The Crates – Numero Group & Capsoul in SPIN

Published on February 6th, 2013
SPIN Magazine Cover September/October 2012

SPIN Magazine Cover September/October 2012

by David Peisner

SPIN Magazine:

The Numero Group has become the world’s greatest reissue label by tirelessly chasing dead-ends, following every detour, and ringing doorbells at their own risk. DAVID PEISNER trails the label’s founders through Louisiana as they sniff mold, rifle through trash, and maybe expose a few lost geniuses.

 

This is what it’s come to. When a man isn’t listed in the phone book, when he doesn’t respond to emails or letters, when nobody seems to know how to find him, sometimes you just have to roll up to his last known address and holler at him. Literally.

“Mr. Gibson! Mr. Gibson!”

It’s 11 o’clock on a Thursday morning and Ken Shipley is standing on the sidewalk outside a tidy, one-story brick house in the Carrollton section of New Orleans. Hands cupped around the sides of his mouth, he’s trying to summon Joe Gibson from what may or may not be his home. Shipley surely would’ve preferred knocking on the door or ringing the bell, but the small home is separated from the street by not one, but two, locking wrought-iron gates.

“Mr. Gibson! Anyone home?”

In the early 1970s, Gibson wrote and produced two 45s by a group called the Soul Emotions, which featured his three young daughters. Not many copies of either record were pressed, not many of those were sold, and by the time Gibson’s eldest daughter was a junior in high school, the Soul Emotions had quit performing. The records quickly went out of print and just about disappeared from the Earth entirely.

But one made it into the hands of Rob Sevier, a partner of Shipley’s at the Chicago-based reissue label, the Numero Group. Sevier thought one song — a charming pop-soul nugget called “It’s Time for Love” — would fit perfectly on a compilation called The ABCs of Kid Soul, which documented the post-Jackson 5 explosion of such groups. So he tried to find Gibson. That was more than five years ago. The ABCs came out in 2007, but now Numero has decided to do a second album, The 123s of Kid Soul. Which is what has brought them here to the doorstep of this mini-Fort Knox in Carrollton.

A crate of Numero Group vinyl in sales director Dustin Drase's car. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
A crate of Numero Group vinyl in sales director Dustin Drase’s car. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

At the moment, Sevier is behind the wheel of the car that he, Shipley, and Numero’s sales director Dustin Drase drove down from Chicago. As Shipley makes his unholy racket, Sevier instinctively inches the car forward along the street away from him. The neighborhood, a well-kept, working-class area, seems reasonably safe, especially on a weekday morning (though I will later be told about two recent shootings within a few blocks). But if the spectacle of a skinny white guy standing on the curb shouting isn’t enough to draw the suspicion of local residents, surely a car with out-of-state plates (specifically one that reads “DR DRASE”), filled with strangers staring out the window and pointing, probably will do the trick.

After a minute or so, the front door to the house opens and a small, older woman emerges. It’s Gibson’s wife, Barbara. Shipley is invited onto the porch, where he explains the reason for his unannounced visit. Barbara tells him her husband is at his dialysis appointment. She gives Shipley a phone number and says to come back the following day.

“That went pretty great,” Shipley says, upon returning to the car. “He’s at dialysis!”

 

The Numeromobile, at rest (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
The Numeromobile, at rest (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
This sort of footwork has paid off for the Numero Group, a small, independent label founded in 2003 with the mission of releasing music recorded decades ago, mostly by artists so obscure, only die-hard record collectors know who they are. Though sales of recorded music are down 41 percent from a decade ago, Numero “has grown every year,” according to Shipley. “An average year for us is 30 percent growth,” he says. “This year, we will probably do 40 percent.” Numero turned a profit of more than $1 million in 2011, much of which was plowed back into the company.Shipley, a former A&R manager at the large, independent label Rykodisc, started Numero with Tom Lunt, who had worked a long career in advertising. Both men were unemployed when they first crossed paths, at a grocery store. Shipley had ideas for a few reissue projects he’d never been able to get off the ground at Ryko. Lunt provided some initial seed money — roughly $23,000 — and then Sevier came aboard to begin working on what would become Numero’s first release, a compilation of tracks recorded during the early ’70s for a small, independent R&B label out of Columbus, Ohio, called Capsoul, which had dreamed of being the next Motown.”The whole thing was Ken’s brainchild,” says Sevier. “I was just drug- and alcohol-addled and working in record distribution. But I knew shit and had ideas for projects, so I was an obvious person to get involved.”Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label set the template for what was to follow. A gorgeously packaged, 20-song compilation with archival photographs and liner notes that read like an exhaustively researched book, the album sold well immediately and remains Numero’s best-selling title, having moved about 25,000 copies. But album sales have been only a part of the revenue generated: Songs from the album were later sampled for tracks by Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T., Wiz Khalifa, Mobb Deep, and others, while several were licensed for film (In The Mix) and TV (Weeds, Queer as Folk).
Numero Group's Ken Shipley (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Numero Group’s Ken Shipley (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

