by Fred Mills
For collectors of vintage soul and funk, now is the time to be alive. From high-profile releases like the Soul Jazz label’s Miami Sound (a 1967-74 TK Records anthology) and under-the-radar collections such as Jazzman’s Texas Funk (featuring a sleeve note introduction penned by DJ Shadow), to outrageously addled artifacts (Jones Records’ Chains And Black Exhaust, so obscure it even omits artist and title info) and choice live bootlegs (Sly, P-Funk, James Brown and Al Green received unauthorized airings during the now-defunct Big ’Fro label’s short but impressive run), all the recent vault-mining has been striking the mother lode with dizzying regularity.
One particularly busy label is NYC’s Tuff City and its assorted subsidiaries — Funky Delicacies, Soul-Tay-Shus, and others — which in addition to its Funky Funky Chicago and Funky Funky Houston compilations now has a similarly-designed Detroit anthology.
For 16 of these 18 tracks, Tuff City tapped the deep archives of the Northern Del-la and Big Hit labels, operated by singer/songwriter/scout Johnnie Mae Matthews in the ’60s and ’70s. Featured prominently is Motor City funk stalwart Black Nasty (which would go on to record for both Stax and Nashboro, later turning into the ADC Band), and with good reason: A couple of Mama Matthews’ kids founded Black Nasty, and so adept was the group that it essentially became the Northern house band, backing up the likes of vocalists Herbie Thompson and Lynn Day.
The Thompson, Day and BN cuts on Funky Funky Detroit are real gems. Thompson’s hypnotic “Jungle Time” is straight outta early Funkadelic territory, while “Uncle Tom,” with its thematic edginess (“He don’t have nothin’ to say!” snorts Thompson), jittery beat and effects-laden backing vocals, is paranoid enough to pass for a blaxploitation sound track number. Day’s “Bit Off More (Than I Can Chew)” leans more to the blues end of the spectrum, laying a gritty-but-soulful vocal atop some wonderfully intricate guitar-organ interplay. And the BN tracks proper constitute some of the tightest outings this side of the JB’s: check the percussive, piano-and-sax boogie-woogie groove of “Hip Drop,” the call-and-response, Afro-centric vocal lines of “Mama Didn’t Lie” and the full-on, psychedelic-lined stank of “Party On 4th Street.”
Other artists appearing on the CD are Timmy Shaw and Chuck Holiday, Calvin Williams, the Dynamic Walton Brothers and Little Daddy Walton. Plus The Dramatics, whose “Don’t Leave Me To Be Lonely” is an unreleased, pre-Stax/Volt recording from the soul legends’ brief stint on the Sport label; it features none other than the Funk Brothers as backing band. The six-page booklet includes detailed, meticulously researched liner notes from journalist Kevin Goins, and the sound quality itself is as good as — hell, better than — most big-budget major label remastering jobs.
Incidentally, Tuff City has four more Detroit-connection projects in the pipeline, discs by Black Merda, Fugi, Lee Rogers and Funk Brother Joe Hunter. You can keep an eye on updates via the label’s Web site, www.tuffcity.com.
E-mail Fred Mills at firstname.lastname@example.org.