Funk, Revisited

Luv 'n' Haight's 50th release adds to local music lore

"This is the shit. This is what it's all about," says a scruffy-faced "Cool" Chris Veltri. The fabled crate-digger and proprietor of SF's legendary vinyl emporium Groove Merchant is referring to one of his recent finds, procured on a trip to Austin, Texas. Casually, he eases an LP from a record jacket that says "Houston Talent Show Expo '82," then deftly places the wax (which Veltri paid $100 for a sealed copy of without listening to it beforehand) on a Technics 1200 turntable located on top of the sales counter. A slithery, shimmery, but quite obscure funk groove oozes out of the monitors; the song sounds a little like early Cameo. Veltri lets it play for a couple of minutes, then slides his recent acquisition back into the jacket, having made his point.

Joining Veltri at the Groove Merchant are Justin Torres and Andrew Jervis, both of them esteemed crate-diggers in their own right. They've assembled at the Haight St. rare funk mecca (which earned a shout-out on the Beastie Boys' "Professor Booty," back in the Check Your Head era) to discuss Bay Area Funk 2, the second volume in a series of little-known-but-hella-funky tunes from the '60s and '70s, all recorded by local artists — some of whom went on to fame and acclaim, and some of whom quietly faded away.

To Torres, the Bay Area funk sound is "universal," but due to its plethora of influences — everything from sanctified gospel vocal arrangements to hard-edged Texas-style guitar to smoothly syncopated Latin percussion — it's also hard to precisely define, unlike the Motown sound or the Memphis sound. Generally speaking, the East Bay scene tended to be more blues-oriented, and the SF scene, which centered around the Fillmore district, had what Veltri describes as a "strong jazz element," yet all of those ingredients sometimes blended together. "I could never really pinpoint it," Veltri admits, adding, "it has that little extra something."

Bay Area Funk 2 is a special record in more ways than one. It's clearly a labor of love for Torres, the Funkcompiler and a collector who specializes in local music. He painstakingly tracked down many of the artists (or their heirs) to obtain licensing clearances. Some of the performers, he says, hadn't heard their own music in 30 years, and in some cases, didn't get paid for their work the first time around. After being involved with the successful Bay Area Funk 1, Torres says he wanted the follow-up to be "bigger and more obscure." Thus, there's a wider range of styles on the sophomore volume; the up-tempo blues and James Brown-esque R&B that dominated the first record are still there, along with acid jazz-y instrumentals, Latin fusion throwdowns, mutated Motownish vocal arrangements, and repeat appearances by then-12-year-old singing sensation Little Denise Stevenson and still-active "red hot momma" Sugar Pie deSanto.

The album is also the milestone 50th release on Luv 'n' Haight, the reissue label (which later morphed into Ubiquity records) that grew out of the Groove Merchant in the early '90s — long before Wax Poetics magazine, the Now and Again label, Sole-Sides.com, and DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist's "Brainfreeze" tour expanded the crate-digger subculture into a thriving genre of its own. Veltri and Jervis both have a lot of history in the dusty, slightly musky shop, filled with enough collectable vinyl to make an eBay fanatic go broke. Veltri took over from original owners Michael and Jody McFadin, two DJs and funk aficionados who went on to found Ubiquity, while Jervis worked at Groove Merchant before becoming the label's A&R man.

Digging for funk treasures to savor and possibly even reissue "is an endless mining operation," Jervis relates. "The good thing about the Bay is that it never ends. Look at what happened when Justin discovered Darondo," he adds, referring to Luv 'n' Haight's recent critically acclaimed release by the long-forgotten Bay Area soul man, a contemporary of both Sly Stone and Fillmore Slim. While Veltri, Jervis, and Torres have been vinyl archaeologists for decades, latecomers have started to catch up; "in the last two-three years," Jervis says, "there's been a big revival" of classic funk — the more obscure, the better. A true crate-digger or funk purist is more than happy to leave overly familiar Ohio Players, Parliament, and Rick James tracks to major-label reissue compilations, preferring instead the joy of discovering a great record that for some reason never charted.

Among the gems on Bay Area Funk 2 are "Plenty Action" by Soft Touch, a gentle funk groove whose vocal provides instruction on the proper way to make love to a woman: You got to be sweet and make 'em want to feel good/ make her feel better than she thought she could; "Move in the Room" by Dawn & Sunset, a frantic boogaloo with a winning combination of Hammond B-3 organ and chicken-scratch guitar; "Poor Sad Child" by the Windjammers, which picks up where the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" left off, upping the funk quotient considerably; and the Ray Camacho Band's "Si Si Puede," a killer Latin-tinged jam with a hard-driving feel. Adding to the record's historical significance is "Ebony" by Project Soul, a band out of Vallejo High School whose lead singer, Michael Cooper, later became the voice of the Bay's highly commercially successful '70s funk outfit, ConFunkShun. As Jervis explains, "when you're really digging, eventually you end up joining the dots."

 
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