From the time that the compact disc was popularized in the mid 80s, record companies realized the new media form created a new sales opportunity: the chance to get music fans to buy their entire vinyl collections again in CD format. Even outtakes, demos and alternate takes could be repackaged and sold profitably. It was like money falling from heaven, and it kept the labels flush for the next 20 years. But while rock music fans could buy digital versions of every sneeze or blurry basement take of a song by their heroes, it was a different situation for R&B music fans. Sure, you could find the Earth, Wind & Fire or Isley Brothers catalog, but beyond the biggest stars the cupboard was bare. Tavares was my favorite soul group of the 70s and had a bunch of top 10 hits, but not one of their studio albums was available on CD in the US. And forget finding music by less successful but talented artists like Al Johnson or Enchantment. The major labels, which controlled the thousands of popular R&B releases from 1970-85, apparently didn’t believe there was a sizeable audience for CD reissues of these artists.
But a funny thing began to happen during the past decade. An underground movement of R&B music warriors took matters into their own hands, determined to bring back the funk…and the soul. I’m not talking about musicians, but about an intrepid group of entrepreneurs, largely in Europe, who decided that there was indeed a generation of fans, now in their 40s and 50, who wanted to have the opportunity to hear the music from their youth in crisp and convenient digital format. So they formed their own record companies, some based in physical CD stores and some based in kitchens, but all dedicated to the mission of reissuing worthy 70s and 80s R&B, funk and soul music on compact disc.
While there were some obvious picks for reissues like gold albums by Natalie Cole and Peabo Bryson, these entrepreneurs were digging much, much deeper, often seeking out obscure but usually interesting soul, funk and disco. We’re talking about stuff like LaToya Jackson’s lowest selling album, post-peak Stylistics and Chi-Lites, and even forgotten acts like the L.A. Boppers, Tease and JM Silk. It should be noted what they were doing was no easy feat. Due to the consolidation of the record industry, the process of obtaining the rights to music, finding the original master recordings and negotiating the licensing of the music could be a combination of scavenger hunt and bureaucratic nightmare. Fortunately, these folks were in it for the love even more than for the money, and through creativity and relentlessness labels like FunkyTownGrooves, SoulMusic.com, BBR, Cherry Red, Wounded Bird and Vinyl Masterpiece, as well as the up and coming Purpose Music Vaults, cracked the code and opened up a treasure trove of great classic music that went more than a quarter of a century in the dark.
It was a tremendous gamble. I mean, can you really be sure that there is enough of a market for a double disc by the group Chocolate Milk to justify all the costs of reissuing? But, thankfully, these labels found a surprising number of European, American and Asian fans willing to shell out $15 for the CD version of an album that they had when they were 16, even if the album was a small seller back then.
Due to this new generation of record company mini-moguls, over the past year I’ve had the chance to hear all over again some amazing lost gems from artists such as Carl Anderson, Enchantment, Loose Ends and even my beloved Tavares – gems that otherwise would simply be gathering dust in the major labels’ vaults.
It all came to a head for me last week, when I received a package from Vinyl Masterpiece that included the 1978 album Phyrework, an obscure release by almost any standard and for me a bellwether as to just how deep into the mines these labels are digging. But you know what? It’s pretty good. Featuring lead singer and guitarist Clarence Pitts guitarist Willie Smith, percussionist John Bryant, saxman Bill Eden, bassist Gerald Calhoun, trumpeter Jim Foster and keyboardist Frank Hames, Phyrework enlisted the production help of Con-Funk-Shun’s Michael Cooper and issued a solid album of the horn-filled funk sound that was emerging at that time from groups like the Bar-Kays and even Maze. And Phyrework the band was tight, mixing up funk-dance numbers like “Comin’ For Your Love” with Cameo-like ballad like “Dance With Me” and even jazz fusion flourishes on “Mystic Mariner.”
The most important thing about Phyrework is not that it wasn’t a hit in 1978 and probably has a limited market now. It is that the work of the band Phyrework, like T.S. Monk, Michael Wycoff, Ca$hflow and the dozens of other acts who’ve been rescued from the dustbins by the upstart labels, really deserved to be available again. These were talented acts who created music that may have had limited commercial appeal but had critical merit and a small but interested group of fans. And it is a tribute to these R&B rescuers that they are giving this worthy music the opportunity to be heard again by longtime fans -- and perhaps to be discovered by new ones. And that’s great news for SoulTrackers that goes far, far beyond Phyrework.