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Local Customs:Downriver Revival
Artist: Various Artists
Label: Numero Group
Give Felton Wiliams credit for trying. Hard.
A few miles downriver from his Detroit area car factory job, Williams plied his electrical engineering expertise into the creation of a basement recording studio. From 1966 to 1981, through an amalgam of his own record labels, he chronicled local musical culture, much of it from his Pentecostal church. Between a 24-cut CD and over double as many on DVD audio, Local Customs:Downriver Revival compiles much of Williams' mission.
His Double U Sound studio wasn't but a reasonable drive from the Motown Records, and the mega-success Berry Gordy, Jr.'s enterprise inspired Wiliams to similar ends. But that wasn't t be. It's not that there wasn't legitimate talent laying down tracks at Double U, but Williams, for all his technical acumen, didn't exactly re-invest into his enterprise. When Motown and other labels; facilities upgraded to 1/2" reel-to-reel tape recorders, Williams held tight with his 1/4" machines. And, though the recording and control booths were soundproofed, this was still the place where the Williams kids would play when Dad wasn't working on his part-time job with local musicians.
Despite this, the results are still largely still rather startling in their innovations pitted against limited budgets. Some of that musical invention comes from Felton's church family coming from a congregation that broke off from the Keith Dominion denomination. The name of that ecclesiastical body should strike a bell with sacred steel guitar playing (e.g. Robert Randolph, The Lee Boys, et al), as that's one of the denominations where it flourished. One of that scene's future stars, Calvin Cook (listen for the sitar on one track!), did his first sessions in Williams' basement. One of the most prolific acts to record there, Shirley Ann Lee, would incorporate similar flavors into her work for Williams' Revival Records imprint, including Spanish guitars and cha-cha beats that would give some of her work a resemblance to some of the hispsanic-influenced Chicago soul of around the same era (Major Lance, The Impressions).
Some of the numbers here sounds like it could have fit on a second volume of Numero Group's killer Good God! funky gospel compilation. The Apostles Of Music's take on the standard "Wade In The Water" could be taken for a co-ed James Brown revue without quite the tightness Soul Brother #1 demanded of his backing bands. Voices Of Deliverance bring another kind of funkiness in choral form on "The Power Of God." On the opposite of the R&B spectrum. The Mighty Walker brothers' "He'll Make A Way" came on like a loverman ballad; sounding too "secular" for the local gospel audience of its day and lyrically too godly for general market urban radio, the Walkers didn't make the splash Williams had hoped for (one reckons it took Detroit's Commissioned to bridge that stylistic-lyrical gap not many years later). More traditionally wailing soul gospel found its way into DSouble U as well, as proven by the group The Pilgrim Wonders and co-ed ensemble The Gospel Supremes.
Before settling into strictly sacred music, Williams recorded a surprising array of local talent. The Coleman Family proffered country of a gospel stripe (anyone recalling The Wauhobs may want to give them a listen). Jazzy vocal harmony pop akin to The Mills Brothers came courtesy of The Junior Mays Group. Young Generation delivered raw'n'bluesy '60s punk with a bi-racial lineup. Instrumentals of funky soulfulness found there way onto Wllliams' tapes, too. One untitled, previously unreleased number by Bobby Cook & The Explosions even contains a bassline eerily prescience of the low end found on The White Stripes' 'Seven Nations Army."
Apart from the surfeit of bonus tracks, the accompanying DVD also contains a documentary about Williams and some of the artists he recorded. The Double U founder seems happy in his retirement, not at all embittered by not having been able to take another Stevie Wonder or Temptations up the national charts. Cook and Lee appear content with their contributions to musical culture as well.
As has been one of Numero's specialties, the lsbel has found another little company that could, didn't quite, but still produced a lot of worthwhile art all the same.
Jamie Lee Rake