On a quiet, tree-lined avenue in Chicago sits a nondescript brick house with white trim. A wrought-iron fence separates a bit of grass from the sidewalk, and an old wooden staircase leads up to the front door. There is no sign, nor does loud music emanate from within. If you strolled by on your own, you’d never know this modest structure housed one of the best and most ambitious soul labels in America.
Founded by three music-geek friends in 2003, the Numero Group for years was headquartered in the basement of the house, but has recently expanded to take over the upstairs as well. Inside, the walls are painted bright yellow and deep blue, and the rooms are chock-a-block with music-related paraphernalia: books and magazines, various musical instruments, LPs and CDs. Some are old and archival, others new and seemingly out of place (like a vinyl edition of Cat Power’s 2003 album You Are Free). It’s a place where a Hammond organ, pushed against the wall in the entryway, counts as office furniture.
While it has released music from a variety of genres, the Numero Group specializes in old, obscure soul music. Its flagship series, Eccentric Soul, gathers songs from long-forgotten labels like Capsoul in Columbus, Ohio, and Big Mack in Detroit, which makes Chicago a strategic location for a label that involves a great deal of travel. Perhaps more telling, however, co-founder Ken Shipley sees the city as ground zero for American soul: “Chicago is the soul music capitol of America,” Shipley told me when I visited the office. “There was more soul music recorded in Chicago than there was in Detroit or New York or California or wherever. This is the beginning here.”
Even the neighborhood, Little Village, has a strong musical connection: “Little Village, motherfucker!” exclaimed co-founder Tom Lunt when asked about the area. He’s quoting the notoriously obscene intro to Sonny Boy Williamson II‘s 1957 “Little Village,” an ode to the neighborhood and its women.
In recent years, Numero has expanded its focus from soul to folk, world music, rock, power pop, funk, R&B, and gospel. “We’ve tried very hard to do all music, anything we’re interested in,” said Shipley. “We’re trying to make sure that when people look at Numero, they don’t see the same thing. We’re constantly looking for new things we can do that are different than the market expects.”
The label has expanded well beyond its single-disc collections of city-specific fare to release a book on Southside Chicago nightlife, an obsessively curated Syl Johnson box-set, a DVD of short films and animation by Al Jarnow, and several revue-style concert tours. Currently, there are equally ambitious projects in the works, including a box set of Lou Ragland’s work from 1967-1977, but Shipley and crew remain tight-lipped about the details: “All our big projects are secret until they happen. When we announce them, people are going to say that is the most unexpected thing ever.”
Next to Lunt’s desk in the main room of the house, across from a picture of Mao Tse-tung, is a painting of a woman sitting cross-legged and playing a recorder. “We found it on eBay,” Lunt said. “I keep it there as a reminder to get it framed.” Numero used the painting as the cover of the 2006 comp Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies of the Canyon, although even today no one knows who painted it or even what the story behind it is. It’s one of the few mysteries at Numero, whose employees pride themselves on painstakingly researching every song, every artist, and every label they showcase. The third co-founder, Rob Sevier, heads that charge. “I highlight possible sources for master recordings and then try to nurture those relationships,” he explained. “You need to talk to everyone alive and then try to reconstruct the dead.”
That slavish research is an end unto itself, although Shipley admitted that not every listener will pore over the liner notes and credits. “I do realize that when we write them, we sweat over every word and every comma but less than 20 percent of the people who buy them are even going to read the liners. But there’s a library quality to it. We’re making things for the future.”
That belief that listeners still want that kind of connection with their music, even if the music is old and obscure, is the foundation of the Numero Group. Even as digital continues to eclipse the kind of physical media that clutters their offices, it’s paying off quite well. Downstairs in the basement, where every nook and corner holds shelves of stock, Nathan Phillips spends his days carefully packing boxes of LPs, books, and CDs, to send all over the world. He had an impressive stack ready to send to Japan, where Numero has a strong following.
“Every single record should have the Numero treatment,” said Shipley. “Even if it’s not on Numero, people should do it in the Numero style. Our goal is to show the rest of the record business that they’re fucking up here. There’s a grand opportunity to do records the way they should be done, which is the most immaculate versions of them that someone would want to own. We hope that our records will be on people’s shelves for the rest of their lives.”