Various Artists

Big Top Soul Cellar

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This collection brings together 30 sides from New York's premier independent soul label, Big Top, begun in 1959 and closely affiliated with similar sounds from pre-Motown labels in Detroit. They also registered a hit with the original recording of "Runaway" by Del Shannon. While that smash isn't included here, it doesn't matter a whit. Here are two-and-a-half-dozen classic underground soul singles by the great Lou Johnson, Joann Courcy, the Volumes, the Dynamics, Sarah Cooke, Buddy & Stacey, and plenty of others. The sound is decidedly in the Motown vein, very urban, a bit on the sweet side, but full of a rawness in the mix that belies the pop edges of these tunes. One listen to Courcy's "I Got the Power," Bobbie Smith's "Wanted," or even Gerri Grainger's "Breakdown" offers a scintillating portrait of a label loaded with talent, great songs, and killer production techniques, but without the distribution to make it happen on the same scale that Motown cracked -- which is not to say that all of these Northern soul masterpieces weren't heard in their day, because they were (at least regionally). The exuberant soulful swing of "Are You Putting Me on the Shelf" by Don & Juan prefigures Mel & Tim's "Backfield in Motion" by at least a decade; it also features heavily in the arrangements of early rollicking sides by Marvin Gaye and the Four Tops. The band Danny Wilson formed its entire sound based on the vocals and arrangements from Lou Johnson singles. In all these tracks is the revelation of soul music's power to remain timeless in a dark and cynical age. Guaranteed to have you swinging it with your honey on the dancefloor and in your heart, if not your basement.

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