There are certain towns where there is apparently just something in the water. Some of these magical towns are well known for the music that rises out of them — Muscle Shoals, Alabama is one good example. Then there are towns like Valparaiso in the Florida panhandle whose musical contributions, though prodigious, have been largely forgotten, assuming they were ever even acknowledged in the first place. Fortunately, the good folks at Omnivore Recordings have not forgotten.
This week Omnivore released a 40-track compilation called The South Side of Soul Street: The Minaret Soul Singles 1967-1976. The recordings tell an important part of the story of Minaret Records, a label that was founded by a guy named Herb Shucher, a booking agent, in 1962. The label was based in Nashville at the beginning, and specialized in country music, and garage rock.
Shucher had a partner by the name of Finley Duncan who was from Valparaiso, and by 1965 Duncan had bought Shucher out. Duncan wanted to make Minaret a player in the burgeoning soul and R&B world, and that’s where the story begins to get interesting. Eventually Duncan would build a recording studio in Valparaiso, but the early Minaret soul singles were recorded in a variety of places, including Muscle Shoals where legendary musicians David Hood, Roger Hawkins, and Jimmy Johnson contributed to the sessions.
By 1969 Duncan was tired of commuting back and forth to Nashville. With the help of his partner Shelby Singleton Singleton, Jr., who owned SSS International Records, a studio called Playground was built. Now that there was a house, there had to be a house band to play on the recordings.
The band was led by keyboard player and arrange RJ Benninghoff, and at first featured players like Larry Shell on rhythm guitar, Dan Ertel on bass, drummer Tony Ardivino, and lead guitarist Kent Phillips. A variety of horn players were also part of the mix and often that mix included Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns. The band really found its groove when brothers John Rainey Adkins, who had played guitar with Roy Orbison, and David Adkins, who could play both guitar and drums, joined.
The flagship artist for Minaret in the soul era was Big John Hamilton. Big John was from Trenton, SC and he started playing guitar at an early age. By the time he was 17 Hamilton was a professional, and played with notables like Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, and Etta James. Hamilton was a responsible guy though, and he left the music business and took a job in a factory to support his family. Although he had turned down a gig with James Brown, when a guy named Leroy Lloyd offered Hamilton a chance to make a record, he couldn’t say no. Hamilton was part of a cattle call audition that Duncan held in Augusta, GA, and Hamilton was the only one who got a deal that day.
Hamilton recorded his first single for Minaret in 1967. Playground hadn’t been built yet, so the session took place in Muscle Shoals, with Spooner Oldham on keys, Leroy Lloyd on lead guitar, and the Memphis Horns. The single was a slow blues called “The Train” that was co-written by Hamilton Lloyd, and the B-side, co-written by the same team, was “Big Bad John” (not to be confused with the Jimmy Dean hit).
Hamilton continued to release great singles for several years, and they’re all collected in the Omnivore set. While none of them set the charts on fire the deep southern soul in the grooves is undeniable. All along Finley Duncan had been producing Hamilton’s records. When Duncan became locked in a battle with Parkinson’s Disease, that and the lack of chart success finally caused Hamilton to give up. It is one of the more unfair examples of a great artist being overlooked in our musical history.
Hamilton wasn’t the whole story at Minaret however. There were other artists like the powerhouse soul singer Doris Allen, who recorded on her own as well as dueting with Hamilton on soul classics like “Bright Star.” Other Minaret artists of the era included Genie Brooks, Leroy Lloyd and the Dukes, Johnny Dynamite, Willie Cobbs, the Double Soul, and Gable Reed.
By the early ’70s Minaret was already beginning to fade. Members of the house band left, burned out by exhaustion and frustration. Even the stalwart Benninghoff gave up and returned to his home in Indiana. Duncan Finley died in 1989, and Playground Studio deteriorated badly. Broken instruments and thousands of 45s were strewn about in the crumbling building. Precious master tapes were endangered.
The story has a happy ending though. In 2005 a guy named Jim Lancaster came to Playground’s rescue. He had recorded there with his high school band 35 years earlier. Lancaster took over, restored the building to its former glory, and salvaged as many of the master tapes as he could. Playground is back in business today as a working recording studio in its original location.
“The Minaret and Playground story plays an important part in American music history, and I am glad to participate in getting that story told,” Lancaster said.
The South Side of Soul Street package includes extensive and well-researched liner notes by Bill Dahl which helped me in the preparation of this column. The two-disc CD set can be purchased from your favorite record store, or online at Omnivore Recordings or Amazon.com. It is also available in digital form through the usual outlets.
Remember when I said that Minaret got its start doing garage rock? Here’s an album that collected those early recordings.