Atlanta Soul Artistry 1965-1975.

Label: Kent Soul.

Format: LP.

Atlanta’s black music scene started to thrive during the fifties and sixties. However, one of the most important figures during the sixtes was Bill Haney. 

He was a producer, songwriter and owner of Down South Productions who was responsible for some of the finest Southern Soul to come out of Atlanta. While his career continued into the early seventies, Bill Haney, like so many others involved in Atlanta’s music scene were overshadowed by the arrival of Michael Thevis.

The story began in the early seventies, when Michael Thevis was looking for a legitimate way to get his substantial fortune into the financial system. By then, he was heavily involved in pornography. So much so, that he would later admit to a Louisville jury that he was: “the General Motors of pornography.” That was still to come.

In the early seventies, Michael Thevis had a problem. He discovered that he was under investigation from the FBI. Not wanting to follow in the footsteps of Al Capone and Dutch Schultz who were brought down by federal investigations, he began looking for legitimate enterprises.

Casting around looking for a legitimate business, Michael Thevis hit upon the idea of forming not one, but three record labels. This included GRC (General Recording Corporation), Aware and Hotlanta Records. These labels would become part of his nascent musical empire.

Soon, there was a new addition to Michael Thevis’ musical empire, the Sound Pit Studio in Atlanta. It boasted some of the best equipment money could buy. Building the studio made financial sense. It saved hiring other studios, and meant artists signed to GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records could record at the impressive new studio. And when the studio wast in use, it could be hired out, and bring in much needed income. However, as all this empire building continued, tongues began wagging, including Michael Thevis.

Veterans of the Atlanta music scene watched, as the state-of-the-art studio took shape. This was the most advanced studio in Atlanta. It was a similar case with the rest of Michael Thevis’ musical empire.

No expense was spared as he expanded his musical empire. He added to his record labels the Act One publishing company, the Jason Management booking agency and a film company. They became part of Michael Thevis’ musical empire which 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 Atlanta. They were featured in Billboard in May 1974, when the magazine ran a feature on the Atlanta music industry. He 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 Act One. 

To run the newly expanded publishing division, Bill Brandon joined GRC, and became the publishing manager of GRC’s R&B division. However, the acquisition of Moonsong was just part of Michael Thevis’ grand plan.

He told Billboard of his plans to build a brand new twenty-eight story skyscraper in Atlanta. This would be where he ran his musical empire. It would have outposts in Nashville, Houston, Los Angles, New York and London. What made this  seem all the more convincing was when he booked eight pages of advertising in Billboard’s Atlanta special.

To most people, Michael Thevis came across as a legitimate businessman with big plans for the future and for Atlanta. By then, everyone seemed to buy into his grand plan. He was the local boy who had made good. It was a case of hail the conquering hero.

Incredibly, though, nobody seemed to be paying close attention to the numbers. None of Michael Thevis’ record companies were particularly successful. They were neither consistently releasing hit singles, nor successful albums. So where was all the income coming from? Was it the publishing company, recording studio, booking company or film company? Nobody knew nor seemed, in a hurry to find out. Given the musical entrepreneur’s past and his reputation for violence maybe that wasn’t surprising?

Originally, Michael Thevis’ film company financed legitimate films. This included the Zhui Ming Qiang in 1973, and Seizure which was one of Oliver Stone’s earliest films. It was released in 1974. 

A year later, Michael Thevis had gone up in the world, and released Poor Pretty Eddy 1975. Every film was more successful than the last. However, although he  was trying to build a legitimate business empire, he had reverted to type.

The film company he had acquired began producing pornographic films. If any journalist had even looked into activities of Michael Thevis’ empire, it could’ve come tumbling down. This looked 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. It 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 hadn’t sold in vast quantities. 

That was despite the labels having such an impressive roster of artists. This included Dorothy Norwood, Joe Hinton, Ripple, John Edwards, Loleatta Holloway, Jimmy Lewis, Deep Velvet and Joe Graham. They all feature on Atlanta Soul Artistry 1965-1975, a new fourteen track compilation which was recently released by Kent Soul, an imprint of Ace Records. There’s also two Bill Haney productions Arthur Alexander and Bobby Burn. They’re welcome additions on a compilation that also features singles, album cuts and unreleased tracks from GRC, Aware and Hotlanta.  Sadly, Michael Thevis musical empire was about to collapse leaving artists high and dry. That was still to come. 

During 1975, GRC, Aware and Hotlanta were still operating and releasing some of the finest Southern Soul of the seventies. Proof of that can be found on Atlanta Soul Artistry 1965-1975.  So much so, that it’s not easy choosing the highlights.

Side One.

Opening side one of Atlanta Soul Artistry 1965-1975 is Big Boat Ride by Atlanta-born Dorothy Norwood. She was originally a gospel singer who found fame after moving to the Windy City of Chicago. By the time she signed to GRC in the early seventies, she was singing gospel tinged soul. Backed by strings and a dancefloor friendly arrangement this irresistible hidden gem in a reminder of a truly talented singer who released over forty albums.

LA-born Joe Hinton recorded I’m Tired Of Dreaming  for Hotlanta, but it’s lain unreleased until now. This beautiful soulful paean features a polished Southern Soul arrangement and needy, pleading, heartfelt vocal. This track is a real find and welcome addition to the compilation.

