San Antonio Soul: The Secret History
Talking with the people behind the recent compilation, Eccentric Soul: The Dynamic Label
In less than a decade, Chicago’s dedicated crate-digger reissue label Numero Group has spelunked for 45s and magnetic reels of tape in moldy basements, waterlogged warehouses, and cobwebbed crawlspaces, all in an attempt to unearth the secret history of American soul music. While the titans of the soul industry—Motown in Detroit and Stax in Memphis—loom large in the public consciousness, Numero Group has cast light on regional scenes that never made it to the mainstream. The label’s Eccentric Soul series has exhaustively explored and compiled curios emanating from Columbus, Ohio; Silver Springs, Maryland; and even the non-Motown precincts of Detroit itself.
Now comes Eccentric Soul: The Dynamic Label, the first investigation of heretofore-unknown soul nexus San Antonio. (Read our review of the album here.) Leave it to Numero Group to find a vein of brassy, raucous sixties soul in a town better known for Latin music (and the Butthole Surfers). Numero’s inaugural release from the Alamo City focuses on Dynamic, a small label helmed by real estate mogul Abe Epstein that operated at the margins of the music industry from 1965-1972. It’s only the first installment of more vintage San Antonio sounds that Numero has in the works. Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley, Numero’s co-founders, spoke to us about the challenges and joys of putting the collection together.
Texas Monthly: What do you think of when you think of music from San Antonio?
Rob Sevier: I guess a particular harmony-driven soul sound that has a little bit more pop than a lot of the stuff that I listen to. The sound actually has a lot in common with Chicago’s group harmony sound. If you’re asking about music from San Antonio in general then I do think of a hodge-podge of Tex-Mex, boleros, and baladas.
TM: When I think about San Antonio, I think about tejano and conjunto.
Ken Shipley: You have to keep in mind that anywhere there’s industry, there is going to be a good crowd. Post-World War II, San Antonio had a host of air force bases, chemical companies, and vibrant African-American and Latin populations and it was primed to create a scene like this, because there was almost nothing else for entertainment. And where’s there’s industry, there’s venues, there’s record labels.
RS: In the 60s, soul & R&B was really big with kids everywhere, regardless of their class or their ethnic background. The thing I think is really fascinating with San Antonio is that as these acts grew up, they went from doing R&B and rock & roll to doing Tejano, Tex-Mex, and rancheros. By the 80s, a soul band like the Royal Jesters [a popular San Antonio band of the 1960s] were doing very straight Tejano sounds. As kids, they were doing straightforward soul & RB stuff. But by the time they grow older, they kind of get back to their ethnic roots.
TM: So how did you guys come across the Dynamic label?
RS: I guess we knew the Commands’ ‘45, “No Time for You” (1966), which is a record you see around. That was a big record in Chicago. Dynamic is a label that was hiding in plain sight because that record is so common. We were far from the first people who tried and license this stuff from Dynamic’s owner, Abe Epstein. So many people tried and failed, legitimate labels like the UK’s Ace/Kent tried and failed. In an earlier era, it would be difficult to compile this stuff, if you were doing it largely by letter and very expensive long-distance phone calls from another country.
TM: Does the Internet make tracking this stuff down easier than 20 years ago?
RS: It makes it different, but not necessarily easier. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of information noise. I’m willing to do the legwork. I’m willing to go to the ends of the earth to find things. You could actually get in touch with the person [who owns the rights to the music] on Facebook, but very, very quickly these same people are now overwhelmed with junk mail in their Facebook accounts. So you try to send them a message, and they ignore it or they don’t even see it. I had that happen a couple times, where I would hear back from someone after months. I could’ve just sent them a letter and it would’ve gotten there in three days. I don’t even try to send messages through Facebook or email now. Also, people have almost unilaterally abandoned their home phone for cell phones. But there’s no national cell phone directory. So there’s so many ways that it’s actually become far more difficult.
TM: Was it easy to track down Abe Epstein?
RS: Epstein was as accessible as a human can get. Any bozo with a phone could get him on the line in two minutes because of his real estate offices. But that doesn’t make it any easier either, because there’s a lot of bozos. We’re a real record label—we’ve got almost 70 full-length releases on the market, our Syl Johnson box set was nominated for two Grammys—but over the phone, it all amounts to the same thing to them: “Show me the money.”
KS: Abe was listed in the phone book, but he was difficult to pin down: you never knew if you could reach him and it was difficult to keep him on the phone. He’d been approached by other labels over the years, but it was never at a point in his life when he felt like he wanted to work on it. We caught him right at the very end of his life. And I think he had mortality in mind. He passed away two weeks after we got the deal done, in April of last year.
TM: Did you contact other musicians outside of Epstein? What’s it like when they haven’t discussed this music in 20-30 years and you suddenly come along?
KS: Bobby Blackmon [who has one song on the collection] only recently returned to playing after retirement, so he was thrilled to find out that there were people out there interested in what he had done. The Commands [Dynamic’s best known act] were also excited. Due to members leaving the group because of military service, they just never got the shake that they deserved.
Some people hold on and it’s hard. Doc [aka Ricky Davilla] of Doc & Sal [who have four songs on the record] was bitter about his time, but he took the approach that now he could fix it, now he could right the wrongs and get this music out there nationally in a way that Abe was never able to do. Little Jr. Jesse [of Little Jr. Jesse & the Tear Drops] was one of the better performers on the label, but he wasn’t really ready to deal with that portion of his life. He had a lot of bitterness towards Abe that we couldn’t fix. You can’t fix everything. That cliché about time healing all wounds is a cliché. Being a musician at that time, pinning your hopes and dreams and your whole life on this identity that you create as a musician, only to not have those dreams come true, it’s heartbreaking. It’s hard for an artist to realize that it just wasn’t meant to be.
TM: What’s the best part about going down to San Antonio to do the research?
RS: I like the ready availability of carne asada grilled outside with charcoal grills. I pretty much only eat tacos when I’m down there.