Book Reviews: Two Books About Labels That Forged the Soul Revolution
By Noah Schaffer
by Howard Grimes Timekeeper is the often shocking autobiography of Hi Records studio house band drummer. It’s not retro is an in-depth review of the Daptone label.
Timekeeper: Mon Life in rhythm by Howard Grimes with Preston Lauterbach. DeVault Graves books, 152 pages $24.95.
It’s Not Retro: Daptone Records and the 21st Century Soul Revolution by Jessica Lipsky. Jawbone Press, 296 pages, $22.95.
Two recent books offer illuminating behind-the-scenes looks at beloved soul music labels. by Howard Grimes Timekeeper is the often shocking autobiography of the drummer of Hi Records’ studio house band. It’s not retro its title may be debatable, but it’s an in-depth examination of the Daptone label, which, four decades after Hi’s reign, has become home to soul revival acts such as Sharon Jones & the Dap -Kings and Charles Bradley.
Grimes’ memoir is a welcome addition to the multitude of films and books that have examined the previously obscure session players who were indispensable presences in the golden age of rock and soul. Many of these testimonials relate to the southern soul made in Stax. Any shortlist should also include house bands from Memphis soul labels Stax and Hi, both of which employed Grimes. The Hi Rhythm section, built around Grimes and the three Hodges brothers, would stand out in soul history solely for its contributions to Al Green’s glory days, not to mention classic recordings by Ann Peebles and Otis. Clay.
Timekeeper begins with Grimes’ vivid memories of his childhood. It was a world full of hustlers and drunks, but there were also musical mentors who could educate a promising young drummer. Grimes would soon be part of the Memphis club scene, supporting not only future soul stars, but also outrageous cross-dressing dancers Sissy Charles and Peaches. He appeared on early Stax recordings by William Bell and Carla Thomas. In 1967 he was briefly a member of Paul Revere and the Raiders, which had to seek the intervention of Governor George Wallace (!) when a Montgomery venue manager refused to allow a black musician on his stage. (The infamous segregationist’s children were Raiders fans.)
But what really cemented the drummer, nicknamed “Bulldog” because of his hard-hitting approach, in music history was when he joined the team assembled by Hi producer and label owner Willie Mitchell. Grimes’ flawless narrative celebrates the music created by the Hi team, offering valuable insight into how small tweaks in percussion dramatically alter the sound. At the same time, Grimes isn’t shy about the challenges of working with the deeply eccentric green, partying guitarist Teenie Hodges and miserly Mitchell, who gave his session musicians a meager salary and never didn’t keep a promise. to cut them out when selling the business.
Without a financial cushion, Grimes found himself destitute and homeless as soon as Hi was bought out and the Al Green sessions ended. Even by the degrading standards of the music industry, it would be hard to find an example of someone who received so little accolade and credit after making such an immense contribution to popular culture. Even more amazing, Grimes managed to escape discontent or drug addiction. He eventually returned to playing as a member of bassist Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys, beginning with Cyndi Lauper’s Grammy-nominated blues album. Grimes writes that after being abused by the industry for so many years, he was shocked at the reasonable wage Bomar paid for session work.
Timekeeper packs a lot of history, insight and emotion into its pages. It’s quick but essential reading for anyone who wants to know how the soul magic of Memphis was created.
At the turn of the millennium, many soul fans lamented that the gritty, passionate soul produced by labels like Hi had fallen out of favor, replaced by the more nuanced and smooth sounds of the neo-soul movement, which at the time was in its creative and popular peak. In response, a few dedicated musicians, producers, and label owners in Brooklyn began releasing a small batch of 45s that sounded like they had been made decades earlier. Within a few years, Daptone’s signature numbers have become regulars on late-night TV shows and major festival stages. Soon these musicians were in constant demand for session work, perhaps most famously on Amy Winehouse’s groundbreaking soul revival LP. Back to black.
