If you were to walk by a radio blaring "Shot Down," from Pure Cane Sugar (Daptone Records), the latest CD by the Sugarman 3 and Co., you might swear you were listening to a previously unissued James Brown side. The voice is Brown’s; the elbow-greased, hard-funking vamp behind him could only be from the JB’s; the grainy, echoing quality of the recording would date it to the late ’60s. You’d be wrong on all counts, of course. The singer is Lee Fields, an obscure fiftysomething-year-old Brown disciple whose early-’70s recordings are prized by collectors. The Sugarman 3 are helmed by and named for an old Boston punk-rocker. And the song was written by ’60s garage-rock legends the Sonics.
"You could call it retro, I guess," says Sugarman 3 leader Neal Sugarman, who grew up in Newton and played saxophone for the early-’80s punk bands Boys Life and Black Cat Bone before moving to NYC in the early ’90s to pursue an interest in jazz and soul. "We’re just trying to make records that are exactly like the records we like."
In the late ’90s, Sugarman and his group, along with Fields, were among the extended family of musicians behind Desco Records, a label that began turning out limited-edition 45s, vinyl albums, and CDs that were indistinguishable from — and were often mistaken for — reissues of vital ’60s and ’70s funk and jazzy soul. "At Desco, there was a mystery about the records — people couldn’t tell whether they were new or old. In the beginning, people really thought they were buying an old record. Record collectors and DJs tend to worship old stuff, but if it’s a new record, they’re listening with a more critical ear. We got over on that: they liked it before they realized we were new, and once they realized they liked it, they couldn’t not like it. And it really opened things up for funk bands and gave it legitimacy."
The label caught on just at the time that underground hip-hop heads — via Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stone’s Throw label and DJ Shadow’s genre-defining Brainfreeze mix sets — were reviving a craze for obscure funk 45s. "Those guys made it cool to get into old funk records," Sugarman acknowledges. "That opened lots of doors for us." In the process, an entire neglected era of funk was brought to light, much the same way punk rock and Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilations brought ’60s garage rock to light in the late ’70s.
Desco enjoyed a brief but celebrated run. The label’s two principals parted company, with Phillip Lehman forming the Soul Fire label while house producer/engineer Gabriel Roth teamed up with Sugarman to found Daptone. Sugarman and Roth head up a tight-knit collective of musicians centered, in the spirit of Stax, around a house band (the Dap-Kings) and augmented by a stable of soloists and singers. They back each other on touring revues and pump out a steady stream of albums and singles. "We have a great family in Brooklyn, including members who play with Antibalas, and we had a studio for a while which we lost due to rent increases in Williamsburg," Sugarman elaborates. The label is in the midst of finishing a new studio in Brooklyn, and its second album — by Desco mainstay Sharon Jones backed by the Dap-Kings and including a cover of Janet Jackson’s "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" — is shaping up as garage funk’s biggest crossover effort yet. NPR did a feature, and Starbucks wants her on one of its in-store compilations.
In the meantime, the Sugarman 3 are bringing Lee Fields to Boston for what should be one of the greasiest funk workouts of the year. Fields (whose latest, Problems, is on Soul Fire) is revered among funk collectors for his late-’70s single "The Funky Screw" — credited to Lee Fields and the Devil’s Personal Band — as well as for his debut album, Let’s Talk It Over. A veteran of the flamboyant Southern soul-and-blues circuit, he’s kept active for the past three decades. "He had a hit down there [on Ace Records] with a song called ‘Meet Me Tonight,’ " says Sugarman, "so he goes there on a regular basis for these revues with Johnnie Taylor and Tyrone Davis, people like that. But he feels he’s really tapped out that scene, and he’s excited to come out and play for young people. We’ll be in a club in England and he’ll hear someone shout a request for a 45 he hasn’t even heard himself in 20 years."
The Sugarman 3 and Lee Fields perform next Thursday, March 20, at T.T. the Bear’s Place, 10 Brookline Street in Central Square; call (617) 492-BEAR.
BY CARLY CARIOLI