The label would follow that with compilations of out-of-print power-pop, gospel funk, outsider folk, and acid rock, as well as regional ’60s and ’70s soul from locales both likely (Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland) and unlikely (Wichita, Belize City, the Bahamas). Sometimes, Numero has released compilations, other times a reissue of a rare LP, but their projects are always lovingly presented with unearthed photos and copiously detailed histories of everyone involved.

Slowly, a sort of defining aesthetic has emerged: Failure is more interesting than success. If history is written by the winners, Numero tells the stories of the beautiful losers. In doing so, the label has sketched an alternate historical narrative. At the very least, a stroll through the Numero catalog is confirmation that cream does not always rise to the top. Bad business decisions, fickle audiences, polarizing personalities, and shitty luck trump talent nearly every time. Numero’s work stands as a corrective to the callousness of pop-music history: Maybe they couldn’t turn Capsoul into Motown, but they could ensure it wouldn’t be forgotten forever.

The journey from conception to fruition on a Numero project is generally a painstaking, years-long trip filled with dead-ends, detours, and drastic changes of course. It can be an arduous process to track down and interview aging musicians, songwriters, producers, and label owners; to locate and restore dusty master tapes; and to research copyrights and negotiate with rights holders. It’s made harder still by the fact that Shipley and Sevier (and to a lesser extent, Lunt, who is not too involved on the A&R end) often aren’t sure who and what they’re looking for.

“We’re going into situations where we know there is something there, but sometimes it’s the tip of an iceberg,” says Sevier. “Sometimes, there’s just a tip floating on the water, but sometimes there is a giant iceberg underneath. You never know until you have it in hand.” As such, every meeting, every interview, every Google or Lexis-Nexis search, is a fishing expedition. Who were the other bands playing around that time? Is there any unreleased material? How can we get in touch with the guy who owned the studio? Whatever happened to the master tapes? Wild hairs need to be chased.

“If we were just counting on what we knew about, we’d have much fewer projects,” says Sevier. “If you wait to know that there’s an awesome project there before going in, someone will beat you to it. Our basic approach is to explore everything a little bit and see what happens.”

Numero’s trip to Louisiana, ostensibly for a sales conference in New Orleans, is being scheduled around a meeting in Baton Rouge with the family of Valerian Smith. A few years ago, Sevier and Shipley came upon some tracks by a group called Black Blood and the Chocolate Pickles, including one extraordinary funk dirge called “Mississippi Mud.” Smith, who died in 1992, was the writer and producer behind the tracks, which he also played on. Shipley has been in contact with the family since January about the possibility of giving the material a new release, as well as finding out what else there might be besides what he’d heard. But this will be their first in-person meeting.

Smith’s ex-wife lives in his former residence in one of Baton Rouge’s more dire neighborhoods. But even though most of the other houses on the block are in various states of neglect, the Smith home is gorgeous and immaculately maintained, with a large, welcoming front porch. Inside, it’s equally stunning. Polished chandeliers, festive holly ringing the fireplace, and furniture that looks too nice to sit on. His daughter, Lynn, answers the door in a bright red dress, her hair and makeup looking like they’d just been professionally styled. She mentions that she’s an actress and it takes me 30 minutes or so to recognize her as Lynn Whitfield, who won an Emmy for playing Josephine Baker in The Josephine Baker Story on HBO in 1991. Her younger sisters, Kim and Shawne, are just as impeccable, as is her younger brother, Valerian II — he goes by “Pepper.” Their mother, Valeria Jean Butler, enters the living room shortly after we’re served coffee on fine china, wearing a long, extravagantly patterned aquamarine dress.

