Like many great mysteries, this one begins with the extraordinary claims of a strange man.
"Every record store like this (Record Dugout) has a character like Joe Lopez," says Numero Group's Ken Shipley. Shipley, along with Rob Sevier, one of his two partners in the Chicago-based record label, has spent the last six months untangling a mystery that spans five years and 500 reels of recording tape, though it begins with Lopez, decades earlier.
It's a buried treasure tale that also gets at the core of what Numero Group does and why that work matters. Sevier explains that though he didn't know Lopez, he knows the type. "One of those guys who just shows up and spins yarns, one of those 'I've got all the
Numero, which Shipley and Sevier founded along with Tom Lunt a decade ago, has grown to become one of America's premier reissue labels.
The label, which has garnered Grammy nominations, operates out of a bungalow in Chicago's
Numero DJs also spin at various clubs around town, such as at Metro on Saturday.
But Numero's true vocation is pulling a thread of truth from yarns such as Lopez's and following it to a holy grail of old recordings rotting away in someone's closet. With that task in mind, the two are headed to 63rd Street and Austin Boulevard with boxes of hundreds of old reel-to-reel tapes.
The story of the tapes begins in 2007 at Record Dugout where Steve Batinich, a lifelong collector, sells records as well as baseball and music memorabilia. It is a place where other collectors come to flip through vintage LPs and trade tales of their finds.
One day Sevier was visiting with Batinich when Dugout regular Lopez came in and began bragging about his piece of a fabled trove of Chicago soul recordings. This particular collection has gained an almost mythological stature among Chicago soul music die-hards: the Ed Cody tapes. Lopez tells them that he used to work with Cody in the mid-'60s when Cody was an engineer at Stereosonic, and he has many reels of Cody's work in his possession, including tapes of unreleased sessions of The Jackson 5 and Chicago harmony soul group The Marlynns. Lopez says he is considering pressing some recordings, as The Marlynns records are quite valuable on the soul music collector market.
Sevier was skeptical. "It seemed unlikely that Joe Lopez could have worked on these sessions, because he would have been, like, 12 at the time." Cody, who spent the '60s and '70s bouncing between Chicago studios and running small labels and is what Sevier calls "a bit of a hermit," flatly refused all offers and entreaties for his audio archive. The prospect that somehow the tapes had been parsed out to Lopez seemed dubious.
Sevier thought little of the exchange with Lopez until several months later in 2008, when a freshly pressed Marlynns 45 rpm single showed up for auction on
Shortly after Sevier won the auction, Lopez stormed into Record Dugout and accused the real Bob Miner of ripping him off, effectively proving that Lopez did have the Marlynns masters he claimed and possibly others.
"That is our opening salvo," Shipley explains. "That is our first knowledge of the existence of the tapes."
From there, the tale of the tapes begins a circuitous route: A record dealer from Madison, Wis., contacted Shipley with a report of a storage unit in Rockford that contained hundreds of reels purported to be Chicago soul recordings. The unit's owner was asking a half-million dollars for the collection. Then, acetates from various small labels Ed Cody worked with over the years began showing up at record fairs. By 2011, it became clear that someone who had access to sessions Cody recorded was parsing bits of them into the music collector underground.
Then a year goes by with no news of Lopez or his tapes, until Batinich gets a call in August from Lopez's widow (he died of cancer). She had a storage locker full of these reels and was wondering if Batinich might be interested in them. Batinich struck a deal with her for the 500 unlabeled, decaying boxes of tape. Having no idea what was on them, only hopes of what could be, he reached out to the people who might know: Numero.
The terms of the deal were simple: Batinich would sell Numero whatever it wanted, but on the label had to identify and mark what it could. Fearful of missing something important or unheralded, Numero began dutifully combing through each and every tape, inventorying and labeling as best it could.
What was there? According to Sevier, "Dross, mostly. Recordings of baseball games. Transfers of LPs. Polka bands. Unknown gospel choirs. A Kool & The Gang radio spot. Someone's anti-drug version of 'Purple Rain.'" But Lopez had, at some point, separated some of the tapes, labeling them in a rudimentary way — "blues" and "good soul" — and had set aside a batch of recordings he felt were notable. Sometimes he was right, sometimes not, but his efforts gave Numero a little bit of a head start.
"Eighty-eight tapes," Shipley says. That's how many Numero ended up buying. The other 400-odd are in boxes with Sevier and Shipley, headed back to Batinich's shop to continue their journey, whatever that may be, possibly to be parsed out to other labels, other interested parties or the trash collector.
"Did you burn CDs of the good stuff for me?" Batinich asks. Sevier shakes his head. "Any rockabilly?" Sevier's answer is again, no. "This is a second copy of Amazing Farmer Singers' 'I've Got a Telephone In My Bosom,'" offers Sevier, holding up a small reel. He has no encouraging news for Batinich, as Numero has picked these boxes clean of their gems.
Of the 88 tapes Numero acquired, more than half have been identified, Sevier guesses.
"It's about 25 percent is stuff that's already been released, most of it legitimately," he says. "About 10 or 15 are masters of Clarence Johnson-produced recordings. The next 25 percent is stuff that is in a real gray area; we know how complicated it would be to license and release it, and it's not even worth it. Another 25 percent is indie stuff, our wheelhouse, that we have identified and in some cases people we already know and have worked with. Then the other 25 percent is stuff we have no idea what it is, and it runs from pretty awesome to totally awesome."
Sevier's favorite track among the pile of still unknowns is the strangest song they've found.
"It's mysterious in origin and in what the band was trying to achieve," he says with a laugh. "It was only labeled 'Cemetery Song,' and it's a 14-minute psychedelic soul opus that is maybe
The big finds among Lopez's tape stash include a very rare single by Chicago vocal group The Ivories, two unreleased Don Gardner songs from his most famous session and the odd album of German hard rock band Epitaph, which happened to record for a local label. There were three unreleased songs from Stax recording artists Sons of Slum and a reel containing "This Love For Real" by Hands of Time, which was produced by Leroy
While it's exciting for Numero to be able to issue crucial singles from known artists, for Shipley and Sevier the most significant work that they have identified is a six-song session by long-dead soul singer
About a year before Lopez's tape cache took over the Numero office, Sevier was talking to Earl Wiley, a local booking agent-turned-producer, for research on an unrelated project. Wiley told him a story about a group "stealing" a song from him. In 1972, Wiley was in Cody's Stereosonic studio producing a recording with an unknown but talented singer, Harris — a demo meant to showcase both Harris and Wiley's talents. Nothing ever came of it, and the tapes essentially disappear. The following year, Wiley hears a song from his Harris demo, "Love Won't Pay the Bills," but it's being performed by another group, Elevation, but has no idea how they got the song. Cody was the engineer on both sessions.
Forty years go by and then, one day, Numero engineer Haley Fohr cues up a tape at the Numero office, and Sevier and Shipley immediately recognize "Love Won't Pay The Bills" as it comes out of the speakers. And it's not the Elevation version; it's the original. This is the lost Calvin Harris session.
"We had to be there, at that house, at that moment, in order to identify what was on this tape," Shipley says.
From the 88 tapes, Shipley says, Numero will issue, tops, a handful of 45s. The rest they will archive for safekeeping.
"Someday, someone — a museum, another label, an archive — is going to want this," Shipley says. "We are interested in saving what are historically significant. If Lopez's widow just hadn't called Record Dugout, I can guarantee these tapes would be in some landfill right now."