” and the Otis-styled “I Ain’t Gonna Cheat On You No More,” while on the Maurice McKinnies track “Sweet Smell Of Perfume” and Willie And The Bumblebees’ “Dipstick” the hickory-smoked aroma of Memphis’ Stax-Volt labels is prominent. The aforementioned Lewis Connection submits “Get Up,” a bouncing tune that the Gap Band could have taken to the top of the charts. Prophets of Peace, one of several biracial groups collected here, bring elements of War, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes to the fore on “You Can Be.” And the hands-down stankiest track on TWF&S, by Jackie Harris & The Champions and bearing the outrageously humid title “Work Your Flapper (Pt. 1),” is infused with enough cross-cutting rhythms to give even seasoned jazz cats whiplash, while the guitar, horns, bass and drums throw down like James Brown’s J.B.’s in a crazed after-hours jam session.
Yeah, it’s that good, and while I wouldn’t deign to utter the line “if you buy just one funk or soul compilation this year…” – there are too many fine projects in the pipeline to be so exclusionary – Twin Cities Funk & Soul definitely needs to be at the top of your list.
Postscript: Every Sunday afternoon on Shaw University (Raleigh, NC) station WSHA-FM they spin vintage soul, funk, blues and even a little crossover disco – it’s sweet stuff that never fails to summon memories of growing up in a small southern textile town in the ‘60s and listening to the local A.M. station, what with its heady mix of soul hits of the day. So it was with that in mind that I heard an instantly familiar track cover over the WSHA airwaves a couple of weekends ago: “There Goes My Used to Be.” No, it wasn’t the Willie Walker recording, but the earlier version cut (as with Walker, for the Goldwax label) by southern soul legend O.V. Wright. Just the same, the synchronicity was apt, and it made me remember how oftentimes, the only difference between one talented artist achieving prominence over another equally gifted one was a matter of marketing, promotion, timing, or luck.
Well, we can’t go back in time to change the course of history. But thanks to folks like Secret Stash – and such peers as Chicago’s Numero Group, Spain’s Vampi Soul and Britain’s Jazzman – we can peel back the layers of time and experience this incredible music anew or for the first time.
DOWNLOAD: “Work Your Flapper (Part 1)” by Jackie Harris & The Champions, “Dipstick” by Willie And The Bumblebees, “You Can Be” by Prophets of Peace, “All Day Long” by The Valdons