Valerian Smith II and Kim Butler-Smith, at their father's home, Baton Rouge.
Valerian Smith II and Kim Butler-Smith, at their father’s home, Baton Rouge.
Inside the Smith family home (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Inside the Smith family home (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Numero's Ken Shipley looks over Smith family documents. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Numero’s Ken Shipley looks over Smith family documents. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

By contrast, Sevier and Shipley look like what they are: disheveled record nerds who just crawled out of a car after a multi-day, cross-country road trip. Shipley is wearing a mustard-colored, short-sleeve button-down and jeans over his impossibly thin, wiry frame. Sevier is dressed in a black T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of “m-pac!,” an obscure mid-’60s soul label, along with black shorts and white sneakers. Physically, he’s a counterweight to Shipley — taller, broader, and somehow a more substantial presence, with a dark brown beard covering the lower half of his face.

Their personalities are a similar study in contrasts. Shipley is a thoroughly social creature who genuinely seems to enjoy chatting up strangers. At a dive bar in New Orleans where the Numero guys DJ the following night, he gets playfully drunk and leads an effort to push the pool table up against the wall to create a dance floor. Sevier, who quit drinking in the mid-2000s and seems to subsist largely on junk food bought at gas stations, spends most of the night at the bar in a chair, alone, working on his laptop.

As they begin talking to Smith’s family, Shipley takes the lead. He’s a bundle of energy, albeit one who tends to drop the occasional “shit” or “fuck” into conversation when he gets excited, which draws a few raised eyebrows in this exquisitely mannered Southern home. Sevier — who, it’s worth mentioning, pronounces his name “severe” — sits in the corner, jotting notes in a notebook. When he speaks, it’s with authority, gravitas, and a confidence that can easily be interpreted as arrogance. When Whitfield asks how their relationships have been with other families they’ve worked with, Shipley begins to answer — “I would say, probably in the 95th percentile, we have a real happy factor” — but then Sevier cuts him off.

“Some people will never be happy,” he says. “It can be a fantasy to a nightmare, in reality. Because we’ve dealt with some of the craziest people you could possibly imagine.”

Later, Whitfield expresses concern over how to properly compensate her father’s collaborators from the Black Blood and the Chocolate Pickles days. “I understand that anybody coming after this estate, we’re liable for,” she says. “So we have to figure that out and have a lawyer who really understands.”

“No one is going to understand it on this Earth better than me,” Sevier replies. “A lawyer may have some insights, but there’s no one who has dealt with these types of actual circumstances more than Ken and I.”

It’s hard not to find Sevier’s undiplomatic manner a little off-putting. There are points during the discussion with Smith’s family when I have to stifle my own instinct to jump in and smooth things over. The following day, when Sevier meets the former owner of a now-defunct record label, it’s all I can do to keep from kicking him under the table so he’ll stop staring at his laptop while the guy details his life’s work. But Numero’s no-bullshit approach has a purpose: They’ve got work to do and don’t want to waste anyone’s time.

Still, you can see why Sevier’s comments wouldn’t put Smith’s family at ease. Especially in the South, the music business is viewed with a certain historical distrust. And while it would be a vast oversimplification to say that the industry was built on entrepreneurs from the North swooping into southern towns to sign talent to wildly unfair contracts, that happened plenty and the emotional residue from that dynamic still exists. But more problematic for Numero is the so-called “reissue industry” as a whole, which covers a swath of companies, including glorified bootleggers who repackage old music without seeking any permission to do so or paying any royalties afterwards. Several Black Blood songs have turned up on these types of collections. Numero’s success, in part, can be attributed to the fact that they have a spotless reputation for scrupulousness.

Despite a few tense moments, the meeting hums along. Shipley and Sevier hold forth on some of Numero’s greatest triumphs — a four-CD/six-LP box set of songs by the once prominent but largely forgotten Chicago soulman Syl Johnson that was nominated for two Grammys and resurrected Johnson’s career; “You and Me,” a never-released demo by a group called Penny & the Quarters that Numero stuck on a compilation and led to the song’s prominent inclusion in the Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams film Blue Valentine. They show off a prototype of their impressive-looking Eccentric Soul: Omnibus, a box of 45 reissued 45s that will come out in late October, complete with a 45,000-word book detailing the twisted stories behind each record and artist. Smith’s children talk expansively about their father, a dentist by trade. According to their accounts, he was a strong personality who was passionate about his music, politically active, and tough on his kids. They seem inclined to get this project off the ground.

