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Published: 2009/02/17
by Brian Ferdman

Local Customs: Downriver Revival – various artists

Numero Group

Modern technology has given the amateur musician a wealth of vital tools. With portable devices and simple computer programs, virtually anyone can record their own album, quality be-dammed. Of course, it was not always this easy. Long before independent, private recording studios existed, amateur musicians were at the mercy of record labels. As a result, most musicians never saw their works preserved on wax. However, such a predicament was not a concern for the talented residents of Ecorse, Michigan, a small town located seven miles downriver from Detroit. Those lucky musicians of Ecorse could always turn to Felton Williams’ Double U Sound.

Williams, an employee of the Ford Motor Company, had a way with electronics. Salvaging old circuit boards and burned-out radios, Williams loved re-wiring devices and creating things from scratch, whether they were televisions or amplifiers. After being mesmerized by the sound of the pedal steel guitar in the Church of the Living God as a child, Williams set about building his own instrument. Upon completing that task, he took his vast electrical training at Ford and put it to use by designing and building a studio in his basement. While other studios were built with state-of-the-art equipment, Williams used his limited funds to jury-rig a unique setup with the intent of getting the most professional sound possible for the least amount of money.

His talent was never charged for use of his space; rather the artists signed over the recordings to Williams for his own use. He tried in vain to craft that big hit, but fame and fortune eluded him, as his records never made it that far past the city limits of Ecorse. That’s not to say that his artists lacked talent because the many people he discovered in church certainly had skills. Unfortunately, Williams was just largely ignorant of pop culture, and when his studio opened in 1967, he had never been to a nightclub. His knowledge of music essentially stopped at the church’s doors, and as a result, his recordings have a sort of preserved, fossilized nature to them, music created with little if any awareness of the cultural revolution that was sweeping the airwaves at the time.

The musicians who walked through the doors of Double U Sound came from all over the musical spectrum, so Williams’ setup small labels that would correspond to each specific genre. As broad as these tastes may have been, the tie that bound these musicians together was a deep spirituality. The Coleman Family’s Carter Family-like “Peace On Earth,” the rich, front-porch soul of Calvin Cooke’s “Walk With Me,” the brazen, bluesy howl of Shirley Ann Lee’s “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and the smooth glide of The Revelations’ doo-wop/gospel blend on “Take Care of Us” all share a deep reverence, and what these tracks lack in polish, they make up for in spirit.

When Williams’ exploits drift away from vocals, the lack of polish isn’t so bad. The Organics’ “Footsumpin’” has a funky, countrified groove, while the Bobby Cook Quartette’s “Riding High” could have been a soul jazz classic. The Burgess Band’s 45-second untitled jam burns with untamed energy, and Bobby Cook and the Explosions’ own untitled improv seethes with a dark passion not heard on any of the other tracks.

While many of these songs clearly lack commercial appeal, there are a few numbers that could have been hits with the proper marketing or timing. The Combinations’ “While You Were Gone” is easily the most commercial of the recordings here, and its sound evokes The Temptations and The Four Tops, who were seeing a great deal of success seven miles to the north. Junior Mays Group’s “Round n’ Round” has the makings of a doo-wop gem, albeit one that arrived several years after the genre had faded into the sunset. The most adventurous track is The Young Generation’s “Running Mod.” A straight up, late 1960s punk song, this track could have easily come from the repertoire of the nearby iconoclasts, The Stooges, and in a way, its inclusion almost explains how a gritty, envelope-pushing band like The Stooges was able to survive in an area known primarily for funk and soul.

Numero Group has culled together 24 of the best tracks from Double U Sound for this release. In addition, a short film on the history of the studio is included. Packages also include a DVD with over 200 additional tracks, jams, and outtakes, not made available to reviewers. There is, however, some very interesting music on this CD, particularly if you appreciate music made with passion and soul.

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