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Rock/Pop

Second coming

Felton Williams set out to be gospel's Berry Gordy 40 years ago. His career retrospective, Downriver Revival, proves he was exactly that.

MT Photo: Doug Coombe
Williams recently at home with his slide guitar.
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Published 5/27/2009

The best record to come out of Detroit this year spent 30 years in an Ecorse basement. It's called Downriver Revival, and, although most of the tracks on it are almost 40 years old, it sounds relevant. In fact, it sounds uncannily modern in an era when genre-nudging under the R&B mantle (see Adele, Estelle, and all the other "elles") is a sign that pop music is doing a little soul searching. And that form of music doesn't have to look much further than Shirley Ann Lee and Calvin Cooke, the two standouts that emerge from Downriver Revival's painstakingly thorough compilation of gospel-inspired cuts by long-forgotten D-town singers and groups, remarkable as much for how they deviate from traditional church sounds as for how they channel the timeless, unimpeachable power of gospel. Lee is the sure star here, though. Accompanied by little more than an electric guitar and a tambourine, her "I Shall Not Be Moved" is the cornerstone the album, musically and spiritually, making room for the urgency ("Times are getting bad/people are going mad") of the Revelations' doo-wop-inspired "Take Care of Us" and some of the album's groovier indulgences.

Then there's the folk music of the aforementioned Cooke's harrowingly spare but richly anthemic "What Happens To People," a song that aches to be covered by Kid Rock for future Ford Field encores. The Coleman Family's deadpan "People Has It Hard" features a limping gait that makes its girl group-gone-country recitation of modern hardship endearing if bizarre, sort of the spiritual antecedent to T-Baby's "It's So Cold in the D." There are also the vintage funk workouts of the Bobby Cooke Quartette, the nods to Motown in the Combinations' "While You Were Gone" — which has recently been adopted as a Northern Soul favorite by UK DJs with a taste for obscure R&B. And the Deliverance Echoes — besides having the greatest name on the album — also deliver one of its best songs, "Heaven" which sounds like Aretha Franklin backed by Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk. No kidding! There's even a garage punk workout, titled "Running Mod," by the Young Generation that might be described as the Dirtbombs back when Mick Collins was still making dirt bombs.

What makes Downriver Revival even more impressive, however, is that the tracks are all the product of a single studio and a producer with an even more singular vision. From 1969 to '73, Felton Williams was gospel music's Berry Gordy in his Ecorse basement's Double U studio, recording anybody and everybody who came knocking on the door of his 18th Avenue home.

Williams himself was and is an anomaly in the Downriver Revival story, an unlikely hero who — as the accompanying DVD by downriver-bred Chicago filmmaker Kyle Obriot shows in its bleak but telling depiction of modern-day downriver — is humble to the point of fading himself out of any fanfare about his musical legacy. But Williams is still a hero. Against the backdrop of unrest and creativity of the post-'68 riots, he was a churchgoing family man with a promising career as an electrician at Ford Rouge. On Sundays, he and his family attended the Church of the Loving God on Detroit's west side, where Williams would often back up the gospel singers on a cobbled-together slide guitar that became his trademark: "the sacred steel," as it came to be known. His playing had an uncanny right-angle tone that helped shape his church's imaginative take on traditional gospel, which already spoke in a dialect inflected by doo-wop, folk, soul and country. Once a month, the Williams family would drive the extra half hour south to worship at the church's Toledo chapter, where Felton would often accompany Shirley Lee. Back in Detroit, Williams' sacred steel even inspired a protégé, a young singer named Calvin Cooke.

Williams was as electrically-inclined as he was musically and spiritually. By 1969, he was on a mission from God to build a studio in his basement to record fellow church members and factory workers.

"I saw it was a way to get the gospel out," he says with a slight laugh, speaking from the living room of the very same house where he set out to make gospel-pop Motown history all those years ago. He and his wife spend their days now producing pamphlets for their church; Williams has long since retired the studio, although he admits to every once in a while going down there to listen to classical music on the big speakers. By his own account, he was not successful as a music entrepreneur — at least in early '70s terms. "I thought people would buy these records the same way they were buying the records they heard on the radio," he says, breaking into a laugh. "I failed." He released his efforts on a series of boutique 7-inch labels; most of the initial pressings wound up in his basement or in the back of record stores.

That was until Rob Sevier started hearing them. Sevier is one of the founders of Chicago's Numero label. Half a decade ago, he and fellow Chicago crate diggers started turning their collections of obscure soul, gospel and funk 7-inches into a jaw-dropping catalog of vintage compilations of mostly forgotten outsider soul, ranging from the sublime to the just amazing. They all manage to leave the listener smiling at the same time that they're wowing them. There's Ye'allelulah! Soul Messages from Dimona, anthologizing black Jewish Detroit and Chicago ex-pats who relocated to the Holy Land but never lost their funk. There's also Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul, which showcases every teen group of the era that ever wanted to be the Jackson 5.

"Ten years ago, this was the kind of stuff you could only get on bootlegs," Sevier says. "We're like a stop along the way of this kind of music going from being on bootlegs to [being on compilations] that could be winning Grammys someday."

Those original 7-inch singles function as a kind of gold standard for a worldwide network of record nerds for whom the collecting is as thrilling as the music itself. Each Numero release is clearly a labor of love — so meticulously and soulfully researched, anthologized, art directed and liner-noted, it flies beautifully in the face of a dying music industry. You could argue the recording industry was doomed the second they decided to cash in on the convenience digital information delivered on discs full of zeroes instead of selling an actual analog artifact of the same information. But Numero Group records are just that: artifacts, most pressed on weighty 180-gram vinyl, with picture-laden gatefolds and liner notes that are their own VH1 Behind the Music — for a city and sound ripe for a little deeper appreciation than Standing In the Shadows of Motown.

"The Midwest has always been a place known for this kind of music, especially gospel," Sevier says. Other Felton-recorded cuts had made it onto Numero compilations, but the more Sevier heard, the more he thought Double U could and should have its own compilation.

"Usually, you listen to a hundred records before you find one that's any good," he says. "With Felton, it was more like every record I'd find that he produced was good." So much so, in fact, that over the three years it took to put Downriver together, Sevier realized Numero would have to launch a new imprint — Local Customs — to house it. For his part, Sevier admits to having a hard time seeing the forest for the trees at times. "We had like 300 hours of tape," he says. "I mean, entire sermons and services Felton had recorded. I wasn't always sure we had an actual album." It actually wasn't until he realized the Combinations track — a cult classic in England — could be traced back to the Double U that he had a fully-formed album.

Williams had a hands-off approach to the whole thing. "Mostly, I was just surprised anyone was interested," he says.

If Downriver Revival were a movie, it'd be more Robert Frank's Life Ain't No Candy Mountain than a Lifetime original.

Still, in its idiosyncratic and failed way, it occupies its own place in Detroit's musical history, as resonant as it is relevant. The city has always been fertile ground for repurposing. Depending on how you look at it, it's either the thriftstore capital of the world and its true equity is in preserving and appreciating its past (see the "new" Ford Mustang, et al.) or it's the pyramids waiting to be looted: Recently, a St. Louis-based collector got himself a Detroit phonebook, holed up in a motel, and sent out a mass-mailing, offering cash for old 45s, which he then turned around and made a killing on eBay.

Who knows? In 30 years, some data archivist might be tracking down the Deastros of Detroit. Good luck with that, though, Sevier says.

"I think Felton, in his day, was like now how everybody can record at home and post it on MySpace or YouTube," he explains. "The difference is one day that will all be gone. Your hard drive is going to crash, the data will be gone. But Felton's music is preserved forever."

Revival indeed. And Felton Williams' work finally gets its "Amen!"

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