Eventually, two boxes of master tapes are brought out. Shipley digs through them a little, occasionally lifting a tape to his nose and sniffing it for mold, while Sevier methodically picks up each tape and writes down what’s on it, where it was recorded, and when. These boxes are only a small part of the cache: There are many additional ones in a walk-in closet toward the back of the house. The closet, Kim tells us, is where she used to go to smoke cigarettes in secret. About eight years ago, she tried to put one out in a napkin, which led to a fire. Fortunately, it was extinguished before reaching either the master tapes or the 12 canisters of butane stored behind them.

At a certain point, though, the mood of the meeting shifts, almost imperceptibly. Shipley asks if they can look at the other boxes of tapes to see what condition they’re in, but no one seems ready to show him. Shipley is unable to provide the family with any meaningful financial details about a potential deal because, as he puts it, “We don’t know what’s here. I don’t know if it’s a single CD, if it’s a box set — I really don’t know. There’s no point in me even looking through these tapes right now, because I’ve basically got to sort through and make piles. ‘Here’s 100 good songs. Here’s the 20 best of those 100.’ That could easily take a year.”

Cache of Valerian Smith's master tapes (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Cache of Valerian Smith’s master tapes (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Rob Sevier inspects a Smith master tape. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Rob Sevier inspects a Smith master tape. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

Also, there is concern over Sevier’s notebook.

“What’s he writing down?” the youngest sister Shawne asks.

Sevier explains that he’s taking information from the master tapes and keeping notes from the conversation that will help him to eventually shape liner notes for the project.

“I’d like to get a copy of that,” Shawne says.

“I’ll type it out; you’ll never read my handwriting in a million years,” answers Sevier.

“Well, we have a copier here,” she offers. Sevier again says he’ll type out the notes and send them to the family later.

There are murmurs around the room. Sevier’s reaction to the interest in his notebook seems to have amplified whatever anxieties had been lurking just under the surface of the meeting. Eventually, an uneasy truce is brokered. Someone takes an iPhone photo of Sevier’s notes. He promises to send a legible, typed copy once he gets in front of his computer. But the air in the room has changed.

When SPIN’s photographer tries to get the family to pose for a portrait after the meeting, they ask about signing releases and having approval over whatever photos might run. A vague plan for creating a “discovery document” to lay out a future course of action for the project is mentioned. But after the Smiths go back inside and we stand on the sidewalk next to the car, there are immediate doubts about whether the project really has a future.

“That got weird,” says Shipley.

Sevier motions to the car. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

 

Most of the rest of the day is spent hunting down various leads or fielding phone calls from Smith’s family members who have grown more worried about Sevier’s notebook since we left. (“If they are getting that worked up by two pages of innocuous notes then they are not ready for this,” says Sevier. “You can tell the father did a number on those kids.”) Our next stop is at a house that Shipley and Sevier hope belongs to Louis Dunn. Dunn wrote and recorded several songs in the late ’60s and early ’70s as a member of two groups, Underground Express and Walter B and the New Breed.

“I don’t have high hopes for this,” Shipley says, as we pull up to a small brown house with six different vans (most looking inoperable), plus a gleaming white Hummer, parked in the driveway and on the front lawn. Apparently, Sevier spoke with Dunn on the phone about five years ago, but hasn’t been able to get back in touch since. This address appeared in an online database, but there’s no promise that they have the right Louis Dunn, that he still lives here, or that he’s home at noon on a Wednesday.

But sometimes you get lucky.

Dunn, who looks to be in his sixties, answers the door, initially shirtless and groggy, but once Sevier introduces himself, Dunn sits down on a bench on the front patio and listens to Shipley’s pitch. “The reason why we were coming by is we’re on a mission to discover lost and forgotten music in Baton Rouge,” he says. “Our record label, the Numero Group, is kind of the forerunners in preserving lost and forgotten music. We like to create partnerships with people like yourself who made great material and have access to the masters, but nothing ever happened. You never hit, you never broke, but the music is still important and there’s still opportunities for it to live.”

