For the last decade plus, Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series has been digging into overlooked scenes, defunct labels and forgotten producers. They’re always a rewarding listening, as educational as they are interesting. But the newest instalment of this series, The Saru Label is something of a departure from their norm.
For one, the music here is bound to familiar to most listeners. One track, “Bound” by The Ponderosa Twins Plus One, was used as the hook for Kanye West’s “Bound 2,” the closing track from Yeezus. Secondly, even if the songs presented aren’t familiar, just about every soul fan has heard of The O’Jays, who show up here a couple of times.
But the thing is, the music here is presented in a context showing it not only as part of a larger scene, but places the familiar alongside the new. It ties into other Numero releases, but also works well on it’s own. Let’s dig in, shall we?
Saru was an independent label that operated out of Cleveland between 1970 and 1972. Founded by Chuck Brown, a bail bondsman by trade, it had ties with Funkadelic, the O’Jays and Joe Robinson. But it also managed exactly zero hits, and for years it’s records went for a premium among hardcore collectors.
The music on The Saru Label shows the strengths and weaknesses of the label. Namely, the music’s hard and funky, with nice arrangements and great vocals. Several of the songs here are something close to lost classics: “For the Rest of my Life,” by Out of Sight, the group harmonies are outstanding and the music builds up into a stomping, horn-drenched groove.
Meanwhile, The Ba-Roz, a female-led vocal group, have a stunning track: “The Last Time.” Against a propulsive rhythm, the group vocals of Cynthia Woodward, Joselyn Jones and Vickie Scott belt out a song towards an ex. The swaggering groove, the way the hi-hat is mixed way up front and the swelling vocal harmonies have this one standing out among some other very good singles. It’s the sort of single that should’ve been a hit, or least been sampled a dozen times by now.
And indeed, the sample everyone’s heard is presented here in it’s original version. “Bound” is pitched a little slower here, with the familiar keyboard riff working it’s magic and the lead vocal ringing through as a falsetto. The Ponderosa Twins Plus One were an interesting lineup to say the least: two sets of identical twins, plus a high school student as the lead singer. This version shows the song as a slow burner, the backing harmonies building up as Ricky Spicer’s voice hits an emotional peak during the chorus. It made the soul charts, but until Kanye resurrected it decades later, it was not something anyone other than a hardcore fan was likely to stumble upon.
There aren’t really any missteps on this collection, but there are moments where Brown and company sound like they’re trying perhaps a little too hard. The Elements single “Son In Law,” with it’s horns and tinkling xylophone sound like anything you’d hear coming out of Philadelphia at the time. It’s a nice single, but it doesn’t exactly stand out the way some of the other singles here do.
Speaking of Philadelphia, the O’Jays had a brief run with Saru before they signed with Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. While not everything they recorded for Saru is here – the flipside of “Shattered Man,” a song called “Ladeda (Means I’m Out to Get You)” is absent, for example – the two tracks show them as a group hitting their stride. This was the period between their run for Philly and Imperial, and while the material isn’t as strong as, say, “Back Stabbers,” but their harmonies are on point, the music’s funky, yet nicely sweetened with strings. Both “Shattered Man” or “Now He’s Home” compare favourably to their more familiar singles. From here it was only a few tweaks until they hit their disco-infused stride at Philly International.
What really pushes The Saru Label over the top is it’s place in the mythology Numero’s created for Cleveland. As their liners point out, Saru fits neatly into the gap left by Way Out Records (who they covered in another Eccentric Soul release a few years back) and the we’ll press anything attitude of Boddie Recording Company (who Numero also gave the deluxe box set treatment to). In short, Numero hasn’t just showcased a few local labels, but documented the Cleveland soul scene, something that maybe even the principals never felt themselves a part of. Brown certainly didn’t see himself that way: as the liners helpfully point out, he just wanted to make money.
On it’s own, The Saru Label is an enjoyable release, but when considered in the context of those two other releases, it builds a compelling portrait of a city’s music scene. It’s the sort of thing a record geek would love to dive into and devour. But even on it’s own, there’s a lot to enjoy if you’re into vintage soul. Recommended for fans of old school soul, vocal harmonies and slick grooves.