Standard Sounds

Fertile Soul: The Miami Sound

Before the band Miami Sound Machine took the city international, before disco dominated everything, Miami had a musical soul all its own. A new book and multiple new documentaries make the case for Miami’s rightful place on the map of music meccas.
In the history as written, soul music and R&B are inextricably linked to two American cities: Detroit and Memphis. A new book and recent documentaries are making the case for a third city in that holy rolling trinity: Miami. How Miami developed a homegrown scene and sound to rival the most revered in America—one backed up by a hit list that’s still in rotation—while remaining largely unacknowledged, goes back to a neighborhood near downtown called Overtown.

Today, Miami is seen as a multicultural mecca, but geographically and historically, it’s the Deep South. Up through the 1960s, the city was strictly segregated, and Overtown was known as the “central negro district.” In living memory, African Americans, even stars like James Brown, Mohammed Ali, and Aretha Franklin, had to have a written pass to come across the causeway into Miami Beach, and a strict curfew prohibited them from being in Miami Beach past midnight. 

The result of this segregation was that Overtown became a self-sufficient, self-contained community, one with deep musical roots, its own nightclubs, and a deep pool of interconnected musical talent. John Capouya, author of the new book Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band (UPF), explained to Standard Culture: “Everything was concentrated in Overtown because of segregation. In a perverse way, it made Overtown into a great musical hub. The black entertainers couldn’t stay on the beach, but there were so many black clubs in Overtown. All of these relationships came about in a way because people were confined to the neighborhood.”

Overtown was a kind of Harlem of South Florida, complete with a neon-lit main street, 2nd Avenue. James Brown got his first break there; Sam Cooke recorded his seminal live album, Live at the Harlem Square Club (one of the greatest live albums ever made) in Overtown; Ray Charles came in and out on his rise to fame in the ’50s; Sam and Dave met on the scene; and Betty Wright, a soul legend regarded by some as a peer to Aretha Franklin, got her start singing gospel in Overtown’s churches. Those are just some of the bold-faced names.

The Liberty City record shop owned by Johnny Pearsall. Deep City Records' office and practice studio were in the back; Miami singing star Betty Wright was discovered in the front. Courtesy Helene Smith Pearsall. All images/text are excerpted from "Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band" by John Capouya. 

One hub of music in Overtown in the mid-’60s was Johnny’s Records, a record store that doubled as the home base of Deep City Recordings, the first black-owned record company in Florida. Deep City was founded by Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall, two recent college graduates who worked by day as school teachers. Clarke and Pearsall set out to do for Miami soul what Berry Gordy did for Detroit and Stax did for Memphis: put Miami on the map by lifting up the stars in their midst, including Betty Wright, Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, and Clarence “Blowfly” Reid, among others.
Willie Clarke, co-founder of Deep City Recordings. Photo by Larry G. Warmoth. 

Clarke and Pearsall did everything they could to break Deep City’s artists, but without proper music industry knowledge or muscle—both of which were controlled by white gatekeepers—wider success was impossible. Still, they recorded and pressed a catalog of songs that established the foundation of Miami soul. The Miami sound was less slick, grittier, and funkier than Motown. In it, you can hear echoes of church and street life, marching band cadences, and the occasional lilt of Caribbean music.

The guy
in Florida’s music scene was a somewhat elusive character named Henry Stone, the subject of a forthcoming documentary called The Record Man. Stone was a Jewish New Yorker who was deeply immersed in Miami’s black music culture. He was instrumental in signing James Brown, he recorded Ray Charles early in his career, and he recorded the first version of “The Twist.” Stone genuinely loved the music. He also loved making money, and he had a hand in every aspect of the business, from managing artists to owning record labels to feeding radio to distributing records. Stone called himself the “King of Payola.” As Capouya explained to Standard Culture, “He didn’t want people getting suspicious that he had x number of songs in the top 20, so he put them out on different labels. I don’t think Henry Stone was interested in being famous. Compared to Berry Gordy, who was famous, I think Stone was interested in making money and putting out good music, which he did. I think he was trying to be a little under the radar.”  
Chocolate Perry, signed to TK Records. 

In 1971, a former Dick Clark–endorsed teen idol turned record producer/label owner named Steve Alaimo partnered with Henry Stone to start TK Records. TK drew from all of Miami’s best native talents. As Alaimo explained to Standard Culture, “We took all local talent—Timmy Thomas, Betty Wright, Bobby Caldwell, Latimore, Gwen and George McRae. Somehow everybody played on everyone else’s records. It was like a family.” Willie Clarke of Deep City, who had fallen out with Johnny Pearsall, was instrumental in attracting local luminaries to the label. TK had Miami’s first huge international hit with George McRae’s “Rock Your Baby,” written by a part-time warehouse worker named Harry Wayne Casey.

TK’s releases, backed by Henry Stone’s muscle, would go the furthest in establishing Miami’s place in the pantheon. The label’s impact is still being heard. In 1972, TK released Timmy Thomas’ hit “Why Can’t We Live Together,” a socially conscious anthem. Not ringing any bells? What about a song called “Hotline Bling”? Yeah, that’s a sample from Timmy Thomas’s song.

TK’s biggest success would come by way of that part-time factory worker. In the early ’70s, Casey and another TK studio employee named Richard Finch formed KC and the Sunshine Band, and the group’s run of hits in the ’70s, including “That’s the Way (I Like It),” “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty,” “Get Down Tonight,” and “Boogie Shoes,” has few equals. KC and the Sunshine Band and TK Records rode Miami soul into its next incarnation: disco.

TK shuttered in 1981. Disco dominated and died. Ironically, when people hear the term “Miami Sound” today, they are more likely to think of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. One way or another, though, all roads lead back to Overtown, Deep City, Willie Clarke, Johnny Pearsall, TK records, and Henry Stone.  

The next time you’re shake-shake-shaking your booty, just remember that’s the sound of Miami.

LISTEN: A Miami Soul Playlist


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