Fueled by a combination of dedicated crate-digging, obsessive curating and striking packaging sense, Chicago-based independent reissue label Numero Group is currently riding high.
The company has already sold nearly 5,000 copies of its November release “Complete Mythology,” a lavish four-CD/six-LP boxed set devoted to the ’60s recordings of the much-admired yet relatively unsung soul vocalist Syl Johnson. Press raves included a lengthy feature in the New York Times.
In December, six-year-old Numero garnered its first Grammy nomination for the packaging of its 2009 release “Light…On the South Side,” which combines an elegant hardbound book of photos shot in Chicago’s South Side clubs during the ’70s by Michael Abramson with “Pepper’s Jukebox,” a two-LP compilation of vintage funk-blues.
Numero was founded in 2004 by former Rykodisc A&R man Ken Shipley, ex-Doyle Dane Bernbach ad man Tom Lunt and indie distribution and label veteran Rob Sevier.
“I had an idea for a label, based on what I’d been trying to do at Ryko, which was to analyze deep catalog and find the niche market that labels like Rhino Handmade or (England’s) Soul Jazz or Honest Jon’s were tapping into at the time,” recalls Shipley.
One of Numero’s first releases was a collection by the ’80s French electro-pop act Antena, which Shipley had been preparing for Rykodisc. Since then, the label has dipped into genres as diverse as country gospel, gospel funk, Afro-funk, power pop, folk and Bahamanian soul.
But the label’s reputation is based on its series of “Eccentric Soul” releases dedicated to the music issued by a plethora of little-known indie R&B, soul and funk labels. Rather than offering scattershot, artist-based compilations of the music, Numero chose to focus on the commercial entities that released it.
“The label story is a way to take several artists who never made albums or would never make albums and thread them together so that they all (exist) in one place,” Shipley explains. “What ties all these things together (are the producers and label owners) who had the vision to bring (the artists) in. They’re gritty guys. … They’re guys who were headstrong and were doing things their own way.”
Numero Group 001 was the “Eccentric Soul” package devoted to Columbus, Ohio’s Capsoul Records, still the label’s best seller. Since then, the label has returned to Columbus for its Prix Records retrospective and ranged through locales like Atlanta (Tragar/Note), Miami (Deep City), Detroit (Big Mack) and Chicago (Bandit).
The Johnson compilation succeeded 2007’s two-CD “Eccentric Soul” compilation from Chicago’s Twinight label, which issued some of the singer’s finest ’60s sides.
“The original idea was to do the complete Twinight recordings,” Shipley says, “but Syl had been embroiled with the rights holder for the Twinight label over the rights to his recordings. … We kept kicking it down the road and said, when Syl is done with his lawsuit, we’ll re-explore it. When the lawsuit ended, we just started hounding Syl. We said, ‘We’re the guys to do this. We get it. We’re fans. We know how to make this record.’ And finally he relented.”
Similarly, Numero pursued “Light…On the South Side” photographer Abramson after a story about his astonishing shots of clubgoers at Windy City nightspots like Pepper’s Hideout — shot in the atmospheric manner of Brassai, the master chronicler of ’20s Paris — appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
“We started coming up against a big problem: We’re not a book distributor,” Shipley says. So the label built its set as a kind of soundtrack to the scene, “building on all the flyers and ephemera that we got from Michael, which he’d been collecting off the tables since 1974 or ’75,” says Shipley. “We wanted to make an experience where you get a bottle of Crown Royal, you put the LP on and you look through the book.”
While most of Numero’s efforts last year were devoted to producing the Johnson set, Shipley says the label will focus on “a quantity of quality” in 2011.
In this regard, the Numero triumvirate is plotting another mammoth dual-format package for later in the year: a box comprising three or four CDs and six LPs surveying the Boddie Recording Co., a black-owned Cleveland enterprise that encompassed a studio, pressing plant and six imprints.
Numero Group sees its esoteric, painstaking archival endeavors as distantly removed from today’s quick-hit mentality. “We’re not making records to sell for only 30 days or six months or whatever the media cycle is,” says Shipley. “The idea is to make things that people will want to buy forever.”