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‘Soul Music of Ohio’ looks back at the ‘Ohio Bounce’

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Kabir Bhatia
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Ideastream Public Media
"Soul Music of Ohio" covers rare, post-WWII R&B records from around the state.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Ohio was a hotbed for rhythm and blues performers, clubs and record companies. But for everyone that hit big, like the O'Jays or Bootsy Collins, there were hundreds of artists like Clementine Jones or the Valentine Brothers who recorded briefly and then disappeared. A new book compiles information about some of their long-forgotten and valuable disks.

Author Dante Carfagna grew up in Columbus and spent the '90s and 2000s amassing thousands of rare records at garage sales and thrift stores. Today, he lives in Chicago and has compiled the book "Soul Music of Ohio" for Numero Group, a record label which rereleases rare regional R&B records. As a de facto founder of the company, his collection has been the source for numerous anthologies going back to their very first anthology in 2004, focusing on Columbus’ Capsoul Label.

Dante Carfagna: We've [also done] Prix Records in Columbus. We did a rather huge box for the Boddie Recording Company in Cleveland. We've done Saru, which is also a Cleveland label. We've done a number of the prominent indies in the state of Ohio, and most of that were the fruits of my research and stuff that would have been in my collection for the past two to three decades.

Ideastream Public Media’s Kabir Bhatia: When it comes to actually finding these records anymore, there's a finite quantity. Has it all been snapped up and it's in collections? Or maybe it's been tossed? Or maybe it's a case of people, when they clean out their grandparents’ house they say, “This record might be worth some money” and put it up for sale online?

Carfagna: It's a combination. It's an existential question. Ultimately, because knowledge used to be earned. You would have to go out and do fieldwork and talk to people and find stuff - now it's a keystroke away. [For information on] record label “X” from Cleveland, you just punch it into this computer and the leg work's already been done, to a certain extent, for you. There are fewer of these items out there with each passing year, but as long as people die, their stuff will usually hit the streets again. But the generation of people that I focus on, folks that were making music in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most of these people are passed or passing now. And with them goes the story and the lineages and the framing of everything. It's a strange time to try to be researching this kind of material.

Bhatia: When you mention the knowledge that has to be earned and that it's a keystroke away, a lot of times that's a keystroke away because of work you yourself did, right?

Carfagna: Well, certainly, but when do you see footnotes on internet articles? No one sites sources anymore. Sources are a thing of the past, seemingly, and there's this thought that if something is on the internet, then it's everybody's knowledge and it's everybody's information. When in fact, that information had to come from somewhere and it usually came from someone’s hard work. But that's usually neglected when you're looking at things.

This is why I chose to make a book, a physical object, like “Soul Music of Ohio.” If we all run out of electricity and we have no access to the internet ever again, that book exists in a hard form and you can pick it up and that knowledge is preserved. So that's important to me, to have the knowledge exist outside of the digital realm.

Bhatia: So how did the idea for the book actually come about?

Carfagna: I've had a great deal of the data accumulated in the material assets, the photos and the records I've had here in my collection for a number of years. And with any organic topic like records and music, there's always new discoveries and things that are being learned. I had kind of reached a certain stasis with all the Ohio stuff; my additions to the larger discography were very few and far between. So, I was like, “Well it's only ever going to be 99% done, but we might as well do it now while I'm still capable.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, me and the designer of the book, Tim Breen, sat down and created an architecture in which to insert all of this data and all of these photographic assets. I find that organizing information, musical information, by its place of origin is really important because it begins to give you a better idea of what’s a regional sound, or a local sound, or a neighborhood sound. You know, you can telescope your interest and you can find it down to streets. If you just wanted stuff that was from E. 95th to E. 115th in Cleveland, you could kind of get that information.

Bhatia: I know in Chicago you can point to a “Chicago Sound,” but is there an “Ohio Sound” aside from the King Records sound of James Brown from Cincinnati?

Carfagna: I do think there is an “Ohio Sound” exemplified by the early Ohio Players recordings. The Ohio Players, though a Dayton group, spent a great deal of time in Northeast Ohio and Akron and Canton. They had long residencies in the early ‘70s before they signed to Westbound Records, and that's kind of where they honed their sound. They have a certain bounce - I call it the Ohio Bounce - and if you listen to a song like “Pain” by the Ohio Players you'll hear that. And because they were so popular in both Western Ohio and Northeast Ohio, bands kind of copped to that sound. So, if you listen to a smaller Akron group like Jessie and the Mel-O-Tones, who were at the foot of the bill on many of those Ohio Players shows in Akron, you'll hear the influence of that particular group. It's not a life-changing difference from other groups happening in America, but I do think that you can affix a kind of Ohio tab to that particular sound.

Bhatia: Groups like the Ohio Players or Levert or Lakeside all ended up leaving the state for greener pastures, and that's what really got them famous. But is that where the Ohio Bounce went off to? Or did disco just come in and wipe it out? Or was it something else entirely?

Carfagna: Well, one of the most important features of music that came out of Ohio, and I can use Dayton again as an example, and the reason that there's such a richness in both the number of musicians and the amount of music from a state like Ohio, which isn't popularly thought of as a big music state, is that all of the school districts in Ohio had great music programs. And, as we know, those were the first programs to be dismantled over the course of the past 50 years. There are very little, if any, arts in the public school system anymore. Dayton is not a very big town, but every other person in that town is a musician. The ratio of musicians in that town is crazy, and that's a direct result of access to musical instruments, musical theory, musical thought, just musical environments that were being put out there.

Scott High School in Toledo was a great factory for amazing musicians, many of which went to Michigan after that, because Toledo is a little bit more aligned with Detroit than it is with other places in Ohio. Many artists that went to Detroit to make a name for themselves, whether at Motown or elsewhere, came out of Toledo’s Scott High School in that public school music system. [It’s a] real shame to see that there's just no music programs in schools anymore. A kid that might not know he had musical acumen, if he's put in front of a set of drums or a bass guitar, and he's never seen it and he picks it up, and he's really good at it - that access allowed him to find something they didn't know they had. When you remove those options, you're just going to get kids wanting to be athletes or Instagram stars, you know? It's kind of embarrassing.

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Numero Group
Author Dante Carfagna says "Soul Music of Ohio" is not just for "record geeks," since it can be enjoyed on a purely visual level. The book contains hundreds of images vintage Ohio record labels.

Bhatia: Do you feel like kids are maybe able to do a little bit of that now themselves, with software where they can make up beats and things like that at home? Is that maybe going to bring this back a little bit, or is that really just too solitary and individualistic to really have an impact?

Carfagna: I'm not anti-technology at all. I think that music made on a phone, versus sitting in a music lab and playing the trumpet for six hours, I don't see too much of a difference there as long as the creative act is happening and you're making sound. That's fine. I don't think a trumpet is better or worse than Fruity Loops or any of these systems that the younger people use. But the one thing about being a trumpet player, or any other traditional instrumental player, is you usually had to meet other people and play along. There was a congregation element. You had to play with other people, whereas now, with the technology, music is usually made alone. You don't need to talk to anybody that plays a horn, because you can just find the horn patch and do it yourself. There's a community aspect that is often missing with this newer music.

Bhatia: We've discussed the social aspects and some of the historical significance, but I know that you wanted to keep that out of the book and just keep it a pure informational and visual piece of work.

Carfagna: The book, while geared towards people that are fans of music, offers a lot more than just that. You can look at it purely on a visual level. You could go through the label scans and the photographs of the bands, and you could look at them through a lot of different lenses. You could look at, say, the clothes that the bands are wearing in the photos. You could have a sartorial lens that you look through the stuff if you're a graphic designer. You could look at the labels and see all this strange typography and all this proprietary logo and all this strange stuff that happens on there. And, also there's a bit of local history involved as well. It's a creative act. It's an art that came out of the state of Ohio, just the same as pottery in Cincinnati or textiles from the Amish community. It's that same creative urge. So, it should be filed alongside, not necessarily other music books, but you could just as well file it under Ohio Historical Society type publications. And I like that. I want it to be positioned there rather than just the purview of like, record geeks, you know?

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Record and history geeks will find plenty to look at in “Soul Music of Ohio,” with its encyclopedic directories of records from the 1950s to the '90s as well as pressing plants and recording studios. There are also hundreds of scans of rare business cards, press photos, record sleeves and even the title strips used in jukeboxes for 45s.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.