Local Current Blog

Forgotten era of Twin Cities music history unearthed and documented by Secret Stash Records

Credit: Nate Ryan/MPR

When old-school ’60s and ’70s soul fans gather at the Cedar Cultural Center tomorrow night to celebrate Secret Stash Records’ new compilation, it’ll be far from your average album-release show or listening party. Rather, Saturday’s show will be the culmination of a year and a half of researching, interviewing, rehearsing with, and otherwise coaxing the bands from a sparsely documented era of Minnesota music history back into the spotlight.

“It’s been this incredible experience of building trust with people that were, until very recently, strangers,” says label co-owner Eric Foss, sitting in Secret Stash’s underground office and rehearsal space with cohorts Will Gilbert and Danny Sigelman.

“There’s a very healthy skepticism that comes from veteran musicians,” says Gilbert, describing some of the musicians’ surprise and hesitation about being contacted for the compilation project. “But once we’ve gotten into this — you should have seen some of these guys last night, about how excited they were for the show and how it’s come together.”

The Valdons’ Monroe Wright rehearses at Secret Stash’s space; photo by Ben Clark

And come together it has. In addition to a 21-track compilation, Twin Cities Funk & Soul, that spans 15 years of Minnesota music history, the vinyl release will be accompanied by a 30-page newspaper that documents some of the clubs, radio stations, and publications that helped foster the black music scene in an era stratified by racism.

Connie’s Insider was really cool to find, it was this old Rolling Stone/Billboard/City Pages hybrid that existed in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And then clubs like King Solomon’s Mines, and the Cozy Bar, stuff like that. It’s basically things that no longer exist and have been destroyed or forgotten about for so long that no one really around under the age of 40 or 50 would even know that they existed or could tell you about them,” says Gilbert. “You had these bands that were playing in Northern Minneapolis or some parts of St. Paul, but it wasn’t like you could play anywhere you wanted. These bands that couldn’t get booked in South Minneapolis or most of the downtown clubs. That was really the surprising part.”

“There was segregation. Like, ‘your black band can’t play here,'” says Foss. “There was a lot of that. I don’t know how many times that came up [during interviews with the musicians].”

But Gilbert and Foss also found that the funk and soul bands ’60s and ’70s were incredibly collaborative, so much so that the musicians like Jackie Harris, Maurice McKinnies, and Mojo Buford appear on several different tracks across the 15-year compilation.

“We actually talked about making a big graph, like a spider web that would connect all the different tracks and artists,” laughs Foss.

“The Exciters, the Champions, Dave Brady and the Stars, they kind of grew up together, playing together, learning to play from the same older musicians in their neighborhood, practicing together at each other’s houses,” adds Gilbert, who has developed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the artists of the era. “They were bands, but then they would interchange with each other if someone was sick or couldn’t make it.”

Sax player Jimmy Wallace rehearses as Eric Foss looks on; photo by Ben Clark

Many of the musicians on Twin Cities Funk & Soul still gig regularly to this day (mostly in area blues joints “under the hipster radar,” Foss jokes), but the time of dressing up in matching leisure suits and performing choregraphed numbers with massive backing bands has long passed. Saturday’s gig at the Cedar will provide these longtime scene staples an opportunity to return to their roots.

“Disco hit Minneapolis pretty hard, as far as putting bands out of work and ending the scene,” says Gilbert, noting that many of the big “show bands” of the ’70s were phased out when clubs realized they could pay much less to book a single DJ than to host an entire 10-piece group. “What makes it so ironic, or full circle, is that [Hipshaker and Hotpants DJs] Brian Engel and Dale Burback, for the last 10 years, have been playing these groups’ records at dance parties, and getting people interested in them again. The disco was killing them, and now it’s kind of rejuvenating interest in their music.”

In that regard, Saturday night’s gig is a crate-digging DJ’s dream come true: It will feature over 20 performers playing 21 different classic tracks, many of which have only been available up to now on hard-to-find vinyl 45s. And if you believe the sparkle in the eyes of diehard local music fans like Gilbert and Foss, it’ll be a night for the history books — perhaps a new chapter in the one they’ve helped write.

See also: The Valdons perform in the Current’s studios