Dunn doesn’t look thrilled to have been awakened from a midday nap, only to be reminded of his past failures by a complete stranger. Sevier breaks in. “Whether it was locally successful or not, we try to breathe new life into old music,” he says. “We’re repositioning it as a piece of history that a different generation wants to find out about and take on as their own.”

Shipley picks up the thread. “I’d love to be able to put money in your pocket, sign a deal, and find a way for us to license — not own — the Underground Express material. If it sits here forever, nothing happens, but if you put it out in the world, it’s like a bird: You don’t know where it can go.”

Singer-songwriter Louis Dunn in his home studio, Baton Rouge. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Singer-songwriter Louis Dunn in his home studio, Baton Rouge. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Ken Shipley and Louis Dunn on Dunn's patio. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Ken Shipley and Louis Dunn on Dunn’s patio. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

Dunn is beginning to warm up. Sevier asks if he has any of the old Underground Express records. This leads to Dunn fetching some CD-Rs and playing two songs that his current band, the Dunn Deal, have recorded, one an unremarkable zydeco tune and the other a flat-out bizarre reggae-country fusion that seems to make Shipley and Sevier almost physically uncomfortable to listen to.

“Do you have any of the Underground Express stuff?” Shipley asks.

Dunn searches through more CD-Rs and loads one up. From the CD player’s cheap speakers, horns burst over a funky groove. When the singer comes in, he’s got a voice equal parts grit and shine. The song is called “A Man’s Temptation” and it’s so jaw-droppingly good that it’s hard to believe that a) I’ve never heard it; and b) the guy who just answered the door wearing no shirt at noon on a Wednesday wrote and produced it. It’s no exaggeration to say that it could stand proudly alongside any of the great southern soul music that Stax produced in the late ’60s. “A Man’s Temptation” came out on 45 back in 1969, but it is extremely hard to find these days. A copy listed in poor condition sold online last year for nearly $800.

When the song finishes, Sevier asks about the master tapes. Dunn isn’t sure what he has laying around, so we head back to a garage behind his house that he’s converted into a studio and storage space. The area is a mess, with beds, chairs, sinks, and assorted detritus piled up so high that the room is literally impenetrable. Sevier sticks his head inside, and shrugs. “I’ve seen worse.” Dunn isn’t sure there are any tapes in there, and doesn’t seem too anxious to let these guys he just met start digging around. So, after a few more minutes, we leave with a phone number and the promise of future contact.

Later that afternoon, the Numero guys go looking for a man who ran a small label called Geodol, and end up at an empty lot in a trailer park. Shipley gets out of the car and asks a young woman in front of the trailer next door how long it’s been since someone lived on the empty lot. She shrugs. He picks through a pile of trash in the center of the concrete slab where a trailer should sit. “Just looking for maybe a piece of old mail,” he explains, “or something with some sort of information about whoever lived here.” There’s nothing.

That evening, they drive to the home of Walter B, who fronted Dunn’s post-Underground Express band, the New Breed. They’d gotten his phone number at a local record store, the Rock Shop (which also doubles as an emissions inspection station, a tax advice office, and a silk screening store), but Walter B hadn’t picked up. So, after a quick Lexis-Nexis search for a last known address, Shipley and Sevier decide to stop by, encountering a low-slung blue-gray house with black bars on the windows and two signs on the fence reading “Private Property” and “No Trespassing.”

 

 

Nobody answers the door. Shipley hoists himself up to peek over the fence into the backyard, then looks in the mailbox. “There’s no mail in the mailbox and the grass is cut, so someone is living here.”

A neighbor rides up on a bicycle and Shipley asks him if Walter B lives here. It bears mentioning that in this neighborhood — as in so many the Numero guys visit — thirtysomething white guys knocking on doors, sniffing around, and asking questions, look more like undercover cops, debt collectors, process servers, or bail bondsmen than record-label owners. There’s a slight pause and Shipley hands his business card to the neighbor, who confirms that Walter and his brother both live in this house. In fact, the whole street, he tells Shipley, is peopled with old musicians. It’s dark, though, and too late to start ringing doorbells.

The following morning, Sevier drives by another Baton Rouge address that he found on an old 45, but if there was ever anything there, it has long since been bulldozed. He then meets Sam Montalbano, the owner of Montel Records in the late ’60s, at a Starbucks in a sprawling shopping center, and Lynn Ourso, who ran a prominent Baton Rouge studio called Deep South, on a downtown street. Nothing much comes of either meeting.

