Funk Archaeology: Richard Marks, Unsung Atlanta Soul Slinger

There are record collectors… And then there are people like Egon from Now-Again. Egon – who was the general manager of the Stones Throw label for 11 glorious years – is one of those rare creatures scouring the entire globe for the choicest bits of obscure wax, from Turkish psych to Zambian soul. In this edition, Egon talks about the delicate process of unearthing records from a mostly forgotten Atlanta soul music hero, Richard Marks.

Last October, on a windy and humid Atlanta afternoon, I found myself with Brian Poust, the world’s foremost authority on Georgia soul and funk musicians, in a suburb of Fulton County where, on a handsome street marked by manicured lawns and shaded by towering pine trees, we pulled into a driveway. The home ahead looked quaint and well-maintained – a late ’60s ranch house on an acre or so lot – but unremarkable. You’d never guess that it was the home that Richard Marks, possibly the greatest unsung Atlanta soul slinger, moved into in 1978, during the autumn years of his important, but unappreciated career.

Richard’s music was never officially reissued in his lifetime, and he never allowed the few record collectors savvy enough to suss out his whereabouts entry into his home.

Richard and his music are unknown to the majority, but to an obsessive minority, he is a lightning rod, that singular point at which numerous Southern soul and funk musicians converged and exploded, spreading wondrous music in all directions. Richard’s impeccable run of 7-inch singles, released largely on tiny, local labels, are the stuff of legend, and are hen’s teeth rare. I’m currently working on an anthology that collects his life’s work but, at this moment, only a select few cuts can be found on the internet. Richard’s music was never officially reissued in his lifetime, and he never allowed the few record collectors savvy enough to suss out his whereabouts entry into his home.

Given the caliber of his recordings and the near complete lack of information available about him, Richard stands out as the most mysterious talent to originate from Atlanta, a city that birthed no shortage of genius, from acclaimed worldwide (the Mighty Hannibal), obscure yet celebrated (Lee Moses) and local, but well-documented (Tommy Stewart).

Richard Marks - I'm The Man For You

I’d heard Richard’s music in the cruelest way possible: as a teenage record collector, with barely the money to scrounge in the LP dollar bins, Georges Sulmers, then a hip hop producer running the New York indie Raw Shack Records, gave me access to a new world: the local 7-inch single. And he had the most improbable record crammed into one of his dozens of tightly packed, white cardboard boxes: Richard’s Tuska Records 45 “I’m The Man For You/Crackerjack.” It’s a shocking record. One of the best funk two-siders ever issued, it’s never turned up in quantity, and, even in the ’90s, was a thousand-dollar single. I left Georges’ Brooklyn flat gutted. The only Tuska record I’d be able to source was Richard’s “Funky Four Corners.” It’s a fine record – fine enough to secure international distribution (his only) via two licenses in the early ’70s – but it’s nothing like its sibling.

I met Richard’s son Terrence in Los Angeles in 2007, shortly after his father’s passing. The Detroit hip hop producer J.Dilla, whose music I’d issued on Stones Throw Records, had also passed away recently. Terrence admired Dilla, so my reputation was vetted, and Terrence was kind and accommodating to my request: an invitation to the home Richard and his mother Catherine had shared, where Terrence had grown up, so I could search for the signposts of what I assumed was a well-documented career.

The family didn’t acquiesce quickly. My courtship went on for years.

The family didn’t acquiesce quickly. My courtship went on literally, for years. Half a decade after I started – after I lost contact with Terrence and his cell phone number was disconnected – I remembered: Catherine had given me her home number. I called and left a message. And I got a phone call back from Terrence. He said it was time.

So it was with nervous anticipation that Brian and I knocked on the door that autumn day. We’d asked Terrence to fly out to Atlanta to meet us, to help us navigate through the decades of paperwork, photos, instruments and what we hoped would be stacks of records and master tapes. We needed the help. Catherine was warm, and ready to show us what she’d found – and she’d found quite a bit. But we wanted access to everything.

After an hour of polite conversation — and Catherine consistently shining our requests to dig into the recesses of the home, Terrence finally levelled with her. It was a bit awkward, hearing this reserved, respectful son tell this strong matriarch, with us sitting on a couch next to Richard’s still shiny Gibson guitar: “Mom, they do this type of thing, all over the world. They meet people like us, after someone like Dad has passed on. They need to see everything or they won’t be able to tell his story. Nothing is insignificant. So where do they start?”

His prowess was so inimitable that his sonic imprint could be discerned on every record on which he featured.

We soon found ourselves in the carpeted, wood-paneled basement. We opened every door, we rearranged every box. We took out the Christmas ornaments to see if maybe Richard had stashed a copy of a known Christmas single he’d released there. We found hundreds of 45s, both major label and obscure. But none were Richard’s own.

