But where other label executives have just walked away from the amazing talent pool of soul pop vets, the Philly-spawned and still Marlton, N.J.- based Grass sees opportunity, challenge and a mission.
As general manager of North Jersey's Shanachie Records, Grass has signed, sealed and delivered a staggering array of R&B talents who are no longer the hot new thing but remain "artists with great voices and great songs."
Take, please the still very fresh and versatile Mint Condition and their English cousins Incognito, or soul/jazz songbirds Patti Austin and Maysa. Shanachie has also dished sets from pop icons Jody Watley and Deniece Williams and R&B divas-in-waiting Keke Wyatt, Syleena Johnson and Leela James — the latter about to drop a tasty tribute to her no-relation inspiration, "Loving You More ... In the Spirit of Etta James."
And the niche-oriented label (everything from smooth jazz to country) still gives respect to progressive funk innovators George Clinton and Meshell Ndegeocello — critics' darlings whose reputations far exceed their sales potential today.
"We can't offer the same kind of deal as a major [label] might, with the big advance and the high-priced producers. That's why we could never sign an artist like Patti [LaBelle]," said Grass. "But if the artist is flexible, we can produce a good-sounding album for a whole lot less money — maybe $30,000 — and be happy with sales of 30,000 to 80,000 copies." Mint Condition just hit that mark with their juicy 2011 comeback album "7," and Grass said their September follow-up, "Music at the Speed of Light," will be "even better."
Some seasoned soulsters aren't waiting for a call from Shanachie. They're calling the label. "That's how we got Ruben Studdard [the “American Idol" finalist and former major label artist] and his new album ["Letters From Birmingham"], which I think is his best to date,” said Grass. "He was doing a video shoot with one of our artists, Keke Wyatt [for their remake of “Saturday Love"], and he started pitching me on a project he'd undertaken on his own. We stepped in and helped finish it.”
Well-aware of what's happening on our local scene, Shanachie recently dished a tasty set from Philadelphia-based duo Kindred the Family Soul ("Love Has No Recession") and is now prepping a second from the London-born but Philly-transplanted singer/poet The Floacist (Natalie Stewart). Both neo-soul talents came out of the gone-but-not-forgotten Black Lily scene at the old Five Spot nightclub in Old City.
"Randall's appreciation for the diversity of musical styles and his belief in the commercial viability of even smaller musical niches has made Shanachie one of the independent leaders and has helped the careers of dozens of artists ignored by the major record labels," said Chris Rizik, founder/publisher of the respected music site soultracks.com. "He's a true friend of soul music fans everywhere."
Randall Grass has always been an "underdog" sort of music head — into protecting rare and endangered species because "that just makes the music more valuable."
Reggae was an early passion for the guy, long before it became trendy, when Grass was hosting "Roots, Rock, Reggae" on WXPN (88.5 FM) and writing reviews for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
After joining the equally rootsy (Celtic-named and formerly focused) Shanachie Records as its resident reggae expert in 1981, Grass started signing talents like Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, Yellowman, Rita Marley and Bunny Wailer. He also moved the North Jersey-based operation into contemporary African music. Having lived three years in Nigeria, Grass was eager to share the fire and folksiness of Fela, Tabu Ley Rochereau and King Sunny Ade. And he was first to expose an intriguing a cappella harmony group Ladysmith Black Mambazo — long before Paul Simon worked with them for his landmark "Graceland" project. Said Grass, "I wasn't sure Ladysmith would sell any albums, but I thought they were great."
Soul has been part of his M.O. even longer, since Grass' family moved here from the West Coast in 1964 when he was 15, and he looked to connect through tunes then in local vogue. "The jazz scene was still vibrant in Philly. I looked with interest at the Uptown Theater bills. And going to dances, hearing guys like Jerry Blavat on the radio and songs like ‘Bila' by the Versatones was a revelation."
The music man also earned insights into Philly's blue-eyed and classic-soul music scene from producer/songwriter/musician Tommy Sellers, "a year ahead of me at Conestoga High School. Tommy was in Daryl Hall's [first band] Gulliver and worked with guys like Len Barry [“1-2-3"] and John Madara ["At the Hop"], and was one of the first to execute the crossover thing from rock to R&B.”
Plus, as a keyboardist himself, Grass has kept in the groove game with the periodically reunited, R&B-spiced Philly Gumbo, which "finally put out an album last year to mark our 30th anniversary.
“Not on Shanachie," he added.
Grass believes American soul music lost momentum "in the disco era of synth bass and drum machines — really awful sounds, when the music became a producer's medium. Then it suffered again in the age of hip-hop, when the music became a paint-by-numbers assembly thing."
Today, he sees renewed interest in the music from younger listeners connecting to the organic, retro-'60s approach of artists like Fitz and the Tantrums and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and to the more mainstream, torchy (Shanachie-like) stylizing of Adele. "She's a real voice, a real singer not into glamour or glitz. And there's more where that came from. Look at Emeli Sandé, an up-and-comer who's more quirky than Adele and a little more pop, or a singer/songwriter out of England, Michael Kiwanuka, who's a bit like Bill Withers.
“And then there's our Shanachie artist K'Jon, a really good writer. The lead single ‘Will You Be There' on his new [“Moving On"] album is about a person experiencing severe clinical depression and asking who in his life will still be there, even though his life is falling apart.”
Hey, somebody's gotta keep it real. And really soulful.
Contact Jonathan Takiff at 215-854-5960 or firstname.lastname@example.org.