Ken Shipley of the Numero Group likes to say that the company presents an alternate version of music history--one written by the losers. Back in February 2003, when he and co-owner Tom Lunt decided to start a reissue label, Shipley already had good reason to sympathize with dreamers who'd come up short.
Tree Records, a label he'd started at age 17, had run out of money and folded in 2000 after amassing a catalog of nearly three dozen releases by the likes of Pinback, Jen Wood, and A-Set. "We had some mild success, but it ended up going out of business in a horribly painful way," Shipley says.
For two years Shipley worked as the Chicago A and R director, creative consultant, and product manager for Massachusetts-based Rykodisc. But in January 2003 he lost his job when the company restructured. Still freshly unemployed, he was aimlessly pushing a cart around the Whole Foods near North and Clybourn late one night when he ran into Lunt, an ad exec he'd met years before at a record store. At the time they'd bonded over their mutual love of old power pop, but they hadn't seen each other since.
Lunt, now 52, was likewise at loose ends: he'd just returned from a difficult year in Warsaw, where he'd overseen Polish marketing efforts for McDonald's as a creative director for DDB. "It was a pretty miserable experience," he says. "When I got back I felt like I had post-traumatic stress syndrome." Before DDB he'd worked at Leo Burnett for 13 years, handling campaigns for Reebok, Coke, and Harris Bank, among others, but his first love was music--in the 70s and 80s he'd been one of the five original employees for Saint Louis indie music retailer Streetside Records, and he'd long wanted to run a label. "I went off into advertising," he says, "yet my heroes were always people who ran record companies: Ahmet Ertegun, Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, Stan Cornyn."
Shipley and Lunt turned out to share a vision for a reissue label: it would focus on genuinely obscure artists and imprints in a way that would appeal to a general audience.
Most reissue labels, the pair felt, invest very little money or care in their releases. "The liner notes are bad, the graphics are awful," says Lunt. "There's just no imagination or care behind it. And that's not what's going to attract a larger audience. You have to present it in a way that's appealing and provides some context for the music."
Numero's CDs would have uniform-looking spines and slipcovers, similar to vintage Verve and Actuel LPs, they decided, and they'd go the whole nine yards on the artwork, liner notes, and overall presentation. To free up money for this lavish treatment, they chose to bypass traditional distribution methods and operate only on the Web (numerogroup.com).
Shipley and Lunt run Numero like an art gallery, enlisting a guest "curator" for each release. Their first choice was another old record-store acquaintance of Shipley's: Chicago DJ Rob Sevier, a music collector, researcher, and cofounder of the Milwaukee electronic label Wobblyhead.
In April of 2003, Sevier arrived at Shipley's apartment with a handful of rare soul singles. He cued up "You Can't Blame Me," credited to Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr. "And after the record was over, there was this silence," says Shipley. "I was just blown away."
The song had been released by a short-lived independent label called Capsoul, run by Bill Moss, a radio DJ in Columbus, Ohio. Founded in 1970, Capsoul put out regional hits by groups like the Four Mints and for a time looked like Columbus's answer to Motown; when Moss lost his financial backing in '74, though, it quickly folded. Years later the master tapes for every record in its catalog were destroyed in a flood. Crushed, Moss wanted to erase the label from his memory, so he loaded his remaining stock into his car, drove back to the factory, and had the vinyl melted down and recycled. He went on to become a notable figure in Columbus politics: a Democratic nominee for mayor, an urban activist, and an outspoken school board member.
Shipley contacted Moss within days. "Two weeks later we were in Columbus doing a deal," he says. "I felt some real parallels between his experience and mine. We were both failures in a way, and this was the second time around for both of us."
For the next six months Shipley, Lunt, and Sevier (by then a minority owner of Numero) spent most of their time tracking down pristine copies of Capsoul's releases--12 singles and one LP--so that the reissue could be compiled from the best sources available. During this same period Shipley secured the rights to a second compilation, a reissue from 80s French-Belgian electro-samba outfit Antena, a project of his that'd been shelved while he was at Ryko.
Last March the Numero Group released Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label and Antena: Camino del Sol. The response was dramatic. The Capsoul disc electrified soul aficionados, and soon mainstream outlets like Salon, Tracks, and Fortune were paying attention. A lengthy profile on NPR last month generated so much demand that Numero started selling to stores as well.
"For me it goes back to how artists like Os Mutantes and Shuggie Otis came into the marketplace and sold lots of records," says Shipley. "People latched onto [the reissues], and then all of a sudden they became dinner-party records. Soccer moms were playing them for their friends, or you're hearing them in films or TV commercials or on NPR."
Numero's next releases, scheduled for late October, are a compilation of rarely heard power pop from the 70s and 80s, curated by Jordan Oakes, editor of the defunct Saint Louis fanzine Yellow Pills, and an anthology of material from Chicago's Bandit Records, a soul label run by producer Arrow Brown in the late 60s and early 70s. Brown's artist roster was an oddball collection of his girlfriends, children, wives, and other family members.
The Bandit masters were also destroyed years ago, so the Numero team has been scouring record stores and searching eBay to procure salvageable copies. But Shipley doesn't mind all the effort. "For these labels and artists it's probably the only opportunity they're ever going to have," he says. "It'd be a disrespect to do it half-ass."
"Not to get cosmic, but there's some justice to [us] releasing this stuff," adds Sevier. "These were people who didn't have opportunities, and so they tried to make their own. And maybe they never had huge success, but now their efforts are finally coming back to them."
Craig Garber, 1971-2004
Local drummer Craig Garber, of skate punks Monster Trux and the "cine-metal" band Twenty Four Frames, was killed in a construction accident earlier this month. Garber, aka GMC, was working as a carpenter at a building site in Lyons on September 11 when a forklift dropped a crate he was standing in and he fell 40 feet. He was 32. His bandmates hope to organize a tribute concert at the Double Door.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.