Last June, soul DJs Richard Lewis (DJ Honky) and Michael Robinson (Mr. Robinson) started Dig Deeper, a monthly soul party that brought the live element back to soul music and showcased the genre’s original vocalists. (Their initial show featured drummer/vocalist Don Gardner’s first show in 40 [!!] years). Finally, soul music enthusiasts whose only option previously was hearing DJs spin classic 45s at parties around the city now had a live show to call their own. And, this weekend, the Dig Deeper crew teams up with young soul wunderkind Eli “Paperboy” Reed (with help from the Subway Soul collective) to present the two-day Brooklyn Soul Festival. With Reed’s band The True Loves and NYC soul band The Sweet Divines handling back-up duties on day one and two, respectively, the festival features ultra-rare performances from some of the genre’s most revered figures, including Otis Clay (“Crown Prince of Chicago Soul”), Barbara Lynn (“Soul Queen of the Gulf Coast”), and Maxine Brown (“Lovely Lady of New York Uptown Soul”). Two days. Five acts. 16 hours. Many DJs. Soul music heaven. Lewis spoke to us about the soul music scene, the rigors and joys of festival planning, and legends you’ve probably never heard of.
So how did the idea of a soul festival first start out?
We’ve known Eli for a while and have been talking about doing a bigger deal than Dig Deeper; something more like a festival. In Europe, they have this concept of a weekender where everyone goes somewhere for the weekend and stays up til dawn dancing and listening to DJs and bands. That’s done less so here in the U.S. Michael and I had this idea of doing a bigger thing with multiple artists like that and Eli had been thinking of doing a night with three artists that he had backed at various times. So we said, ‘why don’t we just do the thing together and make a festival out of it?’
Some of these acts have been out of the spotlight for years. Was it difficult to track them down?
It’s not like they have Myspace and Facebook pages. Sometimes, we have one artist that comes out and has such a good time that we’ll be driving them back to the airport and they’ll say, “Hey, you should book my friend so-and-so” and we’ll say, “Of course. I didn’t know you knew them.” It’s become this chain of people that has worked out incredibly.
Logistically, is age a factor? A lot of these singers are in their 60s and 70s, right?
Yeah, if we were booking, say, nu-metal bands, you wouldn’t have some of the problems that you have booking older soul artists. But that’s really just consideration. It’s like if you were having your grandparents over for the weekend, you would probably go to the airport and help carry their bags and make sure they were totally taken care of. It wouldn’t just be like, “Hey, we’ll see you at the club when you get there.” So it was really important to us to make sure we did this right because if you spend any time with the history of soul music, almost every artist’s story is, at some level, identical. These artists never made any money off their records and this is an opportunity to help make sure that some of our heroes actually make something off their hard work.
Did you have to establish a certain level of trust with them to try and minimize potential skepticism?
I’ve never talked with them about this, but I’m assuming that they’re calling people to find out if we’re straight up guys and I think they should because they were taken advantage of so much in the past. Aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, if we don’t take care of these people, it’ll get back to whoever we want to book next month. We love these people because they recorded great music and the whole point of the festival is hoping other people get exposed to great music they otherwise would never have heard.
At the same time, soul music has long been a sort of “niche” genre. How important is it to you to try and blow it up more?
Right. We didn’t want to call the festival the Soul A Go Go 60s Soul Weekender because it immediately makes it a niche-y thing that a limited number of people would have a frame of reference for relating to. But if you call it something like The Brooklyn Soul Festival, people go, “Well, I like Brooklyn and I like soul music so I don’t want to miss that.” Maybe that’s oversimplifying it a little, but it immediately puts it on a par, at least from a semantics perspective, as the Chicago Blues Festival. Also, doing these nights and getting people interested in soul music is completely counter to the way the music industry is structured because there’s no money in it. Which again, just in case you’re thinking about starting your own soul night….
You’re calling from your day job.
Exactly. So the business model of convincing 200 people to come out and hear an artist that nobody can buy the records of or listen to after the fact is a challenging one. But at the same time, are we just gonna let people pass away and not take a crack at it? That seems silly as well. In some respect, we’re helping to preserve an American art form that a lot of people in America really don’t have a connection with.
Right. So you fly these singers out here. Are you concerned their voices won’t hold up like they used to? What’s the rehearsal process like for the festival?
It’s similar to our Dig Deeper night in that we’ll give a CD [of each artist’s work] to [The Sweet Divines’] J.B. [Flatt] as much in advance as possible. They’ll put the arrangements together and talk to the artist to find out things like, “You know that high note that you hit in that song? Can you still hit that?” Pretty much everyone at this point has to have their key adjusted down. If the show’s on a Saturday, we’ll fly them out on a Friday and they’ll go through the arrangements on a piano to make sure that everything works the way the band and artist thinks it should. Then it’s all about does the artist want to extend any of the songs, give the drummer some somewhere, things like that. The next day they’ll do a full run-through set with the whole band and do the show later that night. It’s a pretty intense schedule.
Is there anyone you’ve been desperate to track down but just can’t find?
There is one guy named Tommy Dent. I found his drummer. I think I found where he lives in East New York and even mailed him a letter with a self-addressed stamped envelope to come back to me but he hasn’t gotten in touch.
Is it bad that I don’t know him?
Not at all. As far as we know, he put out only two 45s and there are only six total copies left in the world combined.
So be honest: are you “that guy” who’ll fly across the globe and drop $5,000 on a record?
I can neither confirm nor deny that. It’s more about how good the records are rather than how much they cost. It’s easy to get swept up in the competitive nature of buying expensive records, but that five dollar record may actually be a really great one.
Fair enough. But all soul music obsessives have at least a little one-upsmanship in them.
Well, when I first moved to New York, I decided to check out a soul night I read about and Michael was deejaying. I really liked what he was playing so I went up and, trying to be cheeky, requested a record that was obscure and that he probably wouldn’t know. I said, “Hey, do you have [soul group] The Isonics on Kammy [Records]?” and he reached in his box and said, “You mean this one?” We’ve been friends ever since.
So you are “that guy.”
OK, OK, I am “that guy.”