Paradise of Bachelors, the North Carolina-based label curated and run by Brendan Greaves and Jason Perlmutter, is new to the block but with their first release, Said I Had A Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee, 1960-1988, they come off like seasoned pros. Said I Had A Vision collects the work of legendary Shelby, North Carolina jack-of-all-trades David Lee and everything about this release from the excellently curated track listing to the exhaustive liner notes makes this essential for fans of Soul, Funk, Gospel, and Northern Soul.
Recently we chatted with Brendan and Jason about their label, the recently released Said I Had A Vision anthology, and the rich musical history of the Carolinas. Awesomeness ensued.
OK, a few questions right off the bat: Tell us about Paradise of Bachelors? What inspired you to start the label? And lastly, how did you discover David Lee’s music and what made you want to release his work?
David Lee among his corn (Photo courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors)
BRENDAN: The origin of Paradise of Bachelors resides in the story of how we met David Lee and in turn, each other, so these two questions are best answered together. In 2008, I had just completed my graduate degree in folklore, and I had a gig conducting field research on the musical history of Cleveland County, North Carolina for the Earl Scruggs Center and Don Gibson Theater in Shelby. Those facilities named for Cleveland County’s native sons give you a sense of how rich the musical traditions are in those North/South Carolina borderlands west of Charlotte. A local musician named Ray Harper—close friend and sideman to Marvin Gaye and college roommate and bandmate of Maceo Parker and Jesse Jackson—referred me to Mr. Lee, about whom I knew nothing other than what Mr. Harper told me, that he used to own a record store in Shelby called Washington Sound as well as three independent record labels.
I interviewed David, and I found the untold story of his career fascinating. During our conversation, he made a confusing comment about how we had already spoken on the phone months earlier, which was not the case. It turned out that Jason had independently contacted Mr. Lee to inquire about the 45s he had released on his Impel, Washington Sound, and SCOP labels, and David had reasonably assumed we were the same person—it was simpler to believe that there was just one youngish white guy from the Chapel Hill/Durham area suddenly curious about his music, not two separate people. I was aware of Jason’s work as a DJ, record collector, and historian of Carolina soul music—his website, carolinasoul.org, is a wonderful resource—and we had friends in common, but we had never met. David Lee brought us together, and the natural decision to found a label to reissue his life’s work followed soon thereafter. We both continue to speak to David on a weekly basis, and cultivating our friendship with him and his family, catalyzing some long overdue recognition for his career, and providing occasions for him to perform again after a decades-long hiatus have been the most rewarding results of the project.
Jason and Brendan with David Lee, in the center proudly displaying his North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award
As soul, gospel, and country music fans, David’s music attracted us for aesthetic reasons, because he is a compelling writer and sensitive producer. But Jason and I find the cultural contexts of his work equally significant, and that narrative was important to us—we had an opportunity, a responsibility, to tell the tale of one man’s life in music, and we wanted to do it right. As a record label and record shop owner, David belongs to a proud tradition of African American music entrepreneurs and businesspeople who thrived in communities across the South during the 1960s and 1970s, both during the Jim Crow era and in its equally stormy aftermath.
David Lee with the original Washington Sound record shop sign. (Photo courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors)
The former Washington Sound on Buffalo Street in Shelby. David Lee ran his record shop in this building from the early 1970s through 1995. (Photo by Jason Perlmutter)
As proprietor of Washington Sound, Shelby’s premiere source for African American popular music, and in his role as record label owner, he helped not only to advance the agenda of African American businesses in North Carolina, but likewise to disseminate both local and national soul and gospel recordings that articulated the enjoined personal and political concerns of African Americans. The regional focus of his production work and independent releases—all of the artists hail from within about a seventy mile radius—underscores the significance of African American vernacular music not only to the national discourse of the Civil Rights movement, but likewise to its specific regional iterations. Impel, Washington Sound, and SCOP both documented and defined the expressive sound of Piedmont North Carolina. Mr. Lee’s collaboration with teenage interracial (or “salt and pepper”) band the Constellations, his recording of white lounge singer Bill Allen with the African American group the Masters of Soul, and his own self-identification as a country music songwriter, singer, and stylist demonstrate his persistent commitment to implementing his position as an artist and community leader to nudge tense racial relations towards acceptance and the integration of working musicians and audiences. David digs Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Charley Pride, and Bill Monroe as much as he does Otis Redding and James Brown, and that’s something that upends our normative and naïve American notions of culture and taste—I find that really interesting. He persevered despite criticism of his countrified tastes by the African American community, much as the Constellations persevered despite criticism and hostility from some white audiences.
The Constellations circa early 60's (with the Prom Queen!) (Photo courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors)
From the outset, we’ve broadly defined Paradise of Bachelors as a label, a soundsystem, and an archive dedicated to documenting, curating, and releasing under-recognized musics of the American vernacular, with an emphasis on the South. So in addition to making records, we are also engaged in DJing, music and folklife consultation, research and writing. Records represent our primary vehicle for producing artifacts, and for us, vinyl is the most sensible way to do that. Music is mechanically and physically encoded in vinyl, so the data is physical. That’s conceptually appealing, but so is the idea that, when the impending digital apocalypse renders much contemporary audio media obsolete, enterprising folks can still build a record player with a wheel, a needle, and a horn. But ultimately, we hope that our work can have impacts beyond the production and dissemination of more stuff, more records, and we’re proud to have been able to work with Mr. Lee to allow him to pursue a second career later in life.
Tell us about Said I Had A Vision, your anthology of David Lee’s releases.
JASON: This 14-track album covers the highlights of David Lee’s forays into songwriting, production, and performance, which spanned nearly 40 years, all the while based out of the Shelby, North Carolina area, and which led him to explore soul, funk, r&b, gospel, lounge, and country music. These efforts began in the late 1950s, when Mr. Lee made his first recording of his own voice, accompanied by piano and drums, and shopped it around to multiple publishers across the Southeast. This autobiographical song “I’m Going to Keep on Trying” ambiguously addressed both romantic heartbreak and repeated rejections from the music industry. In 1961 or 1962, the tune was finally picked up by publishing company Active and received broad regional airplay courtesy of the Air record label out of Miami, Florida. Mr. Lee had only intended the bare-bones track as a demo and was disappointed with the showing. Within the next year or so, “Keep on Trying” would be re-recorded by a proper singing group and full band, the Ambassadors of Shelby, and released on Air. Although neither of these recordings is represented on Said I Had a Vision—we actually haven’t ever come across David’s demo, and we chose to focus on the output of David’s own labels, they are worthy of mention for they mark the beginning of his ventures in music production.
Over the next several years, up until the mid-1960s, Mr. Lee launched his own record company with three different releases by the Constellations, a local group who had positioned themselves as rivals to the Ambassadors and who are represented on Said I Had a Vision by two different selections. One of them, Mr. Lee’s stately and airy romantic dialogue “If Everybody,” graced the A-side of their first 45 on his new Impel imprint and would become one of the most enduring numbers in his catalog. After the Constellations were split up by the Vietnam War, Mr. Lee found himself with no flagship artist, and he began offering his songwriting and production services to artists outside of Cleveland County. In 1968 or 1969, his collaboration with the Yakety Yaks of Spartanburg, South Carolina yielded “Soul Night,” and this funk tune became the debut record on his new label Washington Sound, named for the shop and the theme song for radio advertisements that promoted his business. More than four decades later, we have positioned it as the opening track on our retrospective album.
Sample of the liner notes for "Said I Had A Vision"
Yakety Yaks “Soul Night” (YouTube clip)
Mr. Lee’s next collaboration would net the greatest commercial success of his career. In 1971, he met Ann Sexton, a young vocalist who fronted the Masters of Soul band of Greenville, South Carolina. Sexton’s recording of a new David Lee demo entitled “You’re Letting Me Down” came out briefly on Impel (we’ve compiled both this track and the B-side “You’ve Been Gone Too Long,” which is favored on the Northern soul scene). The mournful ballad quickly captured the attention of legendary disc jockey “John R.” Richbourg of radio station WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. Richbourg re-released the 45 on his nationally-distributed label Seventy-Seven Records and sold around 90,000 copies.
Candid photo of Ann Sexton by David Lee. (Photo courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors)
Ann Sexton “You’re Letting Me Down” (YouTube clip)
Moving forward, Mr. Lee’s royalties from the Sexton material allowed him to fund several subsequent releases, including lounge material by Bill Allen, sweet soul and funk by Brown Sugar Inc., and his first gospel productions. These were performed by the Gospel I.Q.’s of Grover, North Carolina, the Relations Gospel Singers, who cut their record live at Mice Creek Baptist Church, near Gaffney, South Carolina, the Sensational Gates of Shelby, and Joe Brown and the Singing Mellerairs, with whom Mr. Lee had one of his longest working relationships. In the 1980s, Mr. Lee founded a third label, SCOP, which is an acronym for “Soul, Country, Opera, and Pop,” and put out two more 45s, one by the Singing Mellerairs, entitled “Vision” (the lyrical source of our compilation title) and one of his own, which closes the album. All of the artists that I’ve just mentioned were an important part of David’s career, and you can hear selections from each on the album.
