Living as a Mod in the 21st Century

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Travel Across America With The Top 15 Northern Soul tracks about the USA

Every Mod, Soul or 60s DJ has their own style. I like to think that I have forged my own over the years. For one, I like to spin obscure ready for the dance floor covers of known hits. In Quebec, we have plenty of French covers of those.

One thing I like to do, from time to time, is go off on a theme. I'll play tracks that have a common thread. For example, last year, on Valentine's day, I played a 90 minute set with 45s that all had the word "Love" in the title. Most of the time, the dancing masses don't notice anything but on the rare occasion, I'll have someone come up to the DJ booth with a smile and say: "I see what you're doing there!"

On this blog, you'll find posts like The Top 12 Soul & RnB Tracks About Money, The Top 15 Tracks About Dogs and The Top 20 Soul and RnB Tracks About Monkeys. Those lists might have your favorite tracks missing and there's a perfectly reasonable reason why. If I don't personally own the record, I can't add it the list. As simple as that. Also, I'll try to go for the songs you've never heard of before.

Now that I laid down the rules, here is my selection of the top Soul tracks about American cities. When I say "Northern Soul", I use the term loosely. Some fall under the Blues umbrella, others under the Mod Jazz moniker, a few can be considered RnB while some are plain Garage. Some tracks are about states instead of cities. I hope you'll give me some creative licence. They are compiled in no particular order. If you want to listen to all the tracks while reading this article, head over to The Parka Avenue Podcast on Mixcloud.

Let's start our journey on East coast in the city of all cities, New York. Frank Sinatra said it best: "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere". And a lot Soul singers did try.

1) Bobby Bennett - Big New York - Phil L.A. Of Soul

This piece of dance floor friendly Soul came out in the States on the Phil L.A. Of Soul label in 1969. My picture sleeve copy came out in France on CBS the same year and it was also released in the UK on London Records. The thing to remember about this song is the not too subtle and direct lyric: "I want you to tell me / Can you find a chick for me". This 45 is a true double-sider with the feet shuffling Baby, Try Me on the flip.

2) New York City Baby - Billy Hambric - Soho Records

Not much is known about this New York native. It makes sense that this track came out in 1965 on Soho Records which was based at 422 Madison Ave, right in the heart of the Big Apple. I believe the record originally came out a year earlier on Lee Records, another New York label. This up-tempo number just keeps building and building! And when the strings enter the picture that's when the track has reached it's soulful peak.

Bobby was best known for being a member of The Famous Flames with James Brown.

3) New York City - The Precisions - Atco

We're not ready to leave New York just yet! This Detroit act is well known for the Northern Soul classic If This Is Love (I'd Rather Be Lonely). New York City is their last effort and came out in 1969. Nice piece of uplifting funky Soul.

4) Detroit - Little Jerry Williams - Southern Sound

Speaking of the Motor City, Little Jerry Williams, also known as Swamp Dogg came out with this ode to Detroit in 1965. This 100 mph up-tempo dancer won't let you catch your breath, just the way I like it.

5) Detroit - The Nocturnals - Embassy

You would think that with lyrics like "I'm going back to Detroit / My home, Detroit", The Nocturnals would be a Michigan based Garage ensemble. You would be mistaken. They were actually from Vancouver, Canada. Detroit was also released on the Montreal based Trans-World record label but finding a copy is not an easy task.

This 1967 party starter might sound off with some killer fuzz and be reminiscent of other great Canadian 60s Punk acts like The Haunted but one could argue that it also flirts with the best Soul and RnB acts of the time.

6) Soulville - Dinah Washington - Roulette

We're going to make a quick detour to Soulville before heading down South. Soulville will be the only fictitious stop on our musical journey. This energetic and dynamic cover of Titus Turner's much slower New Breed original is hardly recognizable. Although I'm a big Titus Turner fan, this track, from one of the most beautiful Blues and RnB voices of her generation, will always take precedence.

7) Funky Virginia - Sir Guy & The Rocking Cavaliers - D.P.G.

Let's head South, shall we? Instead of visiting just one city. let's tour the whole state. I was turned on to this record by my friend Ryan aka DJ Lord Thomas who resides in Porthsmouth, Virginia, just a few miles from Norfolk where this small label was established. I was surprised to hear that Funky Virginia is actually the b-side. This 1969 obscure piece of wax is the perfect amalgam of Funk and Soul with a classic drum beat that is sure to set a dance floor on fire. Don't take it from me, if Sir Guy says it, it must be true: "They have parties all night / They have dancing girls / The best in the world".

