Chances are, you've never heard of Designer Records. One of many independent labels run on a little less than a shoestring in the '60s and '70s, Designer Records was one of the many imprints run by Style Wooten, a Memphis recordman who recruited new talent in classified ads in the back of local newspapers (this also happened to be how he found his wife). Wooten's rates ran low but he wasn't cheap. As long as the musicians had the cash, he took his time in the studio, coaxing the best possible performances out of his nonprofessional artists, which wasn't a particularly easy thing to do due to his own amateur status. He could play a little, but he left a lot of the actual recording up to Roland Janes, a former studio guitarist for Sun who had played with Billy Lee Riley
and Jerry Lee Lewis
before he departed to set up Sonic Studios in Memphis in 1962. Two years later, Style became a regular customer of Sonic, cutting a wide variety of artists -- country, rockabilly, soul, rock & roll -- and issuing them on a bewildering number of imprints, many of them named after cars. Wooten dedicated Designer Records to gospel. Many vocal harmony groups came through Memphis with the intent to perform live and they'd wind up recording while they were in town, waiting to release a single until the groups could afford to get a record pressed. Nobody involved ever expected that one of these records would turn into a hit, and none did. Often, the groups would sell several copies at live shows -- sometimes selling well enough to ensure a second single from Designer -- but that was the only place they'd ever circulate. Over the years, collectors were drawn to Wooten's work and Designer in particular because there was a raw, vibrant authenