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Book excerpt: Florida Soul, From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band by John Capouya

Florida Soul

John Capouya

Editor’s note: Excerpted from Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band by John Capouya. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Growing up in New York and New Jersey I was drawn to the soul music of the 1960s and 1970s. When Betty Wright came on the radio singing her hit “Clean Up Woman” or when one by Sam and Dave or Timmy Thomas came on the radio, I turned those songs up. I especially remember banging on dashboards to the driving rhythm and blasting horns of “Funky Nassau” by the strangely named group, the Beginning of the End. But the DJs on WABC and WNJR (in Newark) didn’t say -- had no reason to say -- “You know, Betty Wright is from Florida” or “‘Funky Nassau’ is on the Alston label, based in Miami.”

I was too young to get caught up in the global outbreak of Chubby Checker’s song “The Twist” in the early 1960s. But millions who did, from San Francisco to Scandinavia, had no idea this little hip-shimmy of a dance and the song celebrating it almost certainly originated in the black enclave around Central Avenue in Tampa. R&B singer Hank Ballard wrote that tune, and first recorded it, in Florida.

Until I began teaching at the University of Tampa I had never heard of the late Henry Stone -- the Berry Gordy or leading impresario of Florida soul. As I discovered, he recorded virtually all the important soul artists who came from or passed through Miami at his T.K. Productions, from Ray Charles, James Brown, and Sam and Dave to Betty Wright and including KC and the Sunshine Band. (Both Casey and Rick Finch were working for him when they cofounded that group.) This state’s soul yield was not as concentrated as in Memphis, where two labels, Stax and Hi, essentially held sway. Yet, especially in the 1970s, Miami still dominated, through its size and stature, and through Stone. In 1976 an Associated Press story on T.K. went out across the country with the headline “‘Miami Sound’ Dominates Floors,” meaning dance floors.

Artists and groups with Florida roots have certainly earned respect and renown. But that glory is specific, individualized; it doesn’t acknowledge any shared context or the ways and reasons they became so accomplished where they did. One likely underlying reason is that some important artists, including Ray Charles and Sam and Dave, lay the foundations of their success in Florida but gained their greatest fame after they’d left the state. Sam and Dave, for example, broke through nationally after they teamed up with songwriters/producers Isaac Hayes and David Porter at Stax.

An even more important reason why this state’s contributions go unrecognized, I believe, is that there is no one distinct Florida soul sound, nothing as identifiable as, say, the Memphis soul stew. Instead, there’s a unique amalgam of styles, trends and regional approaches that other states and soul enclaves are hard-pressed to match. That lack of one metanarrative -- or the profusion of sonic narratives -- may actually be the essential Florida soul story.

No doubt the state’s enormous size contributed to this musical diversity. Due to geography and their Alabaman influences and collaborators, the music of James and Bobby Purify, created in the Panhandle, has been called Flora-Bama soul. Although they did hard-driving soul tunes as well, some of their work with Muscle Shoals songwriters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham has pop and country flavorings. The deliberate, forlorn song the Purifys are most famous for, “I’m Your Puppet,” sounds nothing like the driving funk their contemporary Lavell Kamma, of Jacksonville, put out nightly on Florida’s chitlin’ circuit. And in neither of those cities would you be likely to hear soul music with Caribbean inflections, as you would in Miami.

It’s not just due to geography; this variety of styles in Florida soul is also based in the differing sensibilities of individual producers. Papa Don Schroeder, for example, who produced “Puppet,” had a way of combining deep soul and pop sweetness that simply clicked, musically and commercially. Willie Clarke of Deep City Records in Miami wanted to hear lots of horns and plenty of percussion, sounds he helped produce when he was one of the Marching 100, the famed band of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU). Helene Smith, the Deep City singer, says their Miami soul label emulated “that full, kick-butt sound, like the FAMU marching band with all the horns.”

The Miami sound that came out of Stone’s T.K. Productions in the 1970s is the most distinct and dominant musical aesthetic, a product of the stellar house band or regular studio musicians there. That group included Timmy Thomas on organ and Willie Hale, aka Little Beaver, who remains a cult figure among guitarists. “Funky Nassau” and the junkanoo music that KC and the Sunshine Band drew on show how island culture enriched the Miami sound, and of course in that location there were Latin influences as well. Little Beaver, who’s from Arkansas, said “the Latin flavor was something I picked up on in Miami.” He already had the African part of the Afro-Cuban musical blend inside him, the guitarist noted.

Willie Clarke of Deep City (who later worked with Stone at T.K.) went even broader, including northward, in describing the acoustic admixture he contributed to: “The Miami sound is stirred up with the ingredients from the Bahamas, Jamaica, Alabama, Georgia -- all mixed together.” Steve Alaimo, a Miami-based blue-eyed soul performer and T.K. producer, even detects an element of rock and roll in this South Florida fusion. He calls it “white-boy bass,” referring to Ron Bogdon, who played on many T.K. hits. (Chocolate Perry, the other T.K. bass stalwart, is African American, though his nickname derives from his sweet tooth, not from his skin color.)

For more information on Capouya at UT and his books, visit his personal website.

83 Degrees periodically reprints excerpts from new books about life in Florida and/or by Florida authors. If you are an author or publisher and wish to submit an excerpt for consideration, please contact 83 Degrees.

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