Athens of the North

Early this year, fans of off-the-beaten-path Southern soul were presented with a funky little gem in the form of William Stuckey’s “Love Of Mine.” The 1979 record, laid down on tape for an Arkansas label called Symplex Records, was re-released in late January on Athens of the North, an Edinburgh, Scotland-based record label that specializes, its website reads, “in reissuing and officially licensing long lost, rare — and, above all, amazing — soul, disco, funk records.”

Stuckey, who is blind, is a multi-instrumentalist who got his start at the Arkansas School for the Blind — first, as a trumpet player, then a clarinetist, saxophonist, pianist and bandleader who’d end up eschewing a scholarship to the Music Conservatory of the Chicago College of Performing Arts in favor of playing professionally with a Little Rock outfit and then crafting a life as a performer and session musician through the ’70s and ’80s. Though he’s been quiet on the musical front since releasing “This Night Belongs To Us” in 2015 at age 67, his early disco funk-infused work is enjoying a revival, thanks to some diligent vinyl-culture-keepers at Athens of the North and elsewhere.

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Notes on the record label’s discovery, rehabilitation and preservation of the record, from the Bandcamp page for “Love Of Mine”: 

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This first ever re-release of William Stuckey’s extremely rare southern soul LP. When Brian Sears told me William was still with us and living locally I was shocked that nobody had spoken to him up till now. Not only that but he still had the multitrack tapes at his house.

Unfortunately the tapes were in a bad way and needed some serious work. Our good friend Dan at Audio Archiving Services in Holywood went above and beyond to restore the tape in small sections (despite baking it was still oozing gunk onto the tape transport and heads) then joining the audio back together perfectly. I know not many people would have gone to this trouble and I’m grateful as this music had one last chance.

The mix down at AOTN studio is brighter and clearer than the o.g whilst being true to the original mix, William was over the moon with the result when he heard it and we are excited to bring it to Vinyl, CD and Digital

Special thanks to Brian, Dan and Linkwood for the work on this project. Securing special music for the future is what we do and we just caught this one in time.

We talked with the aforementioned Brian Sears about the record, and about the process of restoring Stuckey’s “Love Of Mine” into a form that could reach peoples’ ears. Sears, a native of Kansas who has family in Little Rock, has long had a fondness for the music that came out of Little Rock and the region. He’s a record producer, a U.S. “point man” for Athens of the North and DJs a show on Brooklyn-based The Lot Radio. He’s developed connections with folks like Lee Anthony, the mind behind the funk/soul preservationist work of True Soul Records and owner of Little Rock’s first Black-owned record store. 

Sears was familiar with Stuckey’s 45s on True Soul, and with Stuckey’s extensive session work for the music on the label, Sears told us, “which are some of the best in the world.”

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“And then I came across the album and noticed that there was some demand for it worldwide. And just given the fact that I have the connections to put stuff out and re-release things, I was like, ‘Well, this certainly would merit a re-release.” So, when the pandemic drove Sears to spend the better portion of last summer in Arkansas, he reached out to the Stuckey family — William’s son Erreyon, chiefly — and told them he thought there was viable interest in putting Stuckey’s album on vinyl. “I think they had heard a similar song and dance over the years,” Sears said. But, Erreyon heard him out. 

Re-releasing old music isn’t always a slam dunk for its original creator; often, researchers who track down artists and represent them for licensing, like Sears, have to be the bearer of bad news — that the music they created doesn’t actually belong to them. But Stuckey had the original studio session tapes from the “Love Of Mine” sessions, with studio notes tucked inside. That’s unusual, Sears said. “Typically, you might come across the tapes, but it’s uncommon to have the actual studio notes inside.” Sears met with Erreyon in a Walmart parking lot, talked things through, and Erreyon passed Sears the tapes along with his blessing. Sears and his cohorts at Athens of the North sent the tape to Hollywood for restoration. “The thing is, with that tape, there was a film of mold, so it was a really arduous, long process for him to be able to transfer it properly; every 30 seconds, he had to clean it.” Then came the mastering; “Love Of Mine” hadn’t been given a proper initial mastering when it was released in 1979.

Was it worth it? If you ask me: Hell, yeah. The bass thumps that open “The First Time” are pure earphone candy, pristinely rendered. “Country People” is an empowerment anthem FOR THE AGES. Minimalist loops transform “Just Around the Corner” from a feel good groove to a surrealist, meandering sort of trance moment, belying the album’s predominantly cavalier attitude. And I emphatically defy you to sit through the entirety of “Wise Men Say” without moving your shoulders.

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“It’s a really heartwarming story,” Sears said. “Because Stuckey having made the record a certain way, he’d expected it to sound a certain way. And for him to hear it the way it was intended to be heard is really powerful. It was a really powerful thing to be able to send the final tracks to the family and have him sound overjoyed over the phone.”

“It’s the preservation of history,” Sears said. “You have all these unsung heroes, all these people from around the country who made music that might have just gone unnoticed for a variety of reasons — being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just geographical challenges, not being in a major city like LA or Chicago or New York. There’s so much great music out there. It’s never ending. It’s just kind of this race against time to try to preserve it before these people pass on. And there’s so much music out of Little Rock that’s still being discovered.