This month, the Chicago-based Numero Group released a compilation of funk and soul songs originally put out by Kansas City record label, Forte, in the late 1960s and '70s — Eccentric Soul: The Forte Label came out this week on vinyl and CD.
Numero works mainly with regional soul labels, focusing on specific cities like St. Louis, Mo. Atlanta, Ga. and now Kansas City, Mo. Chuck Haddix, host of KCUR program, Fish Fry and Director of UMKC’s Marr Sound Archives, has been helping Numero with their research on Forte. He says the album follows the evolution in music style from soul to funk, between 1967 and 1977.
"You’ve got The Rayons, with the group sound. Then you’ve got Everyday People doing 'Super Black' when James Brown released '[Say it Loud—I’m] Proud to be Black,'" says Haddix.
Eugene Smiley, blues and R&B musician, says that's exactly what Kansas City folks were listening to back in the '60s and '70s, when he was part of the local music scene.
"Blues was there but it wasn’t quite as effective as R&B. Back in the day, you actually felt the music," says Smiley. "You had the music that made you feel like you wanted to jump, and you had the music that made you feel like you wanted to drink."
The Kansas City sound was distinct with its use of the saxophone, says Allan Bell, a local booking agent in from that time. But Smiley says Kansas City's distinction goes even further than that.
“We kind of followed in [other cities'] footsteps, but we did it our way. We wrote songs, but we wrote them differently," says Smiley. "We didn’t write them on the same formula that other cities did. Over the years, music has changed. It’s not like that anymore. We'll probably never see that type of music again, anywhere.”
The best-known voice on the compilation is probably that of Kansas City, Kan. native, Marva Whitney, who died in late 2012. Before joining the Forte label, and marrying its founder Ellis Taylor, Marva Whitney was Soul Sister No. 1 to Soul Brother No. 1, James Brown. Smiley says even before Brown discovered, everyone in Kansas City knew Whitney would make it to the top.
"She just had it. It was a natural. When she walked on stage, from start to finish, it was show time," says Smiley.
Ellis Taylor was always looking for a hit to launch the Forte label, but none of the recordings never really made it big. But Haddix, Smiley and Bell agree. All of these musicians stand the test of time.
"These are every bit as good as the recordings that became national hits... anyone of these could have broke out, established a label. They’re kind of like lost gems," says Haddix.
The record store Zebedee’s RPM will celebrate the release with performances by Eugene Smiley and some of the original musicians on the Forte label this Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.