Numero Group

The Numero Group: Numbers Game

Peter Margasak

By Peter Margasak

on 03.07.14 in Interviews

Asked about reissue label the Numero Group, Syl Johnson, the Chicago soul singer who logged a series of mid-level hits in the late ’60s and early ’70s, was forthright: “They’re excellent,” he said.

Anyone who knows anything about Johnson will be floored by this confession. Simply put, Johnson is one of the more notoriously cantankerous figures in Chicago soul music, harboring a sharp disdain for anything that even vaguely resembles the music industry. Yet when it comes to the label that meticulously collected much of his classic work in a 2010 box set called Complete Mythology, Johnson is effusive. “Listen. Let me explain something to you,” he said. “How the fuck you gonna remember what you said 40 years ago? I mean, you can’t remember the first word you said to me today. The brain is like a big-ass computer. There’s shit up in there you just can’t quite put together. But Ken and them did a lot of research. They talked to my sisters, they talked to everybody that they could. I mean, I didn’t know that I made a guitar out of a broom handle when I was, like, five.”

That attention to detail isn’t only accorded to better-known figures like Johnson. Since it was founded in 2003, Numero has focused mostly on the also-rans of the music industry — great artists who suffered from unfortunate setbacks and regional superstars with just one or two hits to their name — using crate-digging sensibilities to tell the stories of relative unknowns and to unearth, reclaim and champion long-forgotten bodies of work. Though the label founders established their reputation with a series of dynamic regional soul anthologies, they’ve also pulled back the curtain on obscurities from just about every section of the record shop — skinny-tie power pop, British new wave, early ’70s hard rock, gospel both black and white, Latin music, folk and more. They function as a group of savvy detectives, uncovering information buried in the footnotes. Acting as a kind of defiant opposition to the Great Man theory, the Numero Group has regularly sought out artists who never got their 15 minutes in the spotlight, but still managed to create a worthwhile song or two.

For label owners Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier (the company was co-founded with Tom Lunt, a former art director who parted company with the business last year), the label is as much about sleuthing and researching as it is about music. Their fact-finding is often a race against time. “As morbid as it sounds, in some cases we’re waiting for people to die,” says Sevier, a broad-shouldered, red-bearded lifer in the art of record collecting. He’s sitting in an office of Numero’s headquarters, a converted two-flat apartment building in the primarily Latino Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. The basement functions as the warehouse and shipping center, a tightly clustered hive of activity, while the research and brainstorming take place in cramped office spaces that were once tenement-style bedrooms.

Numero Designers Leland Meiners, Nate Phillips. Photo by Kirstie Shanley for WS

Numero Designers Leland Meiners and Nate Phillips. Photo by Kirstie Shanley for WS

Sevier’s grim quip illustrates a real-life truism: Owners of long-forgotten record labels are often the greatest hurdle to introducing their catalogs to a new audience. He cites as an example an unnamed label on the Eastern Seaboard that Numero Group has been courting for years. “The only thing standing in the way of the project is the proprietor being alive and preventing it. The person has a vendetta against the music industry because he lost his shirt way back when and he’s never forgotten it. I guarantee his kids will immediately want to monetize the stuff.”

Shipley, a slight, fast-talking raconteur who clearly enjoys the business end of operating a label as much as he digs the actual music, explains that certain histories will dissolve into the ether if they’re not shared. “A lot of times when somebody dies they take their whole world with them in their brain and if you can’t extract that information before they go, you never will. You’re never going to have that opportunity to do it.”

When Shipley ran into Tom Lunt, a vague acquaintance at the time, at a Whole Foods one night in January of 2003, both were recently unemployed and looking for new opportunities. When he was 17, Shipley launched the indie rock imprint Tree Records, which went belly up after five years, but not before releasing records by Julie Doiron, A-Set and Pinback. He took an A&R position at Rykodisc in 2000, but lost the job two years later as a result of corporate reshuffling. Lunt had worked for 13 years at Leo Burnett, an international advertising agency that counts Kellogg’s, Philip Morris and General Motors among its clients; he’d just returned from a bruising year in Warsaw overseeing marketing efforts for McDonald’s for another giant agency, DDB. After a meeting at a local Arabic market, they began brainstorming.

Photo by Kirstie Shanley for WS

Photo by Kirstie Shanley for WS

Their initial discussions involved building a recording studio and focusing on new signings, but they soon realized they already had a project in hand: Camino del Sol, a compilation of the ’80s French-Belgian new wave group Antena that was supposed to be Shipley’s first release at Rykodisc. In other words, they ended up in the reissue business almost by default.

