As R&B collections go, this four-disc, 108-song set gets high marks for its intelligent and well-conceived presentation. Producer James Austin wisely eschews the folly of the eye-burning, 5,000 word "expert essay" in six-point type in favor of a few hundred introductory words of enthusiasm for the music, the kinds of singles for which every crate digger lusts with every weekend expedition to the local swap meet.
The rest of this box set’s 120 pages of verbiage (written by an actual expert -- Bill Dahl) is housed in a glossy, well-constructed, 8" x 8" hardcover book and focuses exactly where it should: on the songs and the artists who made them. In the case of Don Gardner, whose 1966 single “My Baby Likes to Boogaloo” opens the collection, we learn from whence he came (Philly), what he did (He was once part of the duo Don and Dee Dee.), and where he recorded “Boogaloo” (in the '50s and '60s unofficial Black music capitol of the world -- Englewood Cliffs, NJ). There are plenty of photos of the actual singles (a nice touch), a long list of resources (including one of the great R&B blogs, Funky 16 Corners), and a helpful tracking of the songs in each of the collection’s four subgenres: urban soul, group soul, Southern soul, and funky soul.
Musically, the collection stays true to its purpose as stated in the introduction: “There’s not much in the way of hits here, but the grooves are skin-tight, the singers are utterly amazing, and this collection won’t cost you a small fortune that these selections would in their original 45 form.” In many cases, the grooves are strong and the singers are amazing. Gardner’s “Boogaloo” certainly qualifies on the former count, as does the Tempos’ Motown groove of “(Countdown) Here I Come,” the Dynamics’ “Bingo!” (tracked by Ed Wingate, Berry Gordy’s biggest competitor during the '60s). and the Mandells’ ultra-funky “There Will Be Tears, Part 1.” On the latter count, Alvin Robinson leaves his heart on the studio floor on the April ‘66 cut, “You Brought My Heart Right Down to My Knees”; Hoagy Lands channels Sam Cooke on the ‘71 single, “Do You Know What Life Is All About”; and Willy McDougal’s slinky “Don’t Turn Away” is just that -- as slinky as it gets.
Passing R&B fans will fail to see the point -- not every song here is off the charts and most never made the charts -- and audiophiles might be miffed about the mastering as it’s clear a lot of the material was lifted from vinyl, master tapes likely being long gone. But when all's said and done, this is a welcome document of some excellent music which, as the producers noted, wouldn’t be accessible to us without their efforts. To that, they’re owed a tip of the hat.