Music

Sunny Ozuna: The Brown Eyed Soul Man

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Fifteen years ago, Danny Akalepse, a co-founder of the Brooklyn-based label Big Crown Records, was given a mixtape by a friend that included a nostalgic soul ballad called “Should I Take You Home.” The track was cut in the Sixties by Sunny and the Sunliners, a San Antonio, Texas–based group, and released via the bandleader Sunny Ozuna‘s own independent label, Key-Loc. Over a mellow, sunset-swaddled groove infused with a yearning horn fanfare, Ozuna trills a tale about returning his date home before 8 p.m. so that her mother doesn’t start “wondering on why we’re late.”

Akalepse was struck by the song — “The thing is a tune,” he says with reverence — and began hunting down a copy. First pressings have been known to fetch up to $800 on the collector’s market (and second pressings top out around $300), but Akalepse managed to snap up a couple of mint 45s for $30 each at a record fair in Pennsylvania. After that, he set about contacting Ozuna with the hopes of re-releasing his music. He had the hunch that Ozuna’s vibe would be welcomed by Big Crown’s fans, who are drawn to retro sounds.

Securing a deal with Ozuna took three or four years and involved Akalepse journeying to Texas to meet Ozuna in person. The result is Mr. Brown Eyed Soul, a retrospective of soul cuts released during 1966 to 1972 that are fueled by Ozuna’s dusky yet innocent voice. (Future plans include re-releasing some of Ozuna’s other albums, plus a project based around Big Crown artists covering his material.)

After talking with Ozuna, Akalepse became privy to the vast extent of his story, which has unwound chapter after chapter. “It wasn’t a case of me asking to reissue music and saying, ‘Hey, I think there’s value in something that’s already ran its course for you. I think we can turn this around and introduce it to new people.’ Because it didn’t run its course for them. That guy’s a famous guy, especially in the Tejano scene, and he’s still doing shows and everything.”

Originally recording as Sunny and the Sunglows, Ozuna came to national acclaim in 1963 with a slow-rolling cover of “Talk to Me,” an r&b No. 5 for Little Willie John five years prior. Sunny’s “Talk to Me” brought about an invitation to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, making Ozuna the first Latino artist to guest on the TV show. (He recalls meeting country singer Bobby Bare and pop artist Gene Pitney during the taping, and laughs as he says he didn’t realize the host was so short.)

With Sunny and the Sunglows, Ozuna mixed r&b and soul with Tejano and mariachi, and he never stopped his stylistic expansion. Singing in Spanish, he became a leading figure in the Tejano scene, eventually spinning his sound into the gospel and Christmas markets. As soul developed throughout the Seventies and Eighties, he absorbed new twists into a jukebox sound that ran from throwback weepers to finger-popping funk workouts. Talking from his home in San Antonio, the 74-year-old Ozuna estimates his catalog is around 69 albums deep — but the soul-influenced period from the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies is the one Mr. Brown Eyed Soul spotlights.

Admitting that he was “surprised” when Akalepse began to court that section of his oeuvre, Ozuna says, “I didn’t know that I’d be a pioneer on the Tejano music that relates back to the feelings and the culture of Texans and the way they’re brought up — my gut was to go with the rock ’n’ roll thing, but I also pursued Tejano, too. But Danny tried to get something that would relate to what’s going on in his area. He wanted to try and open a few doors to something a little bit different, and we did a lot of that risk-taking ourselves in building Key-Loc.”

Since Ozuna owns most of his masters, it was easier for Big Crown to arrange the reissue the songs than if it’d had to track down a long-lost rights holder. Although as Akalepse says, “Sunny could say ‘yes’ to all of it, but it also made it harder ’cause the songs are more dear to him. It wasn’t like, ‘What, you want that crap?’ It’s Sunny’s own stuff.”

Akalepse and his label partner, Leon Michels of the El Michels Affair, selected the songs for Mr. Brown Eyed Soul after collecting and studying Ozuna’s vault. Taking a cue from the breakthrough “Talk to Me,” a hearty selection of cover versions are present: Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “I’m On the Outside Looking In,” the Marvelettes’ “Forever,” and the Chi-Lites’ “Give It Away” are all songs that Ozuna recorded both because he was inspired by the original artists and because he hoped to score another hit that would fuel his career “through to the end of another year.” But it’s the original compositions that showcase his soul appeal. Set on the cusp of a relationship breakup, “The One Who’s Hurtin’ Is You” is sung defiantly over a surprisingly perky, organ-flecked groove; “Rain Makes Me Blue” is melancholy mood music with simple repeating lyrics about a flawed but inescapable love. It’s seductive stuff that wavers successfully between drumming up feelings of nostalgia and sounding like some newly discovered secret treasure.

“Even if you’re a soul music fan, a lot of people have no idea what this stuff is,” says Akalepse, who adds he feels both lucky and honored to be in a position to re-release Ozuna’s music on his label. “In this day and age there’s so much old music being discovered, and Sunny’s definitely another guy in the sweet soul cannon. He’s a big player with big tunes.”

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