Shipley met Rob Sevier — a one-time bicycle messenger and DJ who had been involved with the eclectic Milwaukee electronic and hip-hop indie Wobblyhead — around the same time. After Sevier gave Shipley a CD-R packed with singles from Capsoul, an independent soul label from Columbus, Ohio in the ’60s, Shipley invited him to work as a guest curator for the new endeavor. Eccentric Soul: the Capsoul Label, as it was eventually called, was issued as the label’s first release in 2004, along with Camino del Sol. The soul projects Sevier initiated became the label’s bread and butter, and his workload exceeded what he expected as a guest curator. But since the label was pouring all profits back into the business, Sevier was offered shares for 10 percent of the company, a percentage that increased along with his involvement.

The label required serious commitments from Shipley, Lunt and Sevier; it wasn’t until its third year in existence that each of them began drawing a salary — $500 a month. “Our first royalty reports were done in Word,” says Shipley. “We had a little accounting program on my computer. It was all very rudimentary.”

Numero Group has released around a hundred compilations and album reissues, both uncovering forgotten and overlooked gems from the nooks and crannies in the careers of significant artists and introducing work by groups and singers that never got a fair shake in the first place. Its massive Syl Johnson compilation gathered nearly everything the Chicago singer cut from the late ’50s through the early ’70s, when he signed with Hi Records — including some early material cut for Federal Records that Johnson himself couldn’t remember. The recent Purple Snow set is another work of feverish scholarship, painting a detailed portrait of Twin Cities soul and funk in the days before Prince and the Time hit the big time. In fact, across its 32 tracks, Prince appears only briefly as a sideman, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are leaders of the Philly International-inspired Mind & Matter. The 144-page hardbound book that’s included in the set reconstructs a lost history, deep-diving into the careers of long-forgotten Twin Cities soul sensations. To celebrate its own 10th anniversary last year, the label released the staggering Omnibus, a set of 45 meticulously reproduced rare soul singles housed in an old-school 7″ box with a 108-page booklet.

Photo By Kirstie Shanley for WS

Photo By Kirstie Shanley for WS

Renaldo Domino, a Chicago singer with a rich falsetto who made his first records as a teenager for Mercury-distributed labels like Smash and Blue Rock, also had some terrific sides featured on the label’s superb 2007 collection Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation. That collection, which provided the most extensive and thorough examination of killer Chicago soul company Twinight/Twilight, paved the way for Domino’s rejuvenated career. He participated in a 2009 concert organized by Numero called the Eccentric Soul Revue, which eventually toured the east coast. It was the first time Domino had performed in 39 years. He’s since performed all over the US, working with bands like J.C. Brooks & the Uptown Sound and the Bo-Keys. “I wouldn’t be back out here if it wasn’t for Numero Group,” he says. Now he’s in the midst of producing a new album featuring all new original tunes.

“We’ve gotten better at finding people,” says Sevier. “The unfortunate thing is that operations that are much less legit than us can get in touch with people more easily too, and scam them. There’s a lot of distrust out there already. So having it easy to get in touch with people sometimes means they might have already been contacted [by someone else] and been sullied by the whole prospect.”

Occasionally, the label’s efforts not only precipitate reassessment or discovery, they inspire renewed activity. Last year, they released the vinyl-only First Step Beyond, a previously-unreleased album by the ’70s Chicago hard rock group Medusa, which released only one 7″ during its existence. Issued only on vinyl, the record epitomizes Numero’s attention to detail: The album comes packaged in a black-velvet-covered, thick cardboard gatefold sleeve, illustrated with a gold-embossed version of the band’s pentagram logo with a leering goat’s head in the center. The reissue led some of the Medusa’s former members (Gary and Donna Brown, who now live in Broomfield, Colorado) to start up again.

Singer and guitarist Peter Basaraba, who lives outside of Chicago, calls the reissue a “blessing.” He says the group members got together last year for the first time since 1976; they jammed and wrote some new songs. Although the Browns are working with local musicians in Colorado for the reunited Medusa, Basaraba has been writing lyrics for the group’s new material and hasn’t ruled out working with them in the future.

Like the best reporters, they don’t enter a story with a defined expectation. They allow the details that emerge in their research to propel the narrative. The idea for Purple Snow began with some photos of Jheri-curled musicians they found on the website of the Minneapolis Historical Society website. “We never have a deadline for a record we’re going to make,” says Shipley. “We have soft deadlines, but for the most part a record’s not done until it’s done, and sometimes those ideas take years to gestate and come together.”

“We’re making the Criterion version of records,” Shipley explains. “The best possible version of a record. We want to be that place with 25,000-word liner notes and every photo. I would rather us be so thorough that we isolate ourselves in the market, as opposed to just putting a logo on something that already exists.” They have a string of impeccable releases testifying this reputation, but for Sevier and Shipley, the thrill remains in the journey.