That was a shock. A bit of a disappointment — but it was also a humbling reminder that, in the wake of a musician’s death, things are dispersed, taken by currents to wherever they land. The navigation between the remaining things, the basis of a vindication, of a posthumous canonization, is a long shot at best. Thankfully, Richard’s music is so inspiring that the process had started even as he was still recording and releasing vinyl (his last known 45 was issued in 1983) and his prowess so inimitable that his sonic imprint could be discerned on every record on which he featured.

Sandy Gaye - Watch the Dog That Bring the Bone

His talents as a songwriter and sessioner for Atlanta’s Tragar and Note labels were documented by Brian and the Numero Group for one of the Eccentric Soul anthologies. Richard’s own Note 45 – too rare for even these sleuths to find – was omitted, but other works, including Sandy Gaye’s “Watch the Dog That Bring the Bone,” which upon first listen, from the introductory guitar lick, sounds exactly like a Richard Marks 45, were first made available for wide consumption therein.

Amongst those scribbled notes and copyright forms that Catherine held so dear – including registrations for Richard’s obscure late-psychedelic piece “Purple Haze,” and the handwritten, first pass on his lyrics for his deep funk single “Never Satisfied”– we found Richard’s name on a handful of records, and dusted off other vinyl artifacts that, in the context of their final resting place and Richard’s distinctive sound, point at a probable point of origin.

Of course definitive answers will never be proffered, but we listen to these records with Richard in mind, and wondering on which other records this giant might have guested, and hope to find other great musicians like him before they leave this plane, to hear their stories, and, if we’re lucky, give them the props they’re due while they’re still with us.

Sandy Gaye - He’s Good for Me (Moonshot, circa ’69)

Richard had two copies of this femme funk rarity in two opposite corners of his basement. It’s a classic Marks collaboration, written by himself and Bill Wright, the songwriter he met when he moved from rural Georgia to the Bankhead section of Atlanta in the mid-’60s. In a recent interview, Wright told Brian, “If I came up with a song and called at 6 AM, Richard would always come over and help out. If we just had a couple hundred dollars to record a demo, Richard would always let me record my song first.” This song was omitted from the later Tragar issue of its “Talk Is Cheap” a-side, replaced by “Watch the Dog That Bring the Bone.” All three of Sandy Gaye’s songs were arranged by Richard’s longtime collaborator Tommy Stewart, who worked with Richard on all but one of his acclaimed Tuska 7-inches.

Bill Wright - Everything Look Good (Ain’t Good) (Momentum, circa mid-’70s)

This fine funk song has seen three issues – all basically the same recording, but some with overdubs and others remixed – between the early ’70s and the mid-’80s. Richard had kept two – this issue, on Momentum, and the final issue on Midtown – in his home. He didn’t have the longer version of the song that came out on Tuska – perhaps because his name wasn’t credited as arranger and co-writer on Tuska’s spartan label design. This song was recently sampled by hip hop producer/rapper Roc Marciano for “Momma Told Me” on his collaboration with Oh No and Alchemist, Greneberg.

Liberation - In the City (Sounds of Atlanta, circa mid-’70s)

This record was an oddity in Richard’s boxes: Brian told me Liberation were a Savannah band, and successful on the beach music circuit. He’d even seen a photo of the ensemble. (Richard, of course, didn’t appear in the picture). Brian had written an entry about the record on his Georgia Soul website and he pledged to look into the possibility that Richard played guitar on this obscure single.

A bit of research turned up a photo of the fuzzy-faced (white) post-hippie from their promo glossy on stage with his guitar at a Liberation gig, diminishing the possibility that Richard himself played on this record. But the fact that such an obscure single remained in Richard’s home begged the question if this style of funk influenced his development on one of his most adventurous, and final singles, “Purple Haze.”

Eddie Billups - Sweet Sweet Love (Solid Gold Records, circa 1975)

A fine sweet-with-a-beat soul ballad from Chattanooga, and one of a few records in Richard’s stash from Southeastern Tennessee. Brian recalled a healthy amount of collaboration between the cities – from the Atlanta musicians who played on the Eddie Billups-produced Jay Floyd “Push Push” single on HELPP (what an acronym: Help Everyone Live Peacefully and Profitably!) to Billups’ recordings in Atlanta for Shurfine/Josie and Peachtree. Could Billups have called Richard in for session work on any of these records?

Unknown - Always No Heartache (from a Moon Song Publishing Company Demo 2LP, Circa mid-’70s)

The most interesting record in Richard’s shelves was this two-LP demo album from Birmingham, Alabama’s Moon Song Publishing Company. There’s no writer’s credit on any of the compositions listed, nor are there personnel annotations. The music is all soul, by what appears to be a variety of different bands, and although the performances are more amateur than one would expect from a musician of Richard’s talents, one is left to wonder if Richard had something to do with a song like “Always No Heartache.” It starts out with a horn arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Ethiopian funk great Alemayehu Eshete’s Amha releases and pulses through two minutes of uptempo soul, probably the only time this song – and the others on this collection – were ever heard outside of Moon Song’s studios.

By Egon on June 6, 2014

On a different note