Dustin Drase listens to an album on his portable turntable at the Rock Shop. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Numero’s Dustin Drase listens to an album on his portable turntable at the Rock Shop. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

He also meets Harvey Knox, the last surviving member of a Baton Rouge band called the Herculoids, in a dank, cave-like workshop below his home. Knox, rail-thin in a black Harley Davidson T-shirt, is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelving units filled with electronic equipment that span a century’s worth of technological advancements — TVs, VCRs, DVD players, DVRs, radios, copiers, reel-to-reel tape players, laptops, turntables — along with countless weathered 45s. Knox makes his living as a repairman these days, but still plays out around town from time to time.

Sevier points to a pile of old recording tapes. “Are those Herculoids masters?” Knox says they’re not. “Who would have the masters?” Sevier persists. Knox pauses, glances toward the ceiling, and says, “Roy Stewart. He was the drummer and producer. He’s dead.”

Shelves of 45s at the Rock Shop (Photo by Daymon Gardner)
Shelves of 45s at the Rock Shop (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

As the afternoon turns to evening, Sevier drops in on Lee Tillman, an R&B singer who had some regional success in the ’60s and ’70s. A lot of Tillman’s music has been reissued already and he doesn’t seem to keep any old recordings around the house. As a trophy shelf in his den attests, golf absorbs more of his attention these days than music.

“Every single person we are dealing with is not coming through,” Sevier says, as we drive south on I-10 toward New Orleans. “Not that this is in any way unusual,” he continues, “but when you keep doing this stuff what you hope is that Lee Tillman’s like, ‘I had this custom studio in 1973 and no one really knows about it. I’ve got this stack of masters.’ Or you want Lynn [Ourso] to be like, ‘Oh, here’s a ton of tapes no one’s ever listened to,’ or Sam [Montalbano] to say, ‘I’ve been holding off, but now I’m ready to deal. Here’s the stuff.’ None of that shit has happened.”

Some days it does, though. Back in 2008, Mickey Rouse was getting ready to throw out garbage bags full of master tapes he’d recorded at his Lowlands Recording Studio in Beaumont, Texas, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Rouse had hosted and played on sessions by a gaggle of aspiring artists trafficking in a distinctly Texan mix of rock, folk, country, and R&B. He pressed up a bunch of 45s, but nothing gained much traction outside the region. In 1974, he closed the studio and became an accountant. He’d since sold almost all the recording equipment, and those master tapes were the only tangible reminder of what he considered one of his life’s most painful failures.

“I’m looking at that pile of tapes thinking, ‘It’s time to let this stuff go,'” Rouse says. “The boxes had pretty much dissolved because they’d been wet as a result of a hurricane here in Beaumont. I had no recorder to play this stuff on, no way to identify what it was, so how do you justify keeping it? Numero showed up in town a couple weeks later.”

As Sevier remembers it, “Mickey was just like, ‘Here’s the stuff. Nobody’s ever talked to me about this shit in 40 years. I’ve got it all in the shed.”

Rouse says he was “incredulous” at Numero’s sudden appearance, and initially had mixed feelings about the project. “I had finally come to terms with the fact that something I really wanted to work so bad, so many years ago, that I had put such effort, time, and money into, didn’t work,” he says. “I was so discouraged, I didn’t play any musical instruments for years. But you have to learn to put those feelings aside in order to go on with life and find satisfaction and happiness in other areas. The fact that a chapter in my life that was closed was going to be re-opened was bittersweet for a while, but I got past that.”

It took close to a year for Numero just to sort through all the material, but the eventual result was Local Customs: Lone Star Lowlands, which came out in 2010. The album has been a moderate commercial success, at best — it’s sold roughly 3,000 copies, and two of the tunes were licensed by HBO’s Eastbound & Down — but to Rouse, its mere existence is a personal triumph. “They have done a far greater service to me than money ever would have,” he says. “I do not exaggerate when I say that I had recurring dreams about closing the studio for the last 30 years. When the Numero guys appeared on the scene, the dreams stopped.” Rouse, who is now retired, has also begun playing and recording music again.