Sadly, Daptone stars Jones and Bradley both died in their 60s, while Dan Klein, frontman of Queens, NY label The Frightnrs, died of ALS at 33. Daptone is still active today, liberating everything from Moroccan. gnawa to LA Chicano soul, but its current 20th anniversary celebration has a bittersweet tinge: the focus is on releasing archival performances by artists no longer with us.
Jessica Lipsky is well written It’s not retro captures the highs and lows of the label’s heyday, focusing on how a cast of older black singers, like Jones, Bradley and Lee Fields, found themselves collaborating with young hipster musicians from a fraction of their age. Daptone’s early days featured a dizzying array of interconnected bands, but Lipsky deftly manages to push the story forward without getting bogged down in details. She’s also good at portraying the personalities of musicians: the sweet-but-tough Jones, the shy and witty Bradley, and bassist, producer, and label honcho Gabe “Bosco Mann” Roth. Also admirable: an in-depth look at how the ’60s soul-loving DJ community helped pave the way for the Daptone era. (The team behind Boston’s “DJ Night: Soulelujah” energetically spread the word when Lee Fields and the Sugarman Three along with Jones and the Dap-Kings played pre-branded shows at TT The Bear’s in Cambridge and the Middle -East.)
But while Lipsky’s songwriting chops are awe-inspiring, she never quite explains why the Daptone musicians reached heights so few other revival bands could match. Yes, the Daptone records were great. But soul veterans like Charles Walker, Marva Whitney, Sonny Knight and Ural Thomas – most sporting more impressive discographies than Jones or Bradley – all recorded and toured with young bands during the same period. None came close to achieving the popularity of Daptone acts. What sets Daptone apart in terms of creativity or marketing? We never get an answer. Since Lipsky is a prolific music journalist who frequently covered Daptone releases, she was in an ideal position to detail the workings of Daptone’s well-oiled PR machine.
The book also largely addresses the complex issues of race that are detailed (and often debated) in most soul music histories. There are only a few paragraphs devoted to the matter, most of them are quotes from an interview with Dap-Kings guitarist Binky Griptite. The implication is that listeners outside of NPR’s largely white crowd likely first encountered Daptone-affiliated efforts without realizing it, via Jay-Z tracks, movie soundtracks, or the Broadway hit. Felawhich featured members of Antibalas.
Perhaps the most irritating part of Lipsky’s book is that he refuses to acknowledge that, far from dying out after the heyday of Motown and Stax, soul music was kept alive by the public. Southern black on the so-called chitlin’ circuit, which has developed into music today. still vibrant southern soul scene. This area is examined by two other recent books, The last soul tag, Authorized History by Rob Bowman of Malaco Records, and I don’t study you, the memoir of artist Bobby Rush. Yes, Southern Soul uses more modern production techniques than Daptone’s proudly analog crew, but it’s still soulful music. The opening scene in It’s not retro takes place during a Daptone package show in New York, which Lipsky says is the first time “in decades” that someone has attempted a major soul review. In reality, such cases take place every weekend in Black Southern theaters. It’s a particularly frustrating omission because Lee Fields was a Southern soul star (and a European dance music artist) before becoming a darling of the soul renaissance. Bradley maintained a side career that saw him sing at hipster rock clubs all week before doing his Black Velvet James Brown show for mostly black audiences at Brooklyn’s Essence Bar every Sunday.
Although the book is largely based on interviews with key Daptone players like Roth and Newton native Neal Sugarman, It’s not retro is an unauthorized tribute; he is not mentioned in any of the PRs for Daptone’s current 20th anniversary celebration. Because of this, Lipsky ends up having to describe Daptone album covers – none are present in the small photo section of the volume. But even if the book isn’t licensed, that doesn’t explain why it lacks a discography, which is an invaluable piece in any label’s history, especially one with such a network of interdependent musicians.
Conclusion: A super fan of Daptone will find the book interesting, especially the details of the early days of the label. But those looking for a lively introduction to Daptone’s history might be better off watching the excellent movies on Jones and Bradley.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unknown musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, latin, african, reggae, middle eastern music, klezmer, polka and beyond. It has won more than 10 awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.