Miami-Dade County

New film celebrates ‘Birth of the Miami Sound’

How do you measure success? Music-producer Willie Clarke and soul singer Helene Smith each answered that question in a recent interview. They reminisced about the “glory days” in Miami, the 1960s and 1980s, the decades that gave birth to the “Miami Sound.”

In the film, Deep City Records: The Birth of the Miami Sound, the story of the once undocumented local music industry that started a movement is uncovered. Mostly through interviews, photographs, newspaper clippings and archival footage, award-winning film producers Dennis Scholl, Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle tell the story of two musical geniuses, Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall.

Clarke and Pearsall created the first black-owned record label in Florida and changed the face of soul music in Miami forever. In a candid interview, Clarke and Smith told me the back story of the journey: the joy of discovery, the pain of racial segregation, the lack of resources; and through it all, the ultimate measure of success that fulfills them. It began when Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall were schoolmates at Florida A&M University.

Born in Fort Gaines, Georgia, Clarke’s family moved to Miami. From an early age, he had fun by entertaining family and friends with his poetry, singing and storytelling. After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, Clarke and some friends became dishwashers in a restaurant. One day when they reported to work they were fired. The new crew of dishwashers had already replaced them at lower pay. This haunted Clarke and his teenage friends.

The firing created an “aha” moment for Clarke. He decided to go to college, “to play drums in the band.” Inspired by the desire to make something of himself, and after watching the annual Orange Blossom Classic in Miami featuring FAMUs Marching 100, he wanted to parade downtown, Overtown and halftime at the Orange Bowl Stadium, too.

Johnny Pearsall grew up in Tallahassee on FAMU’s campus where he later enrolled with the idea of becoming a pharmacist. His mother, Cora Pearsall, an educator in Tallahassee, later relocated with her son to Miami. She became a principal at the historic Dunbar Elementary School. Later, she made history at Orchard Villa Elementary School as one of the first black principals to head a school attended by black and white children.

At FAMU, Johnny and Willie began planning their future in music. Upon graduation they returned to Miami and became Dade County public school teachers. On the side, they pooled their resources, opened a record shop and became co-founders and co-owners of Deep City Records, an independent record label. They started in 1963 in Liberty City. Clarke was the creative partner and Pearsall the entrepreneur. They enlisted the talents of Clarence Reid, singer and keyboard player.

The business was set up in the building that Johnny’s mother built for him to operate a pharmacy. Instead it became Johnny’s Record Shop, where they sold records, recorded, and promoted local talent. Clarke wrote and produced music about personal relationships as well as the current news of the day. Deep City Records was open to all races, in spite of racial segregation.

The Miami Sound developed from the brass horn arrangements written and conducted by Arnold “Hoss” Albury from the early days of FAMU’s Marching 100. Pulsation and cadence songs like Upset, sung by Paul Kelly, were played by Butterball and other disc jockeys. Community supporters included labor leader Joseph Caleb and motivational speaker Les Brown.

Helene Smith, a student at Brownsville Middle School, began singing with friends. Shy and with little confidence, Smith was discovered by music teacher Roscoe Speed, who singled her out for solos. At Miami Northwestern High School she sang in the chorus and worked at Johnny’s Record Shop recording more than 20 songs with Deep City Records. She became known as Miami’s first queen of soul. Later, she and Johnny Pearsall were married and had a family. He encouraged her to go to college where she earned a degree and became a teacher, too.

In 1968, Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall were invited by music industry pioneer Henry Stone to join his company, TK Records. Stone became the largest record distributor in the Southeastern United States and Caribbean. For personal reasons, Johnny Pearsall declined to join Stone. Instead, Pearsall earned a second master’s degree in education and encouraged his wife to continue her singing career with TK Records.

With limited resources Clarke left Johnny’s Record Shop and moved Deep City Records to TK Records. He was joined by award-winning soul and R&B singer Betty Wright, Willie “Little Beaver” Hale and others. In a competitive environment, the era ended in the 1980s.

At the conclusion of this interview, Willie Clarke and Helene Smith Pearsall seemed at peace knowing that their accomplishments are being recognized and recorded for current and future generations. High-spirited Clarke celebrates his success with a positive display of energy and a positive attitude, using the goals he set for himself as measurement.

Still shy, Helene Smith Pearsall spontaneously gave me a handwritten note with a message to Dennis Scholl, Marlon Johnson, Chad Tingle, Willie Clarke, Clarence Reid and her late husband, Johnny Pearsall, “Thanks for having confidence in me.” Their confidence is her measure of success.

Fifty years after the journey began, Willie Clarke, Johnny and Helene Pearsall’s story will be available to the entire community. Deep City, The Birth of the Miami Sound, will air at 9 p.m. Sept. 23 on WLRN-TV, Channel 17, a PBS member station. See calendar listing for future showings.