8) Memphis - The Young Gyants - Parkway

The promo copy of this 45 has Chuck Day and The Young Gyants as the band. C. Berry is credited as the songwriter. At first, I was wondering if Chuck Berry had performed with The Young Gyants under a different name but all the evidence I found reveals that this is not the case. Nonetheless, you'll find Berry's fast paced, hit-making signature on this one.

9) New Orleans - Eddie Hodges - Aurora

Amongst record collectors and DJs, there's sometimes a strange belief that rare + expensive = good. I don't usually fall in that trap. Here's a good example of a cheap, relatively common but also great record. This former child actor might not have had a long singing career but this track is guaranteed to make you move, move, move!

10) Rome, GA. - Albert Washington and The Kings - Fraternity

You know I can't pass up an up-tempo scorcher with a drum break, right? Well, this is exactly what you get on the b-side. Released in 1967 by the Cincinnati based record label Fraternity, Albert Washington was actually a native from this small Georgia city. You'll sweat dancing to this record just like you would on a hot and humid summer night in Rome.

11) Kansas City - Wilbert Harrison - Barrel

This is the only #1 hit you'll find on this list. There's a reason why it went to the top spot on the Billboard chart in 1959. It's pretty damn good. My copy was pressed on the Canadian label Barrel but it was originally released on Fury. In 2001, this song was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

12) Frisco - Rising Roberts - Corona

I just had to throw in a complete unknown track in the lot. When I heard this Soul / Psych hybrid for the first time I knew I had to own it. Throw in, not one, but two drum breaks in a song and I am sold!

There is a small city in Texas called Frisco but this opus is undoubtedly about the city by the Bay, San Francisco. I couldn't find any information about this band so if you know anything, please let us know.

13) Hello San Francisco - Sugar Pie DeSanto - Jasman

Let's stay in the Bay area a little while longer. It's so nice here and it has such a rich musical history.

Man do I love this song! I'm not a big Blues collector but this two part number might just be the one that ignites a new passion. I was already sold on Sugar Pie but the way she delivers here rivals any other track she recorded. In the song, she states that it's 1968 but it could have well been recorded in 1961. It was released two years later.

Although Ms. DeSanto was known as a prolific songwriter, especially during her years at Chess, this is a rare occasion where Bob Geddins, a legendary Blues producer from Oakland, California took over the writing credits.

14) Beaches,  U.S.A. - Gary (U.S.) Bonds - Legrand

Let's wind down this list with an overall survey of the great beaches from across the land. Many great waterfront towns are mentioned here: Malibu, Miami, Atlantic City, Ocean City. As my good friend Ben said: "This is Bond's finest record. This is a full-throttle-smacks-you-in-the-face dancer that deserves more attention!" I couldn't agree more and thanks to him, I have my own copy now.

15) Montreal '67 - François Carel - Carrousel

I had no choice to finish this road trip around North America just North of the border in my own city of Montreal. Now this is a record that had been at the very top of my want list for a long time. Not because it's expensive or extremely rare, it's because I find it unbelievably good. It's still under the radar and unknown so if you know where to look, you might be able to put your paws on a copy.

Every time I hear Montreal '67, I'm baffled that this came out of my beloved city. I'll go out and say it, this is the Canadian Green Onions. This is, hands down, one of the best pieces of Mod Jazz I know! It's not surprising since, according to my friend Félix B. Desfossés, who interviewed François Carel for his blog, names Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff as major influences. We're talking Mod Jazz royalty here! For this particular track, Carel cites the Ramsey Lewis Trio as the inspiration.

Dedicated to Expo '67, this instrumental will start off with Carel playing piano and right in the middle of the piece, will switch to his Farfisa organ. Add some hand clapping to that and you have a slice of Mod heaven. François Carel might have been the one true Mod that came out of Quebec in the 60s. According to an article that came out in 1967, he is quoted as adopting the "London Style". I strongly suggest to check out my mate's blog, Vente de Garage, for a full account of Carel's career. If you scroll down to the bottom, you'll find part of the article translated in English.

Bonus track!