Even when dealing with known commodities, successes come where you least expect them. Syl Johnson had a reasonably well-known (and well-sampled) catalog of songs from the ’60s like “Come on Sock It to Me” and “Different Strokes,” but he says that it was the obscurities that made his 2010 box set, The Complete Mythology, a success. “They pulled some shit out of the garbage can,” he says of Numero. “They came up with a bunch of copyrights that had never been on the market. I don’t know how they found them. I forgot I made them. But now I gotta do them [in concert] because the people are looking for them. I don’t even know the lyrics. It’s like a new beginning for me.”

Numero has, to this point, largely confined their archival work — regardless of genre — to a very specific period. “To me, the mid-’60s to the early ’80s was a supernova of creativity,” says Sevier. “That is a magical time frame when widespread recording technology became available, but there was still a barrier of entry. You had to invest money and time. You had to get other people involved. Those obstacles filtered out a lot of garbage. There are other cultural reasons involved, but by the mid-’70s, there’s probably nobody in the lower 48 United States who couldn’t drive within an hour to get to a recording studio. So there was this explosion of availability, but it was before it became so available that anybody could produce some cheap piece of crap.

“That is a moment we’ll never have again in the story of human creativity where it was unleashed but limited,” he continues. “Look at the Library of Congress’ copyright index. When you look at the number of songs submitted for copyright in the early ’50s, it’s a folio. By the ’70s, it’s two giant volumes. That’s kind of, in my mind, what I’m capturing.”

Numero is hardly the only label out there hunting for and reissuing long-lost music. Boutique labels like Light in the Attic, Now-Again, Honest Jon’s, Soundway, Norton, Sundazed, and Jazzman are engaged in similar work, often with their own unique focuses.

“Certain labels have discovered an incredibly loyal demographic for their releases,” says Sundazed founder Bob Irwin, who also helped launch Sony’s reissue imprint, Legacy. “It’s not even fair to call it a niche market anymore because that’s selling it a little bit short. The business model is different. These labels’ releases are deliberately not mainstream. You’re mining something deeper, doing it with authority. The audience for those releases starts to buy not only the music you’re doing, they buy the label across the board.”

Drase, Numero’s sales director, says the label usually can break even on a single-album project by selling about 1,000 copies. Normally, they have a loyal enough customer base to do that with just about every release. The trick, says Shipley, is going from 1,000 to 5,000 in sales. “You’re in the process of convincing people this is something they want to own,” he says. “We’re talking about generations of people who grew up never buying CDs.”

Numero’s releases are available on iTunes but not on streaming services like Spotify. “I’m sure some of our customers want it, but it’s a bad deal,” says Sevier of Spotify. Plus, without the packaging, he says, “what would contextualize the albums in a way that is key to the appreciation? What would anybody get out of it?”

With various other labels, as well as less-scrupulous bootleggers, scouring used record stores, auctions, estate sales, and online marketplaces for music worth reissuing, Numero’s task is getting more difficult. Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, who founded Now-Again Records while he was GM of another label, Stones Throw, has recently released a compilation of funk-era love songs titled Loving on the Flipside; a three-CD box set of material by ’70s-era U.S. Army show bands called East Of Underground, and a four-CD box of the music of Zambian psych-rock band Witch. He admits that he’s been forced to focus on ever-more obscure records.

“All of the stuff that has been canonized — like deep funk, soul, and disco — has been put out,” Alapatt says. “There are very few really marvelous tracks that haven’t seen the light of day. That said, there’s always a new set of ears that goes back and hears something that was an afterthought to me that they might feel is very important.”

Of at least equal concern to those trafficking in these lavishly annotated reissues is the gradual disappearance of the people who lived through the era. That generation is dying off and there are few if any documents or newspaper reports that offer any significant information on a lot of these artists. “You have to get it from the source,” says Sevier. “It’s not like I could spend a week at the Library of Congress pulling out obscure records. Most of the stuff, before we write it down, nothing has ever been written down.”

The recordings themselves won’t last forever, either. Many master tapes have already been lost or degraded past the point of when they are of any use to anyone. Numero frequently must re-master their albums off vinyl, and that too wears out over time. “There will be a point when everything that hasn’t been converted from these physical analog states into digital states will just be destroyed through pure entropy,” says Sevier. Tapes dissolve, they’re lost in fires and floods, they’re tossed in dumpsters. “We are constantly trying to fight entropy in our lives — a new coat of paint, mowing the lawn, fixing shit. But why is it that seven-tenths of the people I talk to have had some disaster where their shit was destroyed?”

Numero has tried to stay ahead of these challenges by laying out an ever more sustainable model moving forward. They’ve been buying small publishing companies with the hopes of licensing that material for commercials, TV, films, video games, and samples. They’ve also begun to rethink their laser-like focus on one particular era. This year, they reissued the complete discography of the seminal, early-’90s slowcore band Codeine. There was some tortured discussion in the Numero offices about whether this might compromise their brand, but ultimately, as Shipley says, it was an acknowledgement that “eventually we are going to run out of road.”

“I have a great staff and a great way to make records,” says Shipley. “With that, we could do anything. We could do Sinatra. That’s not necessarily something I’m opposed to.”

He’s even open to the possibility that some larger entity, possibly a major label, might come in one day and scoop them up. “There’s no fantasy that we’re going to all do this forever,” he says. “We’ve had that conversation. We’ve passed on two offers. I don’t know what the end is right now, but I know I won’t do this for the rest of my life. I would have no problem letting it go.”

Eventually, Sevier and I make it back to Joe Gibson’s fortress-like house in Carrollton. Gibson’s wife Barbara answers the door, invites us in, and brings out two bottles of water. Let’s Make a Deal is on TV, loudly, and when her husband gingerly walks into the room using a metal cane and sits down, he appears far more absorbed by the game show than by Sevier’s offer to reissue the song he wrote for his daughters to sing 40 years ago. When Sevier asks questions about the song and the Soul Emotions’ history, Barbara answers, with Joe occasionally confirming various pieces of information. It’s not clear whether Joe is not well enough to talk at length, or if the Gibsons have the kind of relationship where she does all the talking.

Fortunately for Sevier, Barbara seems pretty enthusiastic and soon enough they are sketching out the terms of an agreement to license “It’s Time for Love” for the kid-soul compilation. Numero will pay an advance of about $300. Sevier promises to put a contract in the mail when he returns to Chicago. The Gibsons also have an album filled with photos and paraphernalia that can be used for the liner notes. Barbara shows Sevier back to her computer so he can scan some photos onto a zip drive and bring them home with him.

When she does, I’m left alone with Joe. I ask him what he thinks now about the music he made back then. “I still love it,” he says, his voice gravelly but assured. “I still have hopes and dreams that somebody will pick it up who can push it. Because those records are mine. That’s the biggest thing I can say. They’re mine. I just wish it could’ve gone where we would’ve liked to have had it back then, but it’s just one of those things. The music business is a funny thing.”

Once we’re back in the car, Sevier looks visibly relieved. “That meeting was pretty much the ideal,” he says. “It makes me want to double down and really get going on this kid-soul thing.”

A few weeks later, Sevier emails that he’s tried to correspond with the Gibsons since returning to Chicago, but hasn’t heard back. There has been a little action on the Valerian Smith project, though; Sevier has been working with the family on scouring the Library of Congress’ index for anything Valerian had copyrighted. It could be years before that project comes to fruition, but at least, after a meeting in Baton Rouge that left both parties wary, there are tentative steps in the right direction. None of the other leads they were chasing in Louisiana look promising at the moment, but as Shipley and Sevier make clear, their batting average down there was pretty typical.

“The problem is people are inherently lazy,” says Shipley. “They don’t really want to deal with their pasts.”

Back in the car after leaving Joe Gibson’s house, Sevier talks about Shipley’s willingness to sell Numero. The company was Shipley’s idea, but in some ways, Sevier has become the creative engine. While it’s easy to imagine the gregarious Shipley moving on to find success in other ventures, Sevier’s skill set, personality, and life experience seem almost singularly suited for exactly what he’s doing. Could he just walk away if someone made them a good offer?

“It’s a fantasy,” he says. “What would they be buying? No one could make money off this brand. What our brand stands for is virtually impossible-to-do projects. Laborious projects with very little return. To do this well, you really have to do this….” Sevier motions to the car, his notebook, and the traffic-clogged streets around us.

This is expensive — mentally, physically, and monetarily,” he continues, looking outside where it has now started raining. “Who would want that?”

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