Johnny and Dolores: True Sounds

By  |  December 7, 2009

Photo: John Craig, 1973. Courtesy of Lee Anthony.The song had been the B-side of the first single released by True Soul, the independent Little Rock label Anthony had started back in 1968. 

“‘Sockin’ Soul’ was made the same way chitlins and turnip greens are made. We didn’t have the best recording equipment at the time, so we had to improvise to fatten up the sound. We created the reverb by recording in the bathroom and put phone books in the bass drums to give it that bump.” 

From the outset, True Soul had been an experiment. Rather than standing by while local talent fled to the nearby city of Memphis, the hotbed of Southern soul, Lee Anthony decided to start his own label in Little Rock, the capital of his home state, to tap into the city’s rich offerings of gospel, soul, and funk and put Little Rock’s long-overlooked music scene on the map. 

But Little Rock was not Memphis. Arguably, its racial divisions ran deeper. Though Memphis, where Martin Luther King, Jr., had just been assassinated, was by no means a place of racial harmony, its music—from Sun to Stax Records—had the undeniable features of a mixed birth. Little Rock, on the other hand, was as black-and-white as the newspaper headlines of 1957, the year Federal troops were deployed to Central High School to protect black students against hostile mobs protesting integration. Lee Anthony, however, had not chosen Little Rock out of naïveté. When he applied for a sales position at the local record store, the manager had turned him away, explaining that they only hired blacks for custodial work. Two years later, Anthony went into business with his friend Bill Hamilton and opened Soul Brothers, Arkansas’ first black-owned record shop.

Impressed with the Stax model—record store in front, studio in back—Anthony decided to expand his operation. He trekked over to Memphis in search of equipment and secured a good deal from Sam Phillips on a used one-track player. With the rudiments of a studio in place, Lee Anthony was ready to record and enlisted the help of his musician-friend John Craig. 

Craig, the guitarist for a popular local band called The Playboys, came by the studio with his girlfriend, Dolores, wanting to record a couple of new songs he’d written. Along with two musicians hanging around the store that day, William Stuckey and Morris Freeman, Johnny & Dolores recorded “Little More Understanding,” a bright, horn-heavy soul ballad and “Sockin’ Soul,” a slow-steeped dance number.

Their sound is greasy and, much like the soul food Lee Anthony compares the single to, it goes straight to your hips. When you listen to “Sockin Soul,” the organ vamps hit you like a shot of cheap booze, turning the world into a fuzzy casing. The rhythm is absorbed into your bones and your body slackens as it calibrates to the groove. “Can you F-E-E-L it? Can you F-E-E-L it?” sing Johnny & Dolores, who are not just calling us out onto the dance floor, but are giving us a momentary escape from our particular lives and troubles, reminding us to just relax.

“Sockin’ Soul” was not just a case of beginner’s luck; it was the start of an experiment that would generate True Soul’s distinctive brand of soul/funk. True Soul became a factory of sound, drawing together a group of talented musicians and underwriting their creative projects. Wanting to capture the tight feel of Stax’s rhythm section, Lee Anthony put together a house band with John Craig on guitar, William Stuckey on keyboard, Thomas East on bass, and Morris Freeman on drums. The musicians worked together as a team, writing and recording, and built up a harmonic vision and rhythmic solidarity that gave True Soul a signature sound. 

Because nobody was making a living off their studio work, all the recording sessions took place in the early morning hours, after night gigs and before day jobs. “The musicians would just be playing around, having fun, and switching instruments, and then all of the sudden they’d have a song. It was during this time that I learned how to record, sleep, and spot a hit at the same time. If the song was really good, it’d wake me up and we’d start rolling,” says Anthony.

The label built a reputation that would later attract the likes of the gritty Arkansas bluesman Calvin Leavy, the female gospel group The Loving Sisters, and the legendary Albert King. Although True Soul was never profitable enough for Lee Anthony to pursue recording full-time, he kept it going through the mid-’80s and, in that time, produced a string of hard-hitting funk and deep-soul cuts that have since become highly sought after by in-the-know record collectors, selling for as much as seven hundred dollars apiece. On the inside cover of the critically acclaimed album ENTRODUCING, DJ Shadow displayed a picture of Lee Anthony’s business card, giving him international exposure. To this day, songs like “Psychedelic Hotpants” by York Wilburn and the Psychedelic Six, “Down Home Funk” by Larry Davis, “I Gotta Move With the Groove” by The Right Track, and the biggest seller, “Funky Music” by Thomas East—which sold over two hundred thousand copies—are prized as fresh, psychedelic-tinged, funk delicacies.

On the night of October 10, 1998, three men entered Soul Brothers and held Lee Anthony at gunpoint. One of the masked faces gave the order to shoot. Lee Anthony reached for the pistol, but was taken out by a second gunman.

Lee Anthony survived the shooting, just barely, but he lost something he could not recover—a sense of community. He had spent his entire career trying to build up the music of Little Rock, but suddenly found himself at odds with popular tastes, with gangster rap and its violent spectacle. After the shooting, he decided it was finally time to put Soul Brothers to rest. 

It’s been over ten years since the shooting, and I recently met up with Lee Anthony at Central High School, where he is now an art teacher. He told me that he liked teaching and how it was a lot like recording in helping people to realize their creative potential. He also told me excitedly that Now Again Records would soon be releasing a collection of True Soul singles. But mostly, he told me stories from his past, describing what was happening during the late-night hours of his studio as something “magical.”

Magic is nothing more than a sleight of hand. Lee Anthony brought out the true soul of Little Rock and somehow made it sound effortless. 

Photo: John Craig, 1973. Courtesy of Lee Anthony.

Besty Shepherd is a former intern of the Oxford American.