Montreal La Nuit - Michel Como - Caroussel

I just could't let pass this obscure swinging Popcorn / Mod Jazz record about my lovely city in the 60s. Montreal has had the reputation of having the best nightlife since the Prohibition started in the US in the 20s. When Michel Como sings about Montreal being "a bit like Paris" and "a place for mistresses and illegal things" you know that you're going to have a good time here.

There you have it, a quick trip around the continent at a speed of 45rpm. Don't forget, all the tracks are available on the Parka Avenue Podcast here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Search For Soul & RnB records in New York

When you only have 3 days to spend in New York, it's impossible to visit every record shop. And between radio shows, a DJ gig and visiting friends, that makes it a challenge. When you can combine hanging with mates and record digging, you're coming close to my definition of nirvana.

So with a tight schedule, I didn't even enter a shop in Manhattan and concentrated my digging efforts in Jersey City and Brooklyn. I arrived on Friday, in Jersey City, just early enough to visit two shops before heading over to the WFMU studios for my appearance on Sheila B's show Sophisticated Boom Boom. You can read all about my experience here.

The first stop was Stan's Square Records, 737 Bergen Ave. The place was empty and according to the only employee, I was the first one to come through the doors that day.

The owner Stan has recently died and apparently the shop is on the verge of closing. You can tell that the stock hasn't been renewed in a while but with enough time and patience, a few gems can be unearthed.

I managed to buy a few Mod Jazz singles but the condition is far from pristine. A copy of the Northern Soul classic Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson for  $1? Sure, I'll take that. My favorite find has to be the Ramsey Lewis Trio doing an instrumental rendition of the In Crowd on Argo.

When I asked if I could go through the row of 45s sitting on a dusty shelf behind the counter, I was told that the family wanted to keep those. I don't get that. What is the point of having records in a store if you're not going to sell them.

Anyway, on to the next one. Iris Record (114 Brunswick St) is, on the other hand, a lot less gloomy. For one, it resides in a century old pharmacy. How cool is that? Drugs and Rock and Roll under the same roof? Sort of makes sense to me.

There are plenty of 45s to go through and for you, LP collectors out there, you won't make the trip for nothing. Just like at Stan's, I didn't find anything mind blowing but the prices are more than reasonable. All the records are sleeveless, a bit worst for wear and in need of a good cleaning but there's potential to find a few good tracks.

The guy behind the counter was really nice and when I was ready to pay, I saw a copy of The Horse by Cliff Nobles just lying there. When I said that I really liked that track, he just added it to the pile as a gift. There's no way that in my own town I would ever come across a Cliff Nobles 45, as common as it may be in New York, on a regular basis.

The next day, I met up with my man Kurtis Powers, from The Face Radio, at his brownstone in Brooklyn for a second round of record hunting.

Just a couple of blocks from Kurtis' place is a memorial to an old Mafia boss.
Now to go hunt for records on a Vespa Sprint was certainly an added bonus. I had packed my helmet for the occasion and I was sure glad I did. How else should a couple of Mods in New York spend the last days of summer anyway?

Can't start a packed day of intense record diggin' without a hearty breakfast.
My guide made sure to take plenty of detours to cover as many Brooklyn neighborhoods as we could. What a pleasant surprise it was when Kurtis decided to take the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. The memory of following him on his stunning white Vespa VBB on this historic bridge on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon will be forever etched in my mind.
For those of you that think that New York has the best bagels in the world, you obviously have never tried a Montreal bagel. Don't believe me? Google it!

Our first stop was Co-Op 87. According to my friend, this is one of the best kept secrets in Brooklyn. He was hesitant reveling it to me knowing that it would make the pages of this blog. I reminded him that a quick Google search of record shops would reveal its identity.

I did understand why this is a favorite digging spot of his. Everything is so neat and organized. Some of the 45s are even classified by label. You're missing a certain Motown single? Boom! Pull out the Motown box.

The most surprising part is when it comes time to pay. The owner simply scans the tiny bar code on the sleeve and gives you the total. Now that's impressive! I didn't leave with a ton of records but I was happy to leave with this very funky song. Actually, I think the title says it all.

Our second and final stop of the day was Superior Elevation Records, 100 White St, #B. The shop is situated in the industrial neighborhood of Bushwick and just exploring the surrounding streets near the record shop was fascinating to me.

The selection at this place is impressive. The lack of time held me from digging deep. I only got to scratch the surface. This doesn't mean I left empty handed. Au contraire my friends!

