WLRN documentary ‘Deep City’ celebrates birth of Miami sound

MUSIC HISTORY: Deep City Records was born inside Johnny’s Records, a record store in Liberty City in 1963.
MUSIC HISTORY: Deep City Records was born inside Johnny’s Records, a record store in Liberty City in 1963. Courtesy WLRN

Deep City Records was Miami’s own Motown in the early 1960s. But distribution problems threatened its legacy.

Now, a new music documentary, Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, is spreading awareness of the state’s first black-owned label. The documentary, which airs several times beginning at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WLRN, is putting the spotlight back on its co-founder, a man who has written some of R&B’s greatest hits yet hasn’t enjoyed the riches he could have.

Samples saved songwriter Willie Clarke, thanks to royalties he received for co-writing, with Clarence Reid, Betty Wright hits Clean Up Woman and Girls Can’t Do What Guys Do.

Those locally crafted songs, referenced in later hits by Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Sublime and Afrika Bambaataa, helped line Clarke’s pockets over the years. It’s some recompense for the lack of awareness of Clarke’s influence on the sound of soul music in South Florida. He never became the household name, with the attendant bank account, of a Berry Gordy, despite his role as a music visionary in the same era.

Gordy’s Motown in Detroit and Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton’s Stax in Memphis garnered the lion’s share of credit for getting R&B/soul music onto the nation’s airwaves in the early 1960s. TK Records in Hialeah would receive much of the credit for birthing the “Miami Sound” in the ’70s a decade before considerably slicker pop records by the Miami Sound Machine laid claim on the title.

The independent Deep City Records, founded in 1963 by public schoolteachers Clarke and the late Johnny Pearsall, and run out of a backroom inside the erstwhile Johnny’s Records in Liberty City, never achieved national distribution. The company had trouble distributing its records any farther than Palm Beach, the primary reason for its collapse.

But through early records by the teenage Wright and singer Helene Smith, Miami’s first “Queen of Soul,” along with Frank Williams & the Rocketeers, Willie “Little Beaver” Hale and Clarke’s songwriting partner, Clarence “Blowfly” Reid, the little company laid the blueprint for the true Miami Sound.

The lively 60-minute film includes appearances by the label’s roster; KC & the Sunshine Band musician Paul Lewis, who got his start at Deep City; and TK’s late record distributor Henry Stone, who would bring Clarke and Reid on board in 1968 after Deep City folded. It has made the rounds of 30 film festivals, including the Miami International Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival in Austin.

The “Miami Sound” was forged in studios tucked into that record store by fusing the rhythmic marching band drums and brass Clarke and Pearsall learned while students at Florida A&M University with Bahamian and Jamaican music.

“These stories deserve to be told in the Miami community,” said co-director and co-producer Dennis Scholl, vice president of arts for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “There are glorious, amazing stories from every neighborhood about community. These people are world-class musicians who just missed it by a little bit, and yet their music endures. The music that they made is as good as anything going out at the time, but because of circumstances they were not able to get distribution to have a legacy. We hope they get their honor and due.”

Today, Clarke laughs when he hears how much old, out-of-print ’60s records on Deep City can fetch from collectors wanting to hear shy Miami Northwestern High School singer Helene Smith once again on their turntables. Try $4,000.

When asked at a special screening of the film earlier this month at Overtown’s restored Historic Lyric Theater what he thinks of that outrageous sum, he cracks, “Every time I get FPL, and I hear that and say, ‘What’s going on?’”

Clarke said on the red carpet outside Lyric that the film offers a message for young aspiring songwriters and musicians.

“Get that education and let that music thing be a full-time hobby,” Clarke said. “Keep going to college and your very best friend should be somebody in entertainment law. Without that person in your corner, you’re going to get ripped. I was so busy writing and producing and so satisfied with my side of the job that when it was time for the reward a lot of [it] was gone. As good as you can be with producing and writing, there are some people just as good to steal it from you.”

Smith, who attended the screening and who had been married to Pearsall, said she is happy with the result. “It’s been a long time coming. I didn’t know it was coming. I was just sitting still and I’ve gone on a journey, gone full circle, and maybe I have some more to go.”

That old scene on Seventh Street in Miami, of which Smith’s powerful belting of songs like Willing & Able was a major element, was a creative hotbed, Clarke said.

“We were in an environment to be free and creative before they ran that expressway [I-95] through here and destroyed all that cohesiveness and togetherness of a fantastic community. You can see in the film how great it was to be living in Overtown.”

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To Watch

Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday on WLRN-Ch. 17.

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