Originally, Ripple’s main influences were jazz and funk. However, by the time they released their eponymous debut album in 1973 their music had evolved. Their new sound was  dancefloor friendly harmony soul. One of the finest examples was the album cut You Were Right On Time.

John Edwards was one of Aware’s most successful artists. He enjoyed four hit singles and his eponymous debut album is now regarded as a Southern Soul classic. However, he recorded many songs that were never released after the demise of Michael Thevis’ musical empire. This includes the Sam Dees penned It’s Got To Be The Real Thing. It’s a memorable mid-tempo track which had the potential to be a hit.

Closing side one of Atlanta Soul Artistry 1965-1975 is Love Woke Me Up by Loleatta Holloway. It’s taken from her 1973 debut album which was released on Aware. Its features a soul-baring vocal where she lives the lyrics on what’s one of the highlights of the compilation.  

Side Two.

Jimmy Lewis’ Is That Any Way To Treat A Lady opens side two. The track was from his 1974 debut album Totally Involved which was released on Hotlanta. It’s a tale of devotion that’s written by a man to the woman he loves. He’s besotted and goes above and beyond the call of duty as the song examines love from a quite different perspective.

From the sixties, Bill Haney managed and produced Arthur Alexander. One of the tracks he produced for the legendary Souther Soul man was You Ain’t For Real. Sadly, this hidden gem was never released until 1999 when it featured on the Kent soul compilation Bill Haney’s Atlanta Southern Soul Brotherhood Volume 2. This mid-tempo track features a vocal full of frustration and sadness.

By the time Joe Graham signed to GRC in in 1975, all wasn’t well behind the scenes. He recorded four tracks for the label including I’m Leaving which features a rueful vocal full of hurt on what’s a poignant but beautiful unreleased track.

Closing Atlanta Soul Artistry 1965-1975 is Since We Said Goodbye by The Counts, who usually were a funk band. This William Bell and William McDuffie is very different to the other tracks on their 1974 album Funk Pump, which was their second they released on the label. This poignant and moving ballad is a beautiful and fitting way to close the compilation. Especially given what happened next.

Running a regional record companies offered Michael Thevis an opportunity and facility to launder dirty money. He may have used dirty money to buy his own label’s releases. 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 label’s 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.

His musical empire all came crashing down in late 1975. Michael Thevis’ attempt to build a legitimate business empire had failed. Soon, it emerged that his musical empire was always doomed to failure. It had been for three years, ever since the FBI starting investigating his business activities.

That was when Roger Dean Underhill was involved in a routine traffic stop. An eagle-eyed traffic officer noticed a small cache of stolen guns under the passenger seat. This resulted in him being arrested. Rather than face the consequences, he 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. The artists had no idea what the future held for them.

It was a similar case for Michael Thevis whose grand plans were left in tatters. It looked like the beginning of the end for GRC, the company he had spent three years building.

It wasn’t. His wife Veld and son Michael Jr, took over the running of GRC. For a while, it was business as usual for GRC. However, for Michael Thevis things were about to get much worse.

He was convicted of conspiracy to commit arson and distribution of obscene materials. The man who sparked the three year investigation into Michael Thevis, even testified in court. Roger Dean Underhill  took to the stand, and the FBI’s informant testified against his former business partner. He thought this was the right thing to do.

It was a decision Roger Dean Underhill would later live to regret. In 1978, Michael Thevis managed to escape from prison. Straight away, he was placed on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list. By then, he and some of his associates had placed an open contract on Roger Dean Underhill.

There’s an old saying that you never see the bullet that kids you. 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. 

The Scarface of Porn was later convicted of the two murders. Over thirty years later, Michael Thevis died in prison in Bayport, Minnesota on November the ’20th’ 2013. The man who founded GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records was eighty-one.

One day, documentary makers will chart the rise and demise of Michael Thevis and his musical empire. It’s a story of two kinds of hits, the musical ones, and the other type that cost two men their lives. 

The story of GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records is truly compelling one, and is one that deserves to be told. These three labels releases some of the best Southern Soul of the seventies and  enjoyed a string of hit singles. That’s no surprise.

The labels had signed some truly talented artists from Chicago, Detroit and LA. They worked worth top musicians and producers during recording sessions at the Sound Pit Studio in Atlanta. Sadly, many of the singles and albums weren’t as successful as they should’ve been. This includes future Southern Soul classics from John Edwards and Loleatta Holloway. It was a case of what might have been and missed opportunities.

Thankfully, the music of GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records is starting to find the wider audience it so richly deserves thanks to Kent Soul. Over the years, they’ve reissued album and released a string of compilations. 

The latest is Atlanta Soul Artistry 1965-1975 which feature twelve tracks from GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records and two Bill Haney Productions from the sixties. For anyone yet to discover the music released by Michael Thevis’ musical empire, this new compilation is a tantalising taste of some of  the seventies’ finest Southern Soul. It’s sure to be the start of a musical voyage of discovery that includes the majestic music of Dorothy Norwood, Joe Hinton, John Edwards, Loleatta Holloway, Jimmy Lewis and all the other talented artists who were signed to GRC, Aware and Hotlanta Records.

Atlanta Soul Artistry 1965-1975.

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