Soul to soul

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In 1969, Southern record men Shelby Singleton and Finley Duncan stood on a concrete slab in between two bayous in the Florida panhandle town of Valparaiso, upon which they would soon construct the Playground Recording Studio. Pausing for a photo, they stooped down — Duncan with his short hair, white shirt and business suit, Singleton heavily coiffed in elegant black threads and thick black sunglasses — and placed two 45 stampers in a time capsule cornerstone for good luck. The timing couldn't have been more perfect.

Singleton's recent success with Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A" had not only allowed him to purchase the legendary Sun Records catalog outright, it had kicked his own labels, SSS International and Plantation, into full-on, genre-busting overdrive. His was a vision that saw Southern music as a whole, rather than as individual building blocks; one that always looked for the black in the white and the white in the black: He cast future country outlaw David Allan Coe as a blues man on Coe's debut LP Penitentiary Blues and pinpointed former New Orleans R&B crooner Johnny Adams as one of the world's most accomplished country soul singers with the hit "Reconsider Me." He pioneered hillbilly funk with Harlow Wilcox's "Groovy Grub Worm" and teamed Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson for "Soul Shake," which might have come out of Stax studio were it not for its twanging electric sitar.

Singleton enjoyed taking chances, and saw no better opportunity to do so than with jukebox distributor and nightclub owner Duncan, a lifelong resident of Florida's Emerald Coast who'd had his hands in a variety of small record labels since the '50s. With a crack studio band and a stable of writers, Playground went into business recording everyone that walked through the door, provided Duncan thought they were talented. The records that Singleton didn't release, Duncan did, on his own labels like Minaret and Playground.

In 1970, Memphian Jim Lancaster traveled to the studio with his garage band and met Duncan, whom he kept in touch with until his untimely death in 1989. Lancaster made occasional trips to Florida in the intervening years, eventually recording, engineering and playing on sessions at Playground. The entire time he was only vaguely aware of Duncan's presence in the record business.

When Lancaster purchased the studio in 2005, he began to understand the full scope of that presence. Moldering inside the water-damaged building were thousands of 45s and master tapes containing the music that Duncan had recorded and released for the better part of 30 years. Lancaster knew that to properly honor Duncan's legacy he couldn't solely stick with his original goal of restoring the studio, he had to re-release the music. He began the arduous process of cleaning up and transferring the masters, and assembled Soul Resurrection Volume One from the first round. As he writes in the liner notes, "The music Finley recorded had no generic boundaries. He recorded music in all genres, country, pop, blues, rock 'n' roll ... and I have yet to transfer a tape that didn't have some musical merit. To date the only common thread I can find among these recordings is the soul of Finley Duncan."

Soul, indeed, whether it's the smooth crooning of former Motown artist Reuben Howell or the tough, distorted guitar-driven funk of Doris Allen and Big John Hamilton. Len Wade, one of those Southern white boys who emotes like a desperate Otis Redding, turns in the crippling "Everybody's Clown," followed by Jimmy Gresham's "Chasin' a Rainbow," a cut that you'll swear was a hit until you check the credits and find that, like Wade's, it has just seen the light of day for the first time here. There are bluesy instrumentals by Leroy Lloyd and the Dukes, proto party rap from Count Willie (whose "Disco Nights" transports you directly to a neighborhood dance circa '76: "Here's somebody's black Cadillac sittin' over here and I don't mind doin' some leanin', ya understand?") and rough mod soul from Jimmie Nelson.

Lancaster has already begun cutting sessions at the newly restored Playground; with Soul Resurrection it finally takes its rightful place alongside Stax, Fame and Muscle Shoals as yet another Southern studio where magic happened on a daily basis. Go to playgroundrecordingstudio.com.

Michael Hurtt writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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