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Golden State Funk 

A new generation rediscovers the lost singles of California's "Right On" era. Plus: a real soul survivor speaks

Thursday, May 27 2010
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It is no surprise by now that this country has a deep, deep trove of regional soul and funk music recorded in the '60s and the '70s and released on now-coveted 45s through small, independent labels.

But the word "regional" often implies areas far more obscure than the well-known capitals of the genres like Detroit (Motown), Memphis (Stax), New York City (Atlantic), Philadelphia (Philadelphia International) or New Orleans (all funky, all the time). Collections like the gorgeously curated Eccentric Soul series by the Numero Group specialize in scenes from tiny Chicago labels existing in the shadows of Chess and the majors to forgotten areas in Florida.

At first, Los Angeles in particular and California in general would seem odd choices for this sense of "regional" or "local." This is meant to be Hollywood, the big magnet where the allure of lucrative movie work and the promises of massive exposure mean musicians come here to either make it (Sam Cooke, Sly Stone) or be destroyed by the lifestyle and the hustle (Sam Cooke, Sly Stone).

click to enlarge Edward "Apple" Nelson and the Three Oranges
  • Edward "Apple" Nelson and the Three Oranges

But as a new compilation makes clear, California has a rich, largely untold history of under-the-radar soul and funk music. California Funk: Real Funk 45s from the Golden State, just issued by Now-Again and Jazzman, chronicles music previously relegated to the memories of those who attended small clubs with live bands trained in the lost art of making crowds get down, a world largely decimated by the advent of the DJ, and it bears witness to the quality of musicians from those days.

Old publicity shots and a few rare records — most of them singles on obscure labels with names like Stanson, Sagittarius, Love, Stage Music, Igloo, Uptight and Watts USA — miraculously survived being lost to history through the loving care of collectors and obsessives on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, the U.K.'s Northern Soul dance scene (and the British appreciation for arcane cultural minutiae) would treasure one of these "holy grail" gems for a couple of decades, passing it on to the current generation of crate-diggers and beat-makers, who would sample them and drop them on DJ sets.

California Funk is the latest link in this chain of survival. This collection of the best recovered funk tracks from Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Sacramento, San Diego and places in between showcases the work of bands and the inspired leaders who gigged the local circuits in the "sock it to me" era. Every track is a highlight, from the easy, smoky barroom groove of opener "All Bundled Into One" (where Water Color makes Duke Ellington's "Caravan" smoke a big fat one) to the closing cover of "What's Going On" by the mysterious Mr. Clean & the Soul Inc.

Mystery is a concept that recurs throughout the fascinating liner material by Liam Large and compilers Gerald Short and Malcolm Catto. There are colorful stories behind the making of all of these singles, involving a world of snaky promoters, riotous entertainers, broken promises and the paradox of working in old-style showbiz at a time of political and social turmoil. Nobody is sure who made it to old age or not. Stories are variously reported. It's not that hard to track down a Smokey Robinson or a Quincy Jones. But this is a less-storied environment, the world of one-hit-wonder pimps, retired Etta James devotee Delores Ealy, or the gloriously unhinged "Farm Song" by troubled folk ranter Leon Gardner.

Thus it comes as a surprise when Now-Again's Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, one of the steadiest L.A. champions of these sounds, asks if the Weekly would like to interview Edward "Apple" Nelson. Apple's spirit is all over the compilation: He came from New Orleans to L.A. as a teen around 1960, and his Louisiana-style drumming was much in demand by producers and band leaders trying to get funky. That's him putting the beat behind Arthur Monday's wild James Brown–ish workout "What Goes Around Comes Around."

But Apple was not only an ace studio hand, if occasionally a little too wild, or a go-to live skin-pounder for the likes of Solomon Burke, Etta James, Ike & Tina Turner and many others. He was also an enterprising, individualistic young man who recorded five singles that are among the most desired pieces of vinyl from the place and time. He even started his own label, Sagittarius. California Funk includes "Curse Upon the World," credited to Apple and his comely backup singers, the Three Oranges. It's a thick slice of rhythmic soul that's clearly indebted to J.B. and Sly, yet it's completely its own thing, loose, at once joyous and accusatory, and grounded in that distinctive New Orleans drumming that blows today's beat-heads' lids. Stones Throw and Now-Again have just announced that they've struck a deal with Apple himself to release the other nine tracks that round up his catalog.

