If you’re not a fan of the Ravens or Curren$y, then I’m sure Sunday was a bit of a disappointment (I fall in with the Jet set). There was the game delay, a half-hearted Beyonce/Destiny’s Child performance, and a batch of hardly funny or persuasive commercials. But one commercial made me pay attention—the BlackBerry commercial. It wasn’t so much the commercial, which was marginally entertaining, but the music in it. I knew I’d heard that voice before, the pain and the soul and the lyrics. It took me a second, a few sips of beer, and then it hit me—RJD2.
That’s where I’d heard the voice before, on my favorite cut off of RJD2′s Def Jux debut Deadringer, “Smoke and Mirrors” (below the jump). When I got home I immediately went to see which track RJD2 sampled so well, which track BlackBerry had snagged for their Superbowl ad. It was Marion Black’s most well-known song, “Who Knows” (below the jump).
Marion Black, from Columbus, Ohio, released “Who Knows,” an amazingly mournful, yet uptempo slice of soul with hopeful lyrics, steady drums, and poignant piano in 1970 on the late Bill Moss’ small, short-lived Ohio-based record label, Capsoul (NPR interview here). The A-side to the record, “Go On Fool” (below the jump), a sad slow jam about a man whose wife mistreats him, peaked at number 39 on the Billboard soul singles chart in 1971.
According to Columbus music writer Chris DeVille (piece here), after a dispute with Moss over royalties, Black moved to another Ohio record label, Prix, where he recorded a few more tracks that failed to chart or draw any major label deals. Then, after a few more unsuccessful singles on the quickly defunct New York Disco label, Shakat Records, and one recorded at Rome Recording Studios (in Columbus), I’m assuming Black called it quits and continued to work as a waiter at the Holiday Inn in Columbus, which he’d never given up. He retired in 1995, probably relatively unknown by all he served in his 25 years there.
However, since RJD2′s sampling of “Who Knows,” the tide has turned somewhat for Marion Black, however late it may be. Once rarities, Black’s songs have since been pulled out of obscurity by the good folks over at Numero Group, who have released a number of fantastic compilations under the heading Eccentric Soul, the first of which dropped back in ’04. The Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label collection contains Black’s “Who Knows,” as well as “Go On Fool,” and apart from Black’s gems, it also contains my personal “certified classics:” The Four Mints’ “Row My Boat,” Kool Blues’ “I Want to Be Ready”, and Elijah and the Ebonites’ “Hot Grits!”.
Black’s music is also featured on Eccentric Soul: The Prix Label, which contains “Come On and Gettit,” a James Brown-esque jam with enough slapping of the bass, “chika chika wow” guitar chords,” and “Uhs” to satisfy the funk purist, along with “Listen Black Brother,” Black’s most political/socially conscious track. It;s a haunting and jazzy suite about black on black crime in the vein of the best Bobby “Blue” Bland cuts. It’s perfectly suited for a Blaxploitation flick, the saxophone crying out, the back up female vocalists whispering like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, and the flutes fan the flames. It is also Black’s best vocal performance next to “Who Knows.”
Before the BlackBerry ad, “Who Knows” had been used on TV Shows like Showtime’s Weeds. And, as of 2009, the guys over at Numero Group were considering taking Marion and a few of the other acts from the Eccentric Soul series on the road. Though I’m not sure whether it ever materialized or if Marion was on the bill.
As far as Marion Black’s future as a singer/songwriter in concerned, assuming he is still healthy enough to perform and record, I can’t think of any reason why he shouldn’t be in the studio. If Charles Bradley is belting it out so late in life, if Gil Scott-Heron released a solid record the year before his unfortunate passing, and if Dam and Peanut Butter Wolf have been successful in resurrecting Steve Arrington’s career, I don’t see why there isn’t a label out there—maybe Numero Group is already on it—willing to bring this unsung hero of soul/funk to wider audience, to give him some top-notch musicians, studio time, and the chance to put what I’m sure has been a long life on wax. But who knows what tomorrow will bring. Maybe sunshine. Maybe another BlackBerry commercial.