Despite the lingering presence of small clubs like The Cantab Lounge in Central Square, soul music largely remains a footnote in the books of Greater Boston’s musical history, dwarfed by dense chapters on the city’s contributions to rock.
The Sugar Shack, a premier soul club nestled between a strip of adult theaters on Boylston Street during the ‘60s and ‘70s, was erased years ago along with downtown Boston’s seedier nightlife. Its surviving artifacts are sparse. Yellowing pictures of James Brown and Al Green locking shoulders with owner Rudy Guarino can be found online, along with George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic’s stories of early experimentations with LSD outside the club. Slightly more lucid recollections from amateur historians hoping to preserve the Shack’s understated glory remain online, as well. But despite their enthusiasm, no Google query can return more than a few results that fully encapsulate what these clubs once meant to the region.
On our side of the river, though, Cambridge dance night Soulelujah and Somerville record label Cultures of Soul are doing more than just eulogizing the city’s soul history: They’re aiding in its rebirth, building a renewed interest that both honors and expands on that legacy.
In 2003, years before the boom of EDM reimagined the club scene nationwide, a cast of local DJs was looking to establish an old-school dance night—Soulelujah—in Boston. They found a home for their vinyl-only celebration of soul at ZuZu in Central Square, and the collective worked to establish its name in the city while founders Carrie D’Amour and Sean Quinn, also known as DJ Claude Money, assisted in the behind-the-scenes work of maintaining a weekly dance night.
“We never really thought we would be running anything this long besides our mouths,” Quinn jokes, “so we weren’t really keeping track of a whole lot.”
Also a fan of vinyl, Cultures of Soul founder Jeff Swallom released the label’s first 7” in 2010, as the resurgence of records coincided with the rise of an online network of crate-scouring wax collectors worldwide.
“I always wanted to start a label as a kid,” Swallom says. “You know, starting a band at a young age, getting into different kinds of music in college, working for a record label … I was always trying to find music that I’d want for my own label. It’s just taken me all this time to actually do it.”
Swallom tried his hand as a DJ at a dance night similar to Soulelujah’s, but his earliest sets left him wanting to showcase more of his eclecticism. “I wasn’t catering towards the dance floor necessarily when I first started,” he affirms with a laugh. “I just played what I wanted, and I absolutely wasn’t playing new music.”
In Cambridge’s rock-heavy music scene, hesitation can be the first reaction to divergent voices. In their early years, both Soulelujah and Cultures of Soul worked tirelessly to cultivate enthusiasm for soul music in a city of college-aged transients.
“This is certainly a rock-based town, but rock has always had its roots in Soul and R&B music and, if anything, that just means that there are lots of people out there that just love music,” Quinn explains. “Because of the high density of college-age people, though, we continually search for a balance between keeping things interesting and keeping the crowd happy.”
“As a label, we’re trying to get people back,” Swallom adds. “First, we’re trying to get our artists out there, but that’s followed up by trying to get people to listen to older music in the clubs.”
“When you hear Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder or Otis Redding in the right context, the dance floor just starts taking on its own energy,” Quinn says confidently. “Show me someone that doesn’t like Otis Redding. Seriously—find me one person.”
While winter in the city often breeds bitter pessimism and reduced mobility, the winter of 2006 was the beginning of Soulelujah’s upward trajectory towards citywide recognition.
“It was a classic Nor’easter-type scenario, coming to dump a few feet of snow on us just in time for one of our Saturday night parties,” Quinn recalls. “We basically resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to play some great records to an empty room.”
While that particular night “didn’t set any attendance records,” Quinn was surprised to find a nearly-full room of fans had arrived at ZuZu to dance through the storm. “That sort of raised my eyebrows a bit, knowing that people were willing to trek through that mess just to dance with us.”
For Swallom and Cultures of Soul, the first brush with success was the result of a year-long hunt for an obscure hero of record collectors. Within a year of Cultures’ birth, Swallom went on a mission to compile the highly sought-after singles from prolific local session musician Andre Evans’ and his ‘70s disco project, Evans Pyramid.
“We contacted the Evans Pyramid keyboard player, who had Andre’s contact information. Then, for some reason, the contact info got lost, so we had to track down the keyboard player again,” Swallom recalls of the lengthy process to connect. “Eventually, we found the guitarist of Evans Pyramid, which lead to talking with Andre.”
