By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
He lost a job, struggled to feed his family and borrowed thousands from relatives before giving up and heeding his original calling: the ministry. Today, he's the Rev. Ed McCoy, pastor of the New Harmony Baptist Church in Detroit, but 40 years ago — in an era he dismisses casually as "a whole other life, a whole different time" — he was a record producer at one of the best times to have such a title and in one of the nation's hottest musical centers. But the audience for his rhythm-and-blues records rarely grew beyond the five-block radius of his makeshift warehouse studio, and scores of hot soul singles went unheard.
"Until now!" exclaims Ken Shipley, cheekily heralding the expected turning point in such a story.
He's the turning point, in fact. Shipley, along with Tom Lunt and Rob Sevier, his mates at The Numero Group record label, has made it his mission to unearth such lost musical gems from around the country and give them a second chance via a smartly curated and beautifully packaged series of CDs.
McCoy's story is moving, but it's a snowflake on the tip of an iceberg. The landscape of America is littered (often literally) with the broken dreams and broken platters of musicians and backers who made great music that, because of whatever vagaries of the business or their personal lives, never saw the proverbial light of day. Numero No. 008 (each title is numbered, thus the label's name) is "Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies From the Canyon," a roundup of '60s and '70s female folksingers who cut albums in church basements and whose scuffed LPs might be found only in Salvation Army thrift shops. No. 007 summed up the influential but briefly lived Deep City label in Miami. Numero's third collection chronicled Chicago's own Bandit label, a doomed effort of the late Arrow Brown but a powder keg packed with explosive soul.
No one's kidding themselves that landing a track on a Numero compilation offers a new chance at stardom, but many of the artists — fine performers who simply missed the music business boat the first time out — are grateful someone out there finally might hear and appreciate their tunes.
"Becky [Severson] was so surprised when we contacted her," Shipley says of the singer whose simply strummed, Joan Baez-inspired "A Special Path" opens the "Ladies From the Canyon" CD. "She didn't think anyone ever cared. ... I mean, we're not anyone's savior here, but it's nice."
Where in the world is ...?
Finding an artist like Becky Severson, however, takes determination and detective work. If the Numero Group never turns a profit, its founders can moonlight as gumshoes.
Shipley's Bucktown apartment is piled with vinyl records. As he talks about each Numero Group CD, he doesn't point to or play from the digital tracks — he's grabbing LPs and 45s out of rickety crates and throwing them on his turntable, sometimes with a preface such as, "You gotta hear this one — it'll destroy your brain!" These are the platters that feed and form each compilation. He presents Severson's LP, a homemade relic from the age of "Godspell" graphic design.
"We love ['A Special Path'], and we knew we wanted to lead the CD with it, but we had no idea how to get a hold of her," Shipley says of Severson. Then, pointing to various elements of the album's liner notes, he explains the "CSI" process that precedes the addition of almost every track to a Numero CD. The ladies from this "Canyon" were particularly difficult to find, given that most had married and taken new last names during the last three or more decades.
"See, it was recorded at Studio A in St. Paul. We Googled 'Severson' and found 10 in Minnesota, and called them. None of them were her.
"We narrowed it down to St. Cloud [Minn.] and called every Severson in the book. The 24th of 25 that we called was her father. He's an 80-year-old guy who lives an hour away from her. He says he's got 500 copies of the record in his attic."
The same process unearthed Judy Tomlinson. The title track to her "Window" LP, recorded as Judy Kelly, is a centerpiece of "Ladies From the Canyon," a soaring, early-Joni Mitchell metaphor of vision with voice and piano. If you're reading this and your name happens to be Judy Kelly, you already know this part of the hunt.
"We called every Judy Kelly [listed] in the United States," Shipley says.
"It took a lot of detective work to find me," Tomlinson wrote to the Sun-Times in an e-mail. "God has a way of working things out, but I'm still completely amazed that two guys from Chicago knew about me and the 'Window' album and had taken the time and trouble to track me down."
Caroline Peyton's soulful "Engram" made the CD, though she was easier to find. Peyton's tracks are all over Chicago — a theater student at Northwestern University in the late '60s, she wound up with a stage career that included "The Pirates of Penzance" here beginning in 1981. "James Belushi was our pirate king," she says, "and we were there when his brother John died."
Shipley relishes his discoveries. "They don't know this stuff his value," he says. "Most of them have forgotten about it. This is a long-gone part of their lives. My challenge is: There's a million records out there — let's find the best. Anyone could throw an unheard-gospel compilation together, but let's be the guys who assemble the best lost treasures."
He'll be on his way
Ed McCoy's phone had rung off and on since the '80s with people trying to get their hands on his stash. A few singles from his fledgling Big Mack label had managed to travel and impress a few other archive label owners.
"One of the songs we did had become a cult classic in Europe, a collector's item — 'I'll Be on My Way,' by Bob and Fred," McCoy says. The song, recorded by McCoy in '66, is on Numero No. 009, "Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label," which comes out Tuesday. "For a number of years this has been going on. ... I told 'em, 'I'm just not in that line now.' ... The Numero boys, they came with a plan, and we said, 'OK, fine.' It's not an issue I'm looking to get rich on. If it does something, fine. If not, OK."
McCoy got into the record business in his native Detroit without stars in his eyes. A social worker for the city of Detroit and married with kids by his early 20s, McCoy needed to supplement his income. Fellow Detroiter Berry Gordy was scoring big hits at Motown. McCoy thought: Why not?
To get his side business as a record producer started, McCoy borrowed $1,000 from his dad in 1961. Then, realizing his passion for the music was significantly stronger than that for his city job, he decided to make it more than a side business.
"I walked into the house on a Friday and told my wife I quit my job," he says. "We had a kid and one on the way, and a big house note. I went out and cut four or five sides, spent all of the thousand dollars. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought all you had to do was record it and get it done and go back and collect your money. But no promotion, no money. I was losing my shirt."
He went back to work for the city — in fact, he also picked up another job, working nights at Chrysler Motors, then later bought into a franchise of ice cream trucks — but he also managed to get use of a vacant building on Detroit's Warren Street for McCoy Recording & Distribution, which included three different labels: R&B and soul on Big Mack Records, blue-eyed soul on Wildcat Records and gospel on Brighter Day Records.
The Numero compilation chronicles a decade of scorching soul singles at Big Mack, from '63 to '72. The sound of the singles — the "pure car chase" of "Bui Bui" by L. Hollis & the Mackadoos, the off-the-wall "Why Should I Cry?" by the purposefully misspelled Manhattens, the "Animal House"-like stomp of the Sleepwalkers' "Mini Skirt" — is the sound of transition. These are Detroit singers, saturated in the moment of Motown but beginning to hear the grittier soul records coming out of the South.
"A lotta good folks came through there," McCoy says. Anyone could walk in off Warren Street and record a one-take, one-off song for $14.95. McCoy took all comers. "Folks were in that building every day rehearsing and working, and I didn't have any money. How the heck did we get it done? Why were these people hanging around? To do it now, I'd need a million dollars. But I'm one of these crazy folk. I dare."
McCoy closed down the recording company in 1981 to become a pastor, which has been his main method of making joyful noise for the last 17 years. But he's still in a band — a gospel band. And they're about to record a CD.
"But, you know, I'm content with this life. That's why we talked with these [Numero] guys so long," he says. "It's not anything I felt we had to do. It's just what we did. I can't help but be flattered by their interest. ... And if folks out there get to hear the music, even after all these years, well then, we did it. It took us longer than most, but we did it."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.