"You don't get a lot of people like him, that every record they put out is good," says Alapatt, pointing at the fit 67-year-old sipping his tea and wearing a dapper military (or is it marching-band?) jacket. "And it's not like one thing — a ballad, or a song. Every record is good. It's really kind of mind-blowing nobody did an anthology of the stuff early on. It's a great travesty. Well, I guess no one could find you."

Apple has come for his interview from his home in sleepy Lancaster. He's seen a lot. In order to support his music career he did many things he calls "unscrupulous stuff." Alapatt says it's hard to believe that Apple was out on the streets hustling at the same time he was making music that is so heartfelt and warm.

But, Apple says of his drug-dealing years, "It was a scenario that went on and it really happened. You can't justify it wrong or right. To some extent I feel bad about it. But I was dealing with adults. I wasn't dealing with kids," he adds soberly, before going quiet.

Although Apple struggles constantly with money and has a hard time paying the phone bill and taking the train everywhere, he's still holding on to the same dream that brought him to L.A. from Louisiana in 1960, when he was drunk on stories from his Dixieland-playing grandfather about gigs in Beverly Hills mansions.

"I had family out here," Apple says. "I came to pursue music and to experience things. I was a bad cat, a bad teenager. I was drummed out of New Orleans. I just got tired and wanted to move up. I told my mother, 'I'm going to L.A.' I came here for a while, got married twice."

"I hooked up with some local cats playing local bars. Cat named Jimmy Gresham, vocalist from Alabama, and his brother was a helluva sax player, Ben Gresham. And I hooked up with them and we were working these local bars in L.A. — California Club, the Tropicana and places like that. Some of them on Central Ave.

"My first recording came with Jimmy Gresham and I played on his sessions and then I went up and was doing things for Leon Haywood. I was cutting demos for Charles Wright, it just went from one extreme to another. With some cats, I played a lot of jazz, but I liked that funk."

Those were the R&B years, which then mutated into something called soul. "Soul — the word soul before was quiet, you know. They'd always speak about a prisoner, you know, 'He sounds soulful.'"

The word triggers a thought for Apple and he switches to the present.

"I got a song I just recorded," he says excitedly, pointing at his bag. "The name of the song is, 'I Am a Rock & Roll Soul Man,' and I speak about Mick Jagger, and the Rolling Stones, and Janis Joplin. I met her at the Whisky."

At the Whisky, far from the funky joints on Central Avenue, Apple also met Hendrix back when "he was clean, before he went to England." He also met Otis: "He was a loud cat — he had a big voice." He remembers Sonny Bono "when he met Cher on the Strip. A little flower girl, blemishes in her face, a little weight on here. Sonny had a company. Dr. John was there. I look back and think about it, that's the way it was."

The memories of all these boldface names, all far more successful and famous than he is, are not without pain: He says Dr. John (or "Mac," as Apple calls him) has recently contacted him to do something together but the drummer is skeptical.

"Mac's good people, but ... I've been trying reminiscing but ... I'd be bleeding and asking for a band-aid, and I can't get a Band-Aid. Dr. John ... he's made so many promises, you know. I'm gonna keep doing what I'm doing." An anecdote about Solomon Burke turns into a reminder that the legendary soul man allegedly owes Apple a lot of money from a gig way back when.

And yet, sipping his tea next to the young friend who's trying to tell the world about the greatness of his obscure singles, Apple hasn't lost the flame that brought him to L.A. all those years ago.

"Music nowadays is such a jigsaw puzzle. Much goin' on and yet not enough happening. But music is here [points at his head]. It will always be, you know.

"If you're in the industry and love it the way I love it, you never give up on your hopes and your dreams."

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