Miami is known the world over as a city full of surprises. As a freelance music writer here for more than 20 years, I have become accustomed to expect some mind-blowing realignment of my perspective of this city every year. The last surprise happened about a year ago, when I learned the photographer of some of my favorite ‘70s glam rock albums lived here (read that article here). Now comes Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, a documentary that opens a portal to a ‘60s-era soul scene I never knew had existed in Miami.
Among those who also never knew about this distinctive music scene was the film’s co-director and writer Dennis Scholl. I dropped him an email to ask what inspired him to make this documentary. He wrote: “When a friend sent me the Número re-release of the Deep City catalog, knowing I loved soul music, l listened to it, and before I read the liner notes, I called him and said, ‘This is great, where is it from?’ My friend said, ‘Don’t you know? This is all from Miami.’ I was shocked.”
Eccentric Soul, Vol. 7: The Deep City Label is a diverse and amazing compilation beautifully preserved by the Chicago-based reissue label Número. It’s even available on vinyl. It features bombastic horn sections and swinging grooves that speak to the region’s Caribbean influence at an almost molecular level. There are also famous, gorgeous female voices by the likes of Helene Smith and Betty Wright, who went to levels of great notoriety in the early ‘70s with “Clean Up Woman” and was on the cutting edge of the disco scene.
Scholl could not believe the riches he found in the compilation. “I had lived here close to 50 years and never heard about it,” he says about the Deep City label. “The quality of music was so high that it sent me on this exploration of our soul scene that, as DJ Spam says in the film, had been virtually forgotten. The more I got into it, the more I felt a strong need to bring the work of these artists to the attention of our community, and thus began an almost four-year odyssey to make a documentary film about the birth of the Miami Sound.”
So he, along with co-directors Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle, made this documentary, which first premiered in South Florida at the Miami International Film Festival in 2014 and enjoyed a run at SXSW before airing on Miami’s public television station WLRN and won an Emmy. It’s a punchy, colorful examination of a time in Miami focused around the music released by the independent record label Deep City. The film features interviews with artists like the soulful songbird Helene Smith and legendary guitarist/vocalist Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, who both recorded for the label. Then there’s label co-founder and songwriter Willie “Peewee” Clarke, who grew up in Overtown during the years of segregation in Miami. Also featured is Clarence Reid, who also recorded for the label, co-wrote many songs with Clarke and continues to perform in Miami as the notorious and original shock rapper Blowfly. Then there’s Arnold “Hoss” Albury who brought in fellow members of the Florida A&M University marching band and added big arrangements to the pop songs released by the label.
In the documentary, Clarke credits label co-founder Johnny Pearsall, who owned a record shop in Overtown, for coming up with the label’s name. He says it was because Miami was the deepest city in the South. In 1963, Deep City was the first black-owned record label in Florida, notes Clarke in the documentary, and it spawned some slight hits in its time, which got lots of regional airplay but also some airtime on national TV shows like “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand.”
Deep City is a well-rounded film, featuring additional testimonials by Miami’s well-respected music historian Jeff Lemlich, Miami’s TK Records’ founder Henry Stone and, as Scholl noted earlier, Andrew Yeomanson, a.k.a. DJ Le Spam of Spam All Stars fame, among others. Yeomanson is real proud to be associated with this documentary. “The film provides the uninitiated with a snapshot of a crucial time in Miami’s musical development and the characters who made it happen,” he says about the documentary. “Most people in Miami had no idea that there was a soul scene here in the 1960s until recently.”
Miami will get a chance to get re-acquainted with the label on Sunday afternoon during a special screening at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, as part of FilmGate Interactive, a workshop-oriented film festival in its third year. I was invited by the festival to host a Q&A with Scholl and Clarke after the screening. Before the film, DJ Le Spam will be spinning ‘60s Miami soul records as people walk into the screening, so if you have tickets get there early.
Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound runs 56 minutes and will screen Sunday, Feb. 8 at 4 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The screening is nearly sold out. For tickets jump through this link. All images here are courtesy of the producer, WLRN, except the image of the vinyl of Eccentric Soul Vol. 7, which was provided by Número Records.