Portland’s mid-century jazz clubs have been well-documented. People know Ural Thomas, thanks to the soul singer’s recent resurgence. And everyone can hum along to “Louie Louie.” But when it comes to any other Portland music that was going down in the middle decades of the century—and there was plenty—the record is measly.
Bobby Smith is out to change that. The native Portlander, a founding DJ of XRAY.fm and keen vinyl collector, has spent the last five or so years burrowing into the history of soul, funk, and R&B music in North Portland’s historically black Albina neighborhood. And now he's putting the results of his quest onstage, with a November 16 show at the Alberta Rose Theatre called the Albina Soul Revue, set to feature several '70s-era artists.
Smith's search hasn’t always been easy. “When you look at similar markets for soul music—Seattle, San Francisco—they all have a bounty of records,” says Smith, who is white. “For Portland, it’s so scant. I was like, what’s up with that? I kept digging, talking to collectors, reaching out to folks, and it became very clear there was just no [recording] industry supporting these artists in North Portland at the time. It was as if the music itself has been redlined.”
Smith has made it his mission to preserve the sounds and stories of the 1960s–'80s, and last year he teamed up with the World Arts Foundation, a local nonprofit devoted to African American arts and education, to establish the Albina Music Trust. He’s amassed roughly 150 hours of unreleased music—reel-to-reel tapes found in defunct recording studios, cassettes from personal collections, privately pressed vinyl, rowdy live recordings, basement sessions, demos—as well as thousands of photos and other ephemera from the time, including advertisements and newspaper clippings. He’s come across not one but two unreleased anthems devoted to the Trail Blazers: a rollicking disco number from 1977, the year the team won the NBA title, called “Blazermania,” and a decidedly less cocky tune from 1982, when the team’s performance had cooled (“We’re gonna win again / We’re gonna win again / We need the whistles of our fans again”).
The Albina Soul Revue will allow Portlanders to listen in on some of that history. Among the acts: prolific jazz/soul singer Shirley Nanette, who’ll perform tracks from her 1970 LP Never Coming Back; Gregg Smith, a veteran of legendary North Williams institution the Cotton Club; and the Legendary Beyons, who Smith says are “probably one of the longest-running soul groups on the West Coast,” dating back some 50 years to their time at Jefferson High School.
VIDEO: The Legendary Beyons rehearse for the upcoming concert at XRAY's studio.
The concert will also serve as a release party for a four-track EP by a Portland soul mega-group called the Gangsters. Though recorded in 1972—and arranged and produced by none other than Thara Memory, who taught Esperanza Spalding and would go on to share a Grammy with her—the album was never released. Smith spent a couple years searching for the lost recording, eventually uncovering the unlabeled reel-to-reel tape in the closet of the band's late saxophonist, Michael Cooper. The tape was deteriorating, so preparing it to be mastered was a careful, labor-intensive process (step one: "baking the tape," or popping it overnight into what's essentially a food dehydrator).
"To me, it was sort of a Holy Grail record," Smith says. "It’s a purely instrumental thing—sophisticated and very symphonic, sort of bridging the gap between jazz-funk fusion and traditional soul music. It’s coming out of the era of James Brown and Sam Cooke, those kinds of funky bebop things, and going into an era where people are listening to more genre-pushing jazz like Cold Bood and Weather Report."
After the concert, it’s back to work for Smith. He’s still combing through the hours of unreleased music, and recording interviews with musicians who were active at the time. Additional record releases might happen at some point, or maybe a museum exhibit or a book. But for now, his goals are a little humbler.
“I’m just trying to get folks through the door and document the material while we can,” Smith says. “In many ways, it’s like a service. I’m digitizing this music for people who don’t have it. I’m burning CDs for them. I’m not trying to stake a claim on it.”
7:30 p.m. Fri, Nov 16, Alberta Rose Theatre, $25–30