When Matt Sullivan was at college in 1997, he studied in Madrid for six months. "I did an internship at a label called Munster, who do a lot of reissues—the Stooges, Suicide, New York Dolls, all that kind of stuff—for Europe, and I kept in contact," says the 28-year-old over a Thai lunch on a bright summer afternoon. A lifelong Seattle resident, Sullivan was already a fixture on the local scene—interning for Sub Pop and Loosegroove, promoting shows, working in radio— before his Spanish sojourn, and watching the mechanics of a reissue house helped prepare him for a future in dealing with the past.
Fast-forward five years. Sullivan has decided to finally act on a long-standing dream. "The goal since I was 16 was to start a record label," says Sullivan, who decided to launch his by reissuing the first two albums by the Last Poets, a group whose angry verse, declaimed over stark conga backdrops, was a progenitor of modern hip-hop. "In mid-2002, Munster started a label called Empty Soul," he says. "It has stuff like early Barry White, Ray Barretto, cool groove stuff. In the summer of '02, I told them I wanted to [reissue] the Last Poets, and they said that they were friends with people that own the rights to it. So they did the licensing and I did everything else—the packaging, the artwork, the promotion. I spent literally every day for, like, eight months on that project. It's the most comprehensive release we've ever done, other than this one."
"This one" is Wheedle's Groove: Seattle's Finest in Funk & Soul 1965–75, Light in the Attic's impressive new collection of the all-but-forgotten homegrown funk bands that sprouted up around the country in the wake of James Brown and Dyke and the Blazers, much the way garage-rock bands were inspired to form by the examples of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. (There are also three new cuts by modern-day ringers Misterholmes & the Brotherhood, the Clarence Mack Express, and Sharpshooters.)
This is a style that's generally eluded even the most complete histories of local music, but it was a vital, if mostly hidden, part of the early Seattle scene. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that that hoariest of Northwest rock staples, "Louie Louie," appears here, in obscure Bremerton trio the Topics' laid-back R&B version from 1971, complete with a hippie-soul hand-clap-and-bass-solo breakdown. It also doesn't seem coincidental that the song's vocal carries heavy overtones of another one-time Seattleite, Ray Charles. Also included are both sides of a 1969 single by Patrinell Staten—the current leader of the Total Experience Gospel Choir and recent SW cover star (see the July 21 issue)—that recently fetched $3,500 on eBay.
Wheedle's Groove is the culmination of Light in the Attic's aesthetic: finding and issuing ultraobscure records with fervent cult appeal. In the two years since the Last Poets reissue, Sullivan has put out discs from '60s psychedelic light-poppers the Free Design and Toronto R&B group Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy, as well as legendary drummer Bernard Purdie's soundtrack to Lialeh, a 1974 porn flick sometimes designated "the black Deep Throat."
But Wheedle's Groove is the label's grandest achievement. The disc was conceived and compiled by Seattle DJ and Sharpshooters member Mr. Supreme, who knows from obscurity—he has two decades of searching for rare records under his dirty fingernails. "I was digging for records and finding [this] stuff," he says. "I always bought funk and soul, so I'd find something that was from Seattle, and I thought there must be more—it couldn't have been just one person [making it], you know what I'm saying? So I just kind of started digging it out."
The first Seattle funk single Supreme ever bought was the Black on White Affair's "Bold Soul Sister, Bold Soul Brother," which opens Wheedle's Groove, backed with "Auld Lang Syne," which closes it. Supreme found it at a record fair at the Seattle Center in 1992. "A dealer had it for a dollar or 50 cents," he says. "I just picked it up because of the name. Then I heard the beat of the beginning [of 'Bold'] and I was like, 'I like this.'"
As he gradually discovered more, Supreme began to realize that no one had made an all-Seattle compilation. "Supreme came to me with these [tracks], plus dozens of others, so we just sifted through what we wanted, and I started calling everybody," says Sullivan. "That's what took a year. It was frustrating— I would call Supreme about once every two weeks and give him the update: 'This guy told me to go eat shit.'"
"Also, when he called out of the blue, they don't know who he is, and then they think [their record] must be worth a million dollars," says Supreme. "So they say, 'We want a million dollars.' It's like, 'Come on.'"
"The Wayne McGhie thing really helped," says Sullivan, "because finding him was the hardest thing I have ever had to do for this label, by far. I learned a lot."
That's one thing that separates Light in the Attic from a lot of small reissuers—Sullivan is dogged about getting permissions. "When we had our meeting, I said, I want to do this record—and I am gonna do it with you or without you," Supreme says with a laugh. "I knew with Matt it would come out the way it's supposed to. I would have probably bootlegged it and threw it out there. To me, it's about the music. And the local thing—that's why I twisted his arm so bad, 'cause I said, 'We're from here, we need to do this.'"
The best story of the album probably involves Cold, Bold & Together, who contribute two 1975 singles to Wheedle's Groove: "Stop Losing Your Chances," which is powered by frenetic drumming from Tony Gable, and "Somebody's Gonna Burn Ya," which moves toward disco. Ultraconfident, they make Seattle sound like an outpost of Oakland, whose Graham Central Station and Tower of Power were ruling funk at that point. At first, CB&T was an all-black band, and their early material was heavily race-conscious—their first single was titled "Dedication (to Our Wonderful Beautiful Black Sisters)," backed with "Hey, Hey, Devils and Fools."
Then a 17-year-old white saxophonist with a 4.0 GPA asked to join the band. "At first, they didn't want him in," says Sullivan. "Then they realized that all of their favorite bands were mixed, so it made sense." While plenty of the band remains successful in other professions, only one remains in the music business—the saxophonist, Kenny Gorelick, aka Kenny G. "He still keeps in touch with a lot of them," says Sullivan. "I was blown away when I heard that."
Wait a minute—Kenny G once had flavor?
"That's almost too much, man," DJ Supreme says with a laugh.
Wheedle's Groove CD release party, featuring Overton Berry, members of the Black on White Affair, Broham, Cold, Bold & Together, Cookin' Bag, Johnny Lewis, Robbie Hill's Family Affair, Pastor Patrinell Staten Wright, Ron Buford, Mr. Supreme, Dynomite D, and host Reggie Watts: Chop Suey, 9 p.m. Sat., Aug. 21. $10 adv.