The service is top notch! And I'm not just saying that because they offered us free beer.

Just before heading back to Montreal on Sunday morning I had time for one last halt. After a hearthy brunch with my budy Scott, aka DJ Bjornlate, in the beautiful neighborhood of Park Slope, I was headed to Northern Lights Records.

Breakfast of champions with my mate Scott.
And what would be a day of driving in Brooklyn without witnessing an accident? I was a minute away from the record shop sitting at a red light when a car behind me, too impatient to wait in traffic, decided to speed up in the upcoming lane only to slip in behind a truck at the edge of the intersection. The only thing he hadn't foreseen, in his infinite wisdom, was the bicycle behind the truck. All I heard was a large thump. Fortunaly, the cyclist wasn't injured. I saw him emerged walking beside his bike with no apparent damage. The only one who seemed to have sustained any damage was the expensive car's paint and the driver's ego.

Northern Lights has a large collection of inexpensive 45s. If you have time on your hands, you'll manage to sniff out a few records to add to your collection. The condition of the 45s aren't the best but they have a VPI machine that will take out most of the dirt.

Their Jamaican and Caribbean section is enviable but like any Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae collector will tell you, the condition is always rough.
The staff was friendly and helpful. This place should definitely be part of your itinerary.

What awaited me after a rather intense 3 days was a 9 hour drive home (with all the stops). I'm already looking forward to my next visit.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Mod On The Road: The New York Adventure

I hadn't been to New York in years. To give you an idea, the last time I set foot in the Big Apple, the Twin Towers were up and I visited the Moon Records Ska label. I was long overdue for a visit.

I don't know if any of you have a bucket list but I have a vague one set in my head. One thing is clear though, in the #2 spot, was to one day DJ in New York. So when the ever vibrant and charming Sheila B asked me to join her on her WFMU show Sophisticated Boom Boom and later share the decks with her at her Sh-Boom night in Brooklyn, it was like the clouds had parted in the sky and a beam of light had speared through. To say that I was elated is an understatement. Of all the DJs in this great land, to be asked by her was truly a dream come true.

Truth be told, I did bribe her. When we were both asked to DJ the East Coast Classic Rally together, I had brought a couple of records as gifts. And in my machiavelic plan to woo her, I had tailor made my DJ set to her specific taste. Sheila has a worldwide reputation for being a Girl Group expert. That's why I had brought the best French and Quebec Girl Group 45s I had in my arsenal. The mission  "charm Sheila B" seemed to be working. I did spill the beans and confessed my crime. My ulterior motive didn't seem to deter her from inviting me. A couple of months later, here I am under the brights lights of the big city.

I have no hesitations in declaring that Sheila and I are kindred spirits. Not only do we share very similar taste in music (aside maybe for her love of Heavy Metal) but I believe that we have that same palpable zest for life. For those familiar with her radio show, she's every bit as fun and passionate in real life as she is on air. Her positive demeanor is highly contagious.

The hour we spent on air together went by in a flash. I had the pleasure to program the second hour of her show and decided to put 60s Quebec rarities on the map.

Holding a copy of Don Norman & The Other Four
Sheila had only provided a single question in advance to prepare for the interview part. Here it is: "What are your top 5 favorite songs of all-time? Songs that really mean something to you, move you, that you can't live without. And they don't have to fall into the 60s mod / soul category. They can be from any time, any place."

Now you all know that for a DJ / record collector that is an impossible task. Our musical taste constantly evolves and changes. I could think of way more than 5 songs that I can't live without. But this is radio. One thing was for sure, I wanted to surprise her. And I certainly managed to throw her a couple of curve balls. This is what I came up with.

1) The Reflections - (Just Like) Romeo & Juliet
2) Madness - It Must Be Love
3) The Kinks - All Day and All of the Night
4) Timon & Pumba - Hakuna Matata
5) Adam Sander - I Want To Grow Old With You (from the movie The Wedding Singer)

The first 3 were easy to pick. The Reflections song I lipsynched while walking down the aisle at my wedding while my 3 best men did the back vocals. The Madness track played when it was my future wife's turn to walk down the aisle and The Kinks played after we had exchanged vows and left hand in hand. Songs #4 and #5 were the curve balls.

