S.O.U.L. at Una Mas (422 Adelaide West), tonight (Thursday, June 28). $15. 416-703-4862. Rating: NNNNN
for every regional funk combo like Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind and Fire that broke internationally in the 70s, there are hundreds of great groups like Cleveland's S.O.U.L. whose records only made it as far as the want lists of obsessive collectors. Thanks to a few adventurous DJs and crate-digging hiphop producers who've discovered the unique power of S.O.U.L.'s stone-solid grooves, the uplifting music of their two hard-to-find Musicor albums, What Is It and Can You Feel It, have been reissued on disc and live on in the backing tracks of Heavy D and Mary J. Blige songs.
Founded as Sounds Of Unity & Love by saxophonist/flutist Gus Hawkins upon returning to Cleveland from Viet Nam in 72, S.O.U.L. developed a sizable local rep for funky improvisations and funkier threads that made them the house band of choice for the city's players' balls.
After the group's untimely split in 75, Hawkins turned to a career in medicine, but was never content to leave S.O.U.L. buried in his past.
When Cleveland DJ Mazi Jahi tracked Hawkins down in Atlanta six years ago to inform him that S.O.U.L.'s music was suddenly all the rage in England and DJ Russ Dewbury was keen on staging a S.O.U.L. reunion gig, it was just the excuse Hawkins was looking for to get his S.O.U.L.mates back together.
"We've all been doing other things, so the only way I could get everyone to come back was an offer to play in England or a jazz festival in Toronto.
"They flew us to England, all expenses paid, back in 95, and that's when they released our albums on CD. The crowd reaction at our show was incredible. They knew all our songs. We finished playing just about everything we knew, but they didn't want us to stop. They wouldn't let us leave!"
Though clearly delighted by the enthusiastic reception, Hawkins's recollection of his head-spinning four-day superstar treatment in England is tempered by unmistakable frustration about what might've been if the group hadn't split.
"We were on the verge of something big," he sighs. "I remember we'd just come back to Cleveland after getting a standing ovation at the Apollo Theatre when we found out our Musicor label had dropped us.
"We started asking some serious questions about our future and where all the money was going. Rick Talmage, the son of the label owner, Art Talmage, said, "If you're gonna keep asking all these questions, I'll can you.' That's what he did, and it broke up the band.
"Our guitarist, Beloyd Taylor, sold his song Getaway to Earth, Wind and Fire, and that became an instant hit. The thought just makes me feel sick, because that song might've been all we needed to get over."
On the upside, S.O.U.L. were spared the cheesy disco makeover that many of their contemporaries underwent in on their way to becoming pop stars.
So the sound of S.O.U.L. remains unchanged. Today it's the same groove-heavy jazz funk it always was, only it's probably more popular today than ever before. Just ask Pete Rock, Heavy D. or Mary J. Blige, who've each benefited from sampling the distinctive S.O.U.L. flavour.
"If you listen to Heavy D.'s song Letter From The Future, you can hear a four-bar loop of our Peace Of Mind, and Mary J. Blige's Be Happy uses my flute intro from our song Sleeping Beauty. I should be paid for that.
"So I went to an entertainment lawyer in Atlanta, and he said, "I'm sorry, I can't take your case because it would be a conflict of interest -- we represent those people.'
"Even if I found legal representation," explains Hawkins, "it would come down to who has more money to fight it out in court. That's not gonna be me. It's not fair, but, hey, that's reality."