Gospel I.Q. (Photo courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors)
Tell us about the remastering process. What was the source material that you had to work with? Vinyl? Master tapes?
JASON: Our source material for the album was exclusively vinyl. We remastered from original 45s on David’s Impel, SCOP, and Washington Sound labels. Back in the day, due to the high cost of purchasing the master tapes from the recording studios where he produced his records, David usually left them behind, and he surmises that they were taped over or discarded through the years. Thankfully he held onto vinyl copies of a few of the releases in his catalog, and we used these to supplement the ones that I had collected myself. Between his and mine, we had copies of sufficient sound quality for every track on the album. After transferring the songs to a digital format, minimal restoration work was needed. What you hear is essentially how the records were intended to be played, and we are quite happy with the fidelity.
Joe Brown & the Singing Mellerairs (Photo courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors)
What are you currently listening to?
BRENDAN: Here’s a list, in order of appearance, from an arbitrary eight inches of my shelf of records currently in rotation: Blue Jug, Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes, Gary Stewart, Sedatrius Brown, Mickey Jupp’s Legend, Savage Rose, Ronnie Lane, Cornell Campbell, Augie Meyers, Dennis Linde, Uncle Dog, Johnny Paycheck, Terry Allen, Michael Nesmith, Bonnie Koloc, Robert Pete Williams, Stoney Edwards, Thulebasen, Bob Seger, The Hammons Family, Swamp Dogg, Jessie Ed Davis, Early B, Magic Sam, Arik Einstein/Shalom Chanoch, Kevin Coyne, Tim Hardin, Santo and Johnny, Danielle Dax, David Allan Coe, Python Lee Jackson, Secos & Molhados, Horseback, and Hiss Golden Messenger. You’ll probably notice that Jason and I are listening to very different things, which keeps our partnership interesting.
JASON: Because my collecting efforts focus on 45s—in particular soul, funk, gospel, and privately-pressed oddities of various genres—they make up the bulk of my home listening. Rather than bore you with the details of the ones that I’m most into at the moment, I’ll throw out there that when I’m in the car, which is often, I usually tune in to these central North Carolina radio stations: Foxy 107/104 for classic soul and neo-soul, and K 97.5 and 102 Jamz for hip-hop and r&b. Back at home, I’ve also been making my way through a stack of LPs given to me by a man I recently met on an airplane. These include Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On a personal favorite that I only ever had on CD, some James Brown live albums, and a few New Age selections.
What are you working on next?
BRENDAN: We are excited to have recently begun working with Jason’s neighbor Willie French Lowery, who is a remarkable songwriter, singer, and guitarist who led psych bands Plant & See and Lumbee in the late 60’s to mid 70s. He also recorded quieter, more country-inflected solo work that deals with his identity as a Lumbee Indian and that community’s history and culture. We are collaborating with Willie and his wife Malinda Maynor Lowery to release some unheard live and studio material as well as some of his better-known work in the fall. Willie is a legend—he was Clyde McPhatter’s tour manager and toured with the Allman Brothers!
Lumbee “You Gotta Be Stoned” (YouTube clip)
Future projects may involve more soul and gospel rarities for sure, but also possibly, coastal country, Christian folk, and even some Communist disco (yes, it exists!), at this point all with roots in the Carolinas, largely because it makes it easier to access the musicians directly if they live within driving distance. We’re interested in releasing music, historical or futuristic or otherwise, with contemporary relevance and resonance—the music’s obscurity matters far less than strong curatorial and aesthetic coherence, compelling narratives, and our ability to articulate those narratives through engagement with the artists, through interviews, oral histories, photography, etc. Genre and taste are specious concepts, I reckon. Context is key. Write us if you have an idea for a record!
For more audio samples and to order Said I Had A Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee, 1960-1988 click HERE!
Interview by LITA’s blog scribe Patrick McCarthy. Thanks to Brendan and Jason for their time and wonderful insights. Special thanks to LITA’s co-captain and distro maven Josh Wright for setting up the interview.