The other answer that unmistakably perplexed the host was to the question: "Name a person, dead or alive, that you would love to meet." It's a shame you all missed her reaction when I answered: Oprah. What can I say? I admire the woman and I think we would have a very interesting conversation. You can listen to the whole show here.

After the radio show, it was a race from Jersey City to Brooklyn through Manhattan to get ready for the night’s festivities. I don’t know how many of you have taken the Holland tunnel on a Friday, during rush hour, but that is an event in itself.

As soon as I stepped in my hotel, I knew right away that I should reconsider booking rooms through Hotwire. At first I thought that being booked at the BPM Hotel was a good sign for a DJ. Wrong! Trying too hard to be a boutique hotel with an all white lobby, purple neon and blaring techno music, it was nothing to put you at ease. It’s when I was greeted by the attendant in a dirty white t-shirt that has been washed so many times that it has become see-through that I knew I was about to live an experience worth writing about. Her « colleague » standing next to her had a baby on her hip, playing on her iPhone trying to find some Hip-Hop to drown out the custom techno soundtrack she had probably heard a million times. I had to move the baby formula from the front desk to lean on it. Are you all starting to get the picture?

Standing in front of the hotel employee, hidden behind her computer screen, it was impossible to make eye contact with her. 

- Long day? , I asked.
 - Yes…
- Don’t worry. I’m here to make your life easy. Take a deep breath. I have a reservation, I said trying to lift her spirits
- I don’t think you’re going to like me…

At that point she still hadn’t made eye contact with me. She was shuffling papers, clicking on her mouse and trying to look busy. She did this for no less than 4-5 minutes, mumbling to herself. Long story short, the hotel was overbooked, I had to find a new hotel in Brooklyn on a Friday night, take a shower, suit up and get to the venue where I was DJing, that was 30 minutes away, all in an hour and fifteen minutes.

I spent almost an hour on the front desk phone with Hotwire trying to find me a room for 2 nights. We managed to find 2 different rooms in 2 different hotels. The only good thing that came out of this is that I got rooms that were twice what I had paid for and Hotwire paid the difference.

Thank Mod for Sheila! She was already at Our Wicked Lady getting the party started and covering for me. It’s a good thing she had my back because I hit some major traffic on the way to the venue. I couldn’t believe that at 10:30 pm I was hardly moving on the expressway. When I saw the car in the right lane that looked like a pretzel, I understood. If the driver survived, it's a miracle.

Our Wicked Lady is a cool little venue in an industrial part of Brooklyn. To give you an idea, I parked in front of a ramen noodle factory. Can't get more Brooklyn then that!

Sh-Boom is Sheila’s monthly party and I had the distinct pleasure of DJing on her birthday.

Anna Copa Cabana, the resident Go-Go dancer got a nice little dance floor going and cupcakes were passed around the bar once I started playing Happy « Soul » Birthday.

It was every bit as exciting as I had hoped being a DJ in New York would be. Thanks to Sheila, I could finally tick item #2 off my bucket list.

Once I finally got back to my new hotel room, I just realized that I had been up for 24 hours straight. In New York, you go big or you go home.

The next day, after a solid 4 hours of sleep, I met up with my mate Kurtis Powers, host of The Face Radio. He was going to show me around Brooklyn, while making stops at his favorite record shops. We would also set an hour aside in the afternoon so we could record an hour of his radio show together.

Visiting New York on a tour bus is one thing, using the subway is something else, but you don’t get to see much being underground. Doing it on a Vespa Sprint, now that’s the way to go! When I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan following Kurtis on his white Vespa VBB on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I kept pointing to my arm showing Kurtis I had chills. I was in awe for hours!

I’ll keep our record digging for a future post but we did manage to find a few gems. We rode back to his beautiful brownstone apartment late afternoon just in time to record the next day’s radio show. This hour of musical programming was all about Soul and RnB. It was fun, unrehearsed, real and very natural. After we were done, Kurtis gave me the best compliment. « Man! That was just so easy! I’ve interviewed a few people and it was never this smooth. » « What do you expect? We were just 2 friends chatting. Plus, we practiced all day!"

So this is what happens when two mates get together, shoot the breeze, listen to some great Soul music and say a bunch of nonsense. Listen to all the banter, the tunes and the shenanigans on iTunes here (episode 91), on Google Play here, on Podomatic here or on TuneIn Radio here.

New York is intense. Just the way it should be.