SOUTHERN GROOVE: HOTATLANTA, AWARE AND CLINTONE FUNK AND SOUL.

Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul.

Label: BGP.

Throughout musical history, colourful and controversial characters have always been attracted to the music industry in the hope of earning fast and easy money. While that night have been part of the attraction why Michael Thevis founded the Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone labels, it wasn’t his main reason. Instead, Michael Thevis was looking for a legitimate way to get his substantial fortune into the financial system. By then, Michael Thevis was heavily involved in pornography, and  later admitted to a Louisville jury that he was: “the General Motors of pornography.” However, when Michael Thevis began building his musical empire nobody questioned his motive never mind the source of finances.

Eventually, Michael Thevis’ musical empire in Birmingham, Alabama included the Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone labels, which were releasing some of the finest Southern Soul and funk of the seventies. This includes the twenty-two tracks on a new compilation released by BGP, Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul which is the first in a new series that examines the convergence of southern soul and funk during the seventies. Before that, Michael Thevis set about building his musical empire. 

In the  early seventies, Michael Thevis had a major problem when  he discovered that he was under investigation from the FBI. This was hugely inconvenient to someone involved in his line of work…pornography. Not wanting to follow in the footsteps of Al Capone and Dutch Schultz, who were both brought down by federal investigations, Michael Thevis began looking for legitimate enterprises to launder his fortune. 

After looking for a legitimate business, Michael Thevis decided to form not one, but three record labels which he would use a laundromat to wash his fortune. These labels he named GRC (General Recording Corporation), Aware and Hotlanta Records which became part of Michael Thevis’ nascent musical empire. 

Soon, there was a new addition to Michael Thevis’ musical empire, the Sound Pit Studio in Atlanta which boasted some of the best equipment money could buy. Building the studio made financial sense as it saved hiring other studios, and meant artists signed to GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records could record at the impressive Sound Pit Studio. When the studio wasn’t in use by Michael Thevis’ artists, it could be hired out, and bring in much-needed income. However, as all this empire building continued, tongues began wagging, including Michael Thevis.

Over the next few months, veterans of the Atlanta music scene watched, as the state-of-the-art recording took shape. No expense was spared to create the most advanced studio in Atlanta. It was a similar case as Michael Thevis expanded his musical empire which already included his record labels and the Act One publishing company. Soon, the Jason Management booking agency and a film company became part of Michael Thevis’ musical empire. This was something he was proud of, and wasn’t shy about telling people about it. 

Rather than keep a low profile, Michael Thevis ran his musical empire from a lavish suite of offices in a skyscraper looking over Atlanta. They were featured in Billboard in May 1974, when the magazine ran a feature on the Atlanta music industry. A bullish Michael Thevis told Billboard of his latest takeover, and his expansion plans.

Michael Thevis’ most recently acquisition was the Moonsong publishing company, which he had purchased from Bill Brandon. This became part of the GRC’s publishing division, alongside Michael Thevis’ own publishing company Act One. To run the newly expanded publishing division, Bill Brandon joined GRC, and became the publishing manager of the R&B division. However, the acquisition of Moonsong was just part of Michael Thevis’ grand plan.

Michael Thevis told Billboard of his plans to build a brand new twenty-eight story skyscraper in Atlanta which was where he would run his musical empire from. It would also have outposts in Nashville, Houston, Los Angles, New York and London. Nobody questioned Michael Thevis about his plans, and to make his story seem all the more convincing, he even booked eight pages of advertising in Billboard’s Atlanta special.

By then, most people thought that Michael Thevis was a legitimate businessman who had big plans for the future, and for Atlanta. By then, everyone seemed to buy into Michael Thevis’ grand plan. He was the local boy who had made good and was living the American Dream. 

Incredibly, nobody seemed to be paying close attention to the balance sheets of Michael Thevis’ record companies. If they had, they would’ve realised they weren’t particularly successful. None of the labels were consistently releasing hit singles or successful albums, which begged the question where was all the income coming from? Was it the publishing company, recording studio, booking company or film company? Nobody it seemed, was in a hurry to find out, and given Michael Thevis past and his reputation for violence, maybe that wasn’t surprising? However, if someone had cared to look there were plenty of clues where the money was coming from.

Originally, Michael Thevis’ film company had financed legitimate films, including Zhui Ming Qiang in 1973 and in 1974 Seizure which was one of Oliver Stone’s earliest films. By 1975, Michael Thevis had gone up in the world when he released Poor Pretty Eddy.Just like previous films, it proved profitable and brought greater riches Michael Thevis’ way. However, although Michael Thevis was trying to build a legitimate business empire, he had reverted to type. 

The film company he had acquired began producing pornographic films, and if a journalist had looked into the activities of Michael Thevis’ empire, it could’ve come tumbling down. This looked highly unlikely in early 1975.

Country singer Sammy Johns had been signed to GRC for a couple of years. In  early 1973, Sammy Johns released Chevvy Van as a single which was reported to have sold over three million copies. Given that a GRC artist had just enjoyed such a successful single, surely the label’s finances would be on a sound footing as 1975 progressed?

While most people  would’ve thought so, the truth was that many of GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records’ releases weren’t particularly successful, and none of their releases having sold in vast quantities. That was despite the labels having impressive roster an impressive roster of artists that included Dorothy Norwood, John Edwards, Floyd Smith, Sam Dees and Loleatta Holloway. The roster was like a Who’s Who of Southern Soul, and Michael Thevis’ labels should’ve been among the most successful  labels in the South. Instead, the record company’s losses were mounting up. However, the record companies had their uses though.

Running regional record companies offered Michael Thevis an opportunity and facility to launder dirty money. He could’ve used dirty money to buy his own companies’ releases. However, these phantom record sales would only exist on paper and would have the effect of laundering the dirty money through the company’s accounts. Once the money was in the record company’s accounts, tax could be paid on the profit that had been made. This would further legitimise any dirty money the company was making. Especially, as the FBI were still watching Michael Thevis.

GRC and the rest of Michael Thevis’ musical empire all came crashing down in late 1975. Michael Thevis’ attempt to build a legitimate business empire had failed. Soon, it emerged that Michael Thevis’ musical empire was always doomed to failure as the FBI had been investigating his business activities for three years.

This began when Roger Dean Underhill was involved in a routine traffic stop, and an eagle-eyed traffic officer noticed a small cache of stolen guns under the passenger seat. This resulted in Roger Dean Underhill being arrested. Rather than face the consequences, Roger Dean Underhill decided to inform upon his business partner, Michael Thevis. 

This lead to the start of a three-year investigation that resulted, in the arrest and subsequent conviction of Michael Thevis. For all the artists signed to GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records, this was the beginning of the end.

All the artists signed to GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records were left high and dry. It was disaster for all the artists affected by the collapse. They were left without a label and some of the artists were also owed royalties, which in some cases, was a significant sum of money. For the artists signed to GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records they had no idea what the future held for them. This included a number of the artists on Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul.

Opening Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul is Dave Camon’s Keep On Your Doin’ Your Funky Thing which is one of the unreleased tracks on the compilation. It perfectly demonstrates how funk and soul were starting to converge during the seventies on a track that is über funky, dancefloor friendly and soulful.

During her time signed to Aware, Loleatta Holloway released just six singles and two albums. One of the tracks from her debut album Loleatta, which was produced by her husband Floyd Smith, was the funky and soulful Only A Fool which features a sassy and defiant vocal. Two years later, in 1975, Only A Fool featured on the B-Side to the single Casanova. By then, Loleatta Holloway’s sophomore album  Cry To Me had been released and featured Frederick Knight’s The World Don’t Owe You Nothin’. It features a soulful vocal powerhouse full of emotion and defiance, while a funky rhythm section and keyboards create a backdrop for Loleatta Holloway. Sadly, the album Cry To Me was released not long before the demise of Michael Thevis’ musical empire and the album failed to find the audience it deserved.