Evans was disinterested at first. The session drummer, who once played for the likes of Little Anthony and the Imperials, Isaac Hayes, and the Delphonics, preferred discussing his new material over reflecting on past singles. But Swallom eventually warmed Evans to the idea of a compilation by using a since time-tested tactic—“pestering him for pretty much a whole year.”
“In those meetings every other month, there was just so much history and so many stories he shared, which is what you find in these older musicians that have seen a lot,” Swallom adds. Between childhood jam sessions with jazz legends John Patton and Grant Green, recording his first major session with Dyke and the Blazers at age 14 and leaving rising act Green Machine as major label interest began swirling to form Pyramid, Evans was solidified as a folk hero of the soul circuit. You can find Swallom’s written history in the Evans Pyramid compilation notes.
Many of the artists Swallom has worked with since have had similar brushes with fame, though often, their ascension ended abruptly when a label asked for too much control, paid too little attention or simply shut the door on their chances. “A lot of the stuff on our compilations wasn’t intended for DJs or clubs because that culture never existed for some of these artists. It’s giving it a new life, almost.”
To truly understand Cultures of Soul and Soulelujah is to understand that neither the city’s soul scene nor its musicians disappeared—they just didn’t know where their home was for a while.
Over the last several years, Soulelujah tripled its capacity by taking over The Middle East’s upstairs space—right next door to ZuZu—on Saturday nights. While Quinn says notable friends like the Grammy-nominated Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings and local favorite Eli “Paperboy” Reed are always welcome to “come by to spin a few 45’s” when they’re in town, Soulelujah also strives to offer its decks and dancefloors to soul lovers worldwide.
“I’m always really happy to see a reflection of the community getting down together, and for Cambridge, that means all sorts of people,” Quinn says. “The Middle East staff also does an amazing job of addressing overly eager dancers. We don’t really tolerate aggressive behavior, and the music certainly discourages that sort of nonsense. Music can be super therapeutic, and over the years there have been times in my personal life where a sweaty soul dance party was just what the doctor ordered.”
This inclusive message has pulled DJs from Miami to California, and even as far away as Cologne, Germany, to spin. “Being able to create a playground and invite DJs we admire to share their musical taste with our community has hopefully been as rewarding for our crowd as it has been for us,” Quinn says.
Just as Soulelujah worked to extend invitations to international artists, Cultures of Soul began stepping outside the realm of Boston-based cult favorites, shifting its focus worldwide.
“Since I started collecting disco, funk and soul records, I noticed it was hard to find something like Nigerian or African dance records because they’re still in Africa or scooped up by crate diggers,” Swallom says. “One day, I picked up a bunch of great Caribbean records that were kinda funky. I thought, ‘Maybe I should pull together a compilation of Caribbean disco music,’ and that’s how Tropical Disco Hustle was created.”
Since Hustle, Swallom has released seven other globe-spanning compilations of dance music that take listeners from India’s belated 1980s disco interests (Bombay Disco Vol. 1 and 2) to Brazil’s vast eclecticism beyond bossanova (The Brazilian Boogie Connection; The Brasileiro Treasure Box of Funk and Soul).
Cultures of Soul’s global network has left Swallom with some one-of-a-kind music industry tales, including mailing a band’s licensing contracts to a bus stop in Nigeria, as well as losing contact with a DJ in Johannesburg after faulty generators forced the DJ to buy some illegal power supplies from Russia.
“You can’t really write a textbook on this stuff,” Swallom confirms. “I’ve read so many books on the music industry, but you end up throwing out half of the stuff because it doesn’t apply to what I do.”
But Culture’s roots are here in the local scene, and Swallom’s commitment to supporting local artists remains strong. In addition to releasing an expansive box set on Boston’s creative jazz scene earlier this year, Swallom released an EP for local psychedelic rock act Creaturos, Cultures of Soul’s youngest signees.
“It came to a time where I realized I had been doing this label for five years and, yeah, people were digging the reissues and compilations, but I wanted to put out new music that I’m passionate about,” he says. “Creaturos were one of those new bands that caught me.”
Throughout the changes that Cultures of Soul and Soulelujah have undergone, both have maintained a following rooted in inclusion and dance that would make their Sugar Shack forefathers proud.
“People just want something different. They’re sick of the same Top 40 stuff, they’re maybe sick of the same live shows and they want to expand. I hope it keeps picking up,” Swallom says.
“I think a lot of nights in the Boston area cater to a college crowd, which is a fine approach, but it is certainly limiting,” Quinn adds. “When people know they can really cut loose without worry, that’s exactly what they do. Do you love soul music? Then we want to dance with you.”