The Groove Seeker: True Soul: Deep Sounds From the Left of Stax, Volume 1

On a biweekly basis, The Groove Seeker goes in search of killer grooves across rock, funk, hip hop, soul, electronic music, jazz, fusion, and more.

True Soul: Deep Sounds From the Left of Stax Vol. 1V/A: True Soul: Deep Sounds From the Left of Stax, Volume 1 (Now-Again, 5/17/11)

The Leaders: “(It’s a) Rat Race”

[audio:|titles=The Leaders: “(It’s a) Rat Race”]

In the American soul and roots tradition, there are few stories more recognizable than the legend of Stax Records.  From the Staple Singers to Otis Redding and Sam and Dave to Wilson Pickett, and all the artists who pioneered and championed that “Stax” sound, the small Memphis, Tennessee record-shop-turned-record-label introduced the world to the irresistible funkiness of Southern soul music.

But from that golden era of soul and funk, there were and are always hardworking owners, musicians, and even whole scenes that go unnoticed.  This is the story of Mr. Lee Anthony and True Soul Records, the label that he started in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1968.  Waiting to be rediscovered on a new anthology released by Now-Again titled True Soul: Deep Sounds From the Left of Stax, the two-volume CD/DVD set is an enlightening journey offering a 28-track survey of the label’s rarest grooves.

It’s a grand project that has taken Now-Again founder Eothen Alapatt (aka Egon) 12 years to put together.  It started in 1999 with Egon’s hunt for some of True Soul’s rare funk 45s.  The compilation’s thoroughly detailed liner notes begin with Egon sharing insights into the lengths that record collectors will go for that rare gem, detailing the wild goose chase that took him straight to Lee Anthony’s door in Little Rock.

In 1966, Anthony opened up Soul Brothers, the first black-owned record store in Arkansas.  That store, though small and modest, anchored down Little Rock’s soul and funk scene.  Soon enough, Anthony expanded the store’s business to have a recording studio, giving it the name True Soul.

From 1968 to the studio’s demise in the mid-’80s, some of the recorded singles were kept by the musicians, some were lost, and, if good enough, some were made a part of the True Soul imprint.  Either way, Anthony always stowed at least one copy in a chest.  Fast forward to 1999, when that same chest was being used as a rickety old table prop in the already defunct True Soul studio.  Egon had stumbled upon a treasure chest of some of the most sought-out grooves of the period.  The two became friends, meeting up in Little Rock, where Egon would unearth more of the True Soul catalog every time.

True Soul: Deep Sounds From the Left of Stax Volume 1 runs a wide gamut of choice selections, each track deserving of an instant-classic stamp.  Compared to Motown’s slick R&B soul and Stax’s raw Southern appeal, True Soul singles are notoriously gritty and funky.  One of the first singles released by True Soul, “Slipping Around” by Thomas East, opens up the record. A bassist and resident crooner, East dominates much of the collection, as the dirty, down-tempo “Funky Music” and no-frills “Sister Funk” are held together by his powerful soul croon.  Volume 1 includes stand-out performances from York Wilborn’s Psychedelic Six, led by experimental saxophonist York Wilborn, including the jaunty “Psychedelic Hot Pants,” a track that’s equal parts James Brown, ’70’s spy flick, and tripped-out psych funk.

The collection runs from smooth to gritty, from party tracks to soul ballads; it soothes as well as it provokes.  If you played funk or soul in Little Rock, True Soul was your home.  Many young musicians took advantage of Anthony’s open-door policy, one that usually had him at the engineering and production helm.  Musicians like Albert Smith, whose dirty blues-guitar rendition of “Come Together” will change the way you listen to The Beatles, would have never been recorded if not for Anthony’s willingness for the music.  The same is said for The Leaders, a band ahead of its time in terms of sound and attitude.  “(It’s a) Rat Race” sounds like a modern-day break beat, driven by an anthemic funk-guitar hook and brilliantly layered organ, flute, and horn parts that are played with timeless quality.

In search of the forgotten cornerstones of American music history, True Soul: Deep Sounds From the Left of Stax is an important anthology.  Whereas Stax, Motown, and Atlantic gave us some of the music’s most celebrated names, independent labels across the country were doing their own thing.  Anthony’s True Soul label, situated 150 miles to the left of Stax, was a musical frame through which local musicians had a chance to make their own sound.  Though the music that Anthony issued from Little Rock isn’t readily familiar, it reconciles fame and simple living with honest soul music.

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