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Tue December 4, 2012
Saviors Of Local Soul: The Archival Science Of The Numero Group
When the Chicago reissue label The Numero Group plotted its first release back in 2003, the original idea was a box set of ten obscure R&B seven-inch vinyl singles. These were the kind of records that Numero's founders — Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley — gravitated towards: excellent in quality, elusive in quantity. Those plans were shelved, but from their remnants, Numero rescued a few singles and moved them into their inaugural 2004 compilation, Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label, which included songs culled from a tiny Columbus, OH imprint.
For their recent 45th release, Omnibus, Numero revisited the singles they abandoned back in 2003 and upped the ante to (what else?) 45 seven-inch singles — all rare, local soul and funk represses — housed inside a custom carrying case. It is exactly the kind of obsessively packaged, massively dense release that Numero has become known for over their eight years. As a friend pointed out, it's also wildly impractical — who is going to sit down and methodically listen to 45 45s at a turntable? As I pointed back, "practicality" has never been Numero's calling card. This, perhaps, has been one key to their success.
Reissue labels generally fly below the radar: it's the albums or compilations they put out that are supposed to be the main focus. With Numero though, from very early on, the label itself established its imprimatur via a few distinctive features: a consistent packaging style, meticulous liner notes featuring interviews with original artists and producers and perhaps most importantly, a sense of exclusivity without snobbery, education without pedantry. Numero releases often make you feel like you're learning something important without overselling that point.
By beginning with the Capsoul label, Numero shifted focus onto local labels and studios. That helped distinguish it from other notable reissuers such as the UK's Soul Jazz and Ace or California-based outfits like Rhino Handmade, Now-Again and Luv N' Haight, all of which were also mining rare funk and soul catalogs. Other early albums included two separate releases that anthologized Miami's Deep City imprint, and Numero introduced a series called Local Customs with Downriver Revival, which exclusively compiled the output of gospel guitarist Felton Williams's home studio on the outskirts of Detroit.
That kind of emphasis may not seem so radical, but small labels and studios are inherently rooted and connected to local neighborhoods and families in a way that artists or genres aren't always. In essence, Numero has also documented community histories, from the late '60s Wichita R&B scene (Smart's Palace), to arroyos above Los Angeles (Ladies From the Canyon) to the funky blues clubs of their own native Chicago (Light on the South Side). Though Numero has also released more conventional genre-based comps — as on its gospel funk Good God! series — as well as artist-based projects like their reissues of Chicago singer/songwriter Caroline Peyton's 1970s albums, their most notable releases always seem to return to the meticulously thorough, small-release approach begun with the Capsoul anthology, reaching a symbolic apogee with Omnibus.
Numero's founders claim not to be "completionists," but that seems contradicted by projects such as their recent Boddie releases, which included a 3CD/5LP boxset plus bonus live LP reissue, bonus 21-song CD, and extra three-disc 7" set of repressed acetate singles, all connected to Cleveland's Boddie label. I recently got into a lively debate with a few friends over whether Numero was too "archival" and not "curatorial" enough; until then, it hadn't occurred to me how these small, seemingly academic, distinctions reveal important differences in how the past is strategically reframed in the present.
A curatorial approach is driven more explicitly by the personality of the compiler: what he or she considers to be the most "important" or "best" releases connected to a label, artist or genre. In contrast, an archival approach plays down the presence of the compiler and aims to document and historicize, favoring inclusiveness over selectivity.
For example, had Numero's The Complete Mythology, an anthology of Chicago soul man Syl Johnson's music, been more heavily curated, it might have comprised 20 to 30 songs on one or two CDs. Instead, Numero put out an 80+ track, 4CD/6LP boxset that included a 52 page booklet documenting both Johnson's history as well as discographic details on each song in the set. None of it makes for light reading or listening, but if you ever wanted to know what Johnson was doing and recording in, say, 1970, there's no resource that remotely comes close.
Such an archival mentality won't win over everyone but, of course, populism was never Numero's aim anyway. If we use sales charts or distribution reach as evidence of "success," then the vast majority of Numero's releases are really anthologies of failure: artists and records that never made much noise beyond low-wattage AM stations or half-broken jukeboxes in anonymous downtown bars.
The hundreds of pages of liner notes written by Numero's staff don't dwell on this. Instead, they chronicle generations of recordings that existed thanks to basement studios and second floor record labels. To these, high school students, church choirs and street corner crooners brought ideas and optimism and left with a stack of compact 45rpm singles.
Regardless of how well those records sold, their very existence was a marvel of individual initiative, engineering ingenuity and local manufacturing. That Numero exists decades later to archive that output only affirms these moments of wonder, where a nascent artist could see their name on a seven-inch and realize, "I just made a record."