Ken Shipley is a hard man to shake. “I’ll call somebody a hundred times in a week if I think it’s the right person, if they don’t pick up,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ll call somebody on an alternate cell phone number so they don’t see the same number over and over.” Shipley, along with Tom Lunt and Rob Sevier, runs Numero Group, a decade-long project to track down and reissue rare soul, funk, and blues from the 60s and 70s.Â To celebrate a decade in vigorous pursuit of the new and interesting among the old and forgotten, an anniversary that coincides with their 45th release, Numero is tackling their biggest project yet–a box set of 45 45s.
Numero Group has gained a small, but committed following in the music industry for their knack at discovering the undiscoverable (a recent article in Spin Magazine called them “the world’s greatest reissue label”). Shipley–soft-spoken, but talkative–offers up a range of metaphors to describe Numero’s endeavors. They are at once a “throw rug,” each thread a potential project, a “creative strainer” of an influx of music, and “a piece of software” that can be diversely applied. The team (nine in all) communicates throughout their Little Village townhome-office via AIM, and Shipley occasionally pauses to answer the ping of an instant message.
If failure is a consistent theme in their evolving history of sound–there’s a reason these artists had to be rediscovered–Omnibus is the magnum opus of delayed triumph. The set is a collection of misfit artists and tracks accumulated by Numero over a decade, pieces of records they wanted to make, but couldn’t find the time for. Unlike past Numero records, which tend to focus on one artist or label or producer, Omnibus is noticeably missing such aÂ cohesive theme.
The lack of a clear theme is a product ofÂ many of the groups’ short life spans. “Omnibus came together because there’s all these loners out there.” said Shipley. The set brings together these disparate groups to show that, in fact, “they’re treading the same path, the same water, the same dissatisfaction, the same lack of triumph.”
The stories told in the collection’s comprehensive liner notes show off this arc. Take The Intentions, for example, a soul group from Chicago. The brainchild of Art Dubois, the group broke up over a disagreement regarding their uniforms before their first 45 was pressed. Or take The Volumes, a group of teenagers who were prevented from going on tour by a strict father. Some stories are more tragic: the funk group Curtis Liggins Indications ended becauseÂ Liggins was killed in a car accident when the band’s driver lost control of the wheel.
Omnibus itself is a story of failure and revival. For their first release, Numero had planned on making a box of ten 45s, each record highlighting a different aspect of soul music. But according to Shipley, that idea fell flat–“there was no story, there wasn’t anything.” The idea was thrown out, replaced by their acclaimed reissue of tracks from the Capsoul label, the first installment in their series of Eccentric Soul.
A decade later, they’re finally revisiting the box of 45s. Many records didn’t quite make the cut, often because they didn’t meet the criteria that Numero agreed on–every 45 needed an accompanying group photo and story. Out of 75 to 100 candidates, only 45 made it through.
The tapes for The Trinikas, a group of highÂ school girls from Oklahoma, were one of Shipley’s most memorable acquisitions, and a perfect example of the sort of serendipity that often defines the label. Shipley had loved The Trinikas for years, but concrete information about the group eluded the music biz. There was a rumor that the track “Remember Me” was a tribute to a member of the group who died, but little was known about any of the members.
Then, around a year and a half ago, a box of paperwork arrived at Numero from a Missouri studio called Cavern. Buried in the paperwork were a contract, order forms, session notes, and a folio of photographs of the group, including the name of each member. Shipley spent months trying to track down the women in the band, until finally–with the persistence-teetering-on-obsession characteristic of the label–Shipley found the daughter of one of the women on Facebook. The daughter connected him with her mother, who then got him in touch with the other members.
This was a journey of biblical proportion for Shipley: “The personal grail is not just owning a copy of their record, or owning the license or anything like that. It’s that you connected the dots in something that has eluded people for decades.”
“Who the fuck is crazy enough to spend $200 on this?” That was Numero’s initial thought about Omnibus. At a time when people are reluctant to pay for mp3s, they might have had a point. The fact that actually a lot of people are that crazy is indicative of the reputation Numero has been building for ten years. But with that fear in mind, they decided to only make 1500 copies. “We shot ourselves in the foot a little bit, but it also makes it a really special and unique item if you ownÂ it. You own one of the most highly desirable Numero records,” said Shipley.
According to Shipley, the record has already been successful beyond expectations. In presales, they sold out to stores and to 500 individuals. Shipley expects a 400-500 percent profit margin from these records (they cost about $65 each to make), which could account for about 1/3 of Numero’s revenue for this year.
As an added incentive for customers, the box set comes with a digital download for each track, the first time Numero has done this. Mostly, it’s a matter of convenience–no one wants to flip a record for every track. “Most cars don’t have a turntable in them,” quipped Shipley. “But even so, even if you did have a turntable in your car, it would be very difficult to spin 45 45s.”
Only a week before shipping, Shipley and the Numero crew were literally putting it together by hand. Though their records are usually packed in Nashville, Shipley calculated the costs and realized it would be cheaper to package the boxes themselves. So here they were, with barely over a week to go, physically stuffing piles and piles of 45s in sleeves, collating the collection, and putting them in their boxes.
There’s a sense of urgency in their quest to chronicle musical history. Beyond the issues that accompany any small, independent business, Numero is dealing with material that’s literally dying. As groups are further dispersed, as members die, as records and photographs are destroyed by age or accident, Numero scrambles to preserve their memory. In this way, Omnibus is a lockbox for history, a dash of glue for these short-lived projects. “When you bind all of these together, it’s a lot harder to break them.”