The funk band Maggabrain was founded in Atlanta, Georgia in 1974, and before long, were part of Michael Thevis’ musical empire. They had soon recorded tracks of the quality of the funky, dancefloor filler Down At The Disco, and the slick, melodic and irresistible  Spacewalking where Maggabrain seamlessly combine elements of smooth soul, funk and disco. Sadly, neither track was released and make their debut on Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul. However, by the eighties Maggabrain was a successful band who were touring the world after enjoying several hits including New Wavin’.

In 1974, Floyd Smith released his sophomore single The Bump, which was his debut for the Aware label. Floyd had produced The Bump which he had written with William Johnson and Aware had high hopes for the single. It was slow, sensuous, soulful and funky and should’ve resulted in a hit for the talented singer, songwriter and producer. Sadly, commercial success eluded the single, and Floyd Smith released just a handful of singles, and enjoyed more success as a producer. 

After moving from Michigan to Atlanta, funk band Ripple added guitarist Barry Lee and keyboardist Victor Burks to the band. The new lineup of Ripple was signed to GRC, and soon, had written their debut single I Don’t Know What It Is, But It Sure Is Funky which was produced by Dave Ferguson. When I Don’t Know What It Is, But It Sure Is Funky was released in August 1973, it reached sixty-seven in the US Billboard 100 and eleven in the US R&B charts and was the biggest single of Ripple’s career. This was no surprise as I Don’t Know What It Is, But It Sure Is Funky was an anthemic and irresistible song where funk and soul combine to create a memorable and truly timeless single.

Although Archie Russell was better known as a producer by 1972, he entered the studio and cut Help Me (Pt. 1) and Help Me (Pt. 2). On both tracks, it sounds as Archie Russell has been inspired by the self-styled Godfather of Funk, James Brown as he delivers a vampish, powerful vocal. However, Archie Russell’s vocal is also soulful as his backing band keep things funky. The resulting tracks are favourites amongst breaks collectors and sample hungry producers. Help Me (Pt. 1) and Help Me (Pt. 2) also reinforce how by the early seventies soul and funk were converging as music continued to change.

By the time Jimmy Lewis signed to the Hotlanta label he had already  passed through a number of labels, never staying anywhere long. That was the case at Hotlanta, although Jimmy Lewis released three singles and the album Totally Involved during 1974. One of the tracks that was recorded for Totally Involved was When I Build My World, which didn’t make it onto the album. It was a funky, slice of hopeful soul from gravelly voice soul man, which was maybe the one that got away for Jimmy Lewis? It’s a welcome addition to Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul.

During their time signed to Michael Thevis’ musical empire, Deep Velvet recorded Complain To The Clouds (But You Can’t Change The Weather) which despite its quality, was never released. Just like Jimmy Lewis’ When I Build My World, Complain To The Clouds (But You Can’t Change The Weather) was the one that got away for Deep Velvet. This quality fusion of funk and soul lay unreleased in the vaults until it featured on the Kent Soul compilation Come Back Strong-Hotlanta Soul 4. Just under two years later, Complain To The Clouds (But You Can’t Change The Weather) returns for an encore on Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul and is a reminder of how soul and funk were converging during the first half of the seventies.

East LA Car Pool only single for GRC was Like They Say In LA which was released in 1975. By then, Michael Thevis’ musical empire was about to come tumbling down an as a result, East LA Car Pool never returned with a followup. This meant that Seeds Of Life never saw the light of day for thirty-seven years. Seeds Of Life features a deeply soulful and impassioned vocal while the arrangement is funk and urgent. Sadly, the song wasn’t released until 2002 when it featured on Living In The Streets 3-Busting Out Of The Ghetto. However, songs as good as Seeds Of Life deserve to return for encore, and sixteen years later, take a bow.

Ripple’s second contribution to Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul is Instrumental #2. It’s another unreleased track and finds Ripple fusing a funky rhythm section, brassy horns, and searing rocky guitar to create a hidden gem that sound as if it’s been influenced of Booker T and The MGs and Santana. 

The Counts were formed in Detroit, Michigan, in 1964 and signed to Aware in 1973. Over the next two years The Counts released four singles and two albums. This included the Mose Davis’ composition Funk Pump which was released as a single in 1974. Later in 1974, The Counts released their third album Funk Pump, and one of the highlights was the soulful, sassy and vampish funk of the innuendo laden title-track.

Soul singer John Edwards was another on the big names signed to Aware, and between 1973 and 1974 he released five singles and an album. However, one of the songs that was never released was Time. It features lush strings, a funky rhythm section and backing singers as John Edwards delivers an emotive and impassioned vocal on this hidden gem.

Tucked away on the B-Side of Joe Hinton’s 1974 single Hanna’s Love which was released on Hotlanta, was Shouldn’t I Be Given the Right to Be Wrong? It’s a hugely underrated funky slice of soul which was co-produced by Marlin McNichols and Joe Hinton that deserved to fare better than a B-Side.

Closing Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul is Checkmate the track that closed The Ebony Godfather’s 1974 album for GRC Moog Fluting. It finds The Ebony Godfather a.k.a. Joe Thomas using a Moog modulated flute on a track that although funky is quite different to the previous tracks. Mostly, that is because of the use of the Moog modulated flute which is something of a masterstroke from Joe Gordon and an innovative departure from him.

During the period that Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul covers, the twenty-two tracks show just soul music was converging with funk and the what had previously been two musical genres were becoming one. Even on the tracks by Loleatta Holloway, Jimmy Lewis and John Edwards who had made their names as soul singers they moved towards the new hybrid sound on Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul. However, this new hybrid of soul and funk showed that it wasn’t just the  times they were a changing, but so was music.

As a result, the new hybrid of soul and funk meant that much of the music on Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul was soulful and funky while some tracks were dancefloor friendly. Meanwhile, some of the tracks ranged from tough and funky to a much slicker, soulful and funky tracks. Occasionally tracks hinted at disco which would usurp soul and funk later in the seventies. Ironically, some of the artists on Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul including  Loleatta Holloway, later reinvented herself as a disco diva and enjoyed the most successful period of her career.

That was just as well, because some of the artists on Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul were owed money after the collapse of Michael Thevis’ musical empire. His three years of hard work came to nothing, and just like the artists on Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone, Michael Thevis had no idea what the future help from him.

With his grand plans in tatters, Michael Thevis it looked like the end of road for his musical empire. Fortunately, his wife Veld and son Michael Jr, took over the running of GRC and for a while, it was business as usual. That was until Michael Thevis’ world was turned upside down.

Michael Thevis was convicted of conspiracy to commit arson, and distribution of obscene materials. The man who sparked the three-year investigation into Michael Thevis, Roger Dean Underhill even took to the stand, and testified in court. At the time, he thought he was doing the right thing, but it was a decision that the FBI’s informant would live to regret

In 1978, Michael Thevis managed to escape from prison, and straight away, was placed on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list. By then, Michael Thevis and some of his ‘associates’ had placed an open contract on Roger Dean Underhill. When the hit came, the shooter was none other than Michael Thevis. He shot and killed Roger Dean Underhill and one of his associates. Not long after the murders, Michael Thevis was arrested and taken to a high security facility and the Scarface of Porn was later convicted of the two murders. Over thirty years later, and Michael Thevis is still serving his sentence, and parole looks unlikely for the man who founded the GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records.

Ironically, as Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul has just been released by BGP, an imprint of Ace Records, Michael Thevis the man who founded the three labels and financed the building of the Sound Pit Studio where the music was recorded is still languishing in prison and it looks like he really is serving a life sentence. The sad thing is, that if Michael Thevis had set his mind to it and played by the rules, maybe he could’ve built a real musical empire that rivalled the leading independent soul labels of the seventies? 

Sadly, that wasn’t to be, and Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone were castles in the sand that folded after just three years. By then, had recorded and released some remarkable music including the music on Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul, where soul and funk converges and a new hybrid genre emerges as music continues to evolve.

Southern Groove: Hotlanta, Aware and Clintone Funk and Soul.

 

 

 

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