Little Ben & The Cheers - "I'm Gonna Get Even With You" (Eccentric Soul: The Nickle & Penny Labels)
The point that Jon Langford once made about rock ‘n’ roll sounding better when it’s played by people with less musical skill doesn’t hold true for all genres. When soul music gets weird, it generally turns into something else; despite its immense popularity, Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Going On has more in common with post-psychedelic meltdowns like Skip Spence’s Oar or Big Star’s Third than “Everyday People.” And when it’s played or written amateurishly, it usually sounds second-drawer at best and like an unfortunate song-poem at worst.
This phenomenon afflicts some of the Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul collections, which unearth the work of forgotten independent soul music labels. Sometimes, as with The Bandit Story, a bizarre back-story is enough of a hook to pull me in, but other sets just sound like under-accomplished imitations of familiar oldies radio favorites.
There’s nothing wacky about The Nickel & Penny Labels, and for the most part it flies free of the bonds of mediocrity and incompetence. The two imprints are united by the involvement of Richard Pegue, a Chicago disc jockey who dabbled in record production. He may have struggled a bit to get it right at first — the Voices’ “Forever Is A Long, Long Time” is marred by an out of tune lead vocal — but he got up to speed fast. There’s nothing amongst this set’s 24 songs that is particularly ground breaking; Pegue had a DJ’s ear for what would fill a dance floor, and that usually means a mix of the fondly remembered and stuff that sounds like everything else on the radio right now, only good. Jerry Townes’ “You Are My Sunshine” could be a deep cut on a Stax LP, and Brothers & Sisters” “Don’t Let Them Tell You” sounds like it was recorded in a psychedelic shack. Nickel and Penny releases probably sounded a bit past their sell-by date at the time; the soaring back vocals and application of echo on Little Ben & The Cheers’ “Never More” sounds just like the production of the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” but it came out five years after its blueprint.
But from the remove of nearly 45 years, that doesn’t matter as much as the tunes and the grooves. On both counts, Pegue and Co. deliver. Little Ben & The Cheers’ “I’m Gonna Get Even With You” is hummable as hell, but spikes its classic Motown punch with a shot of ego-wounded nastiness, and the vigorous pulse and righteous back and forth singing on South Shore Commission’s “Shadows” are just two of a half-dozen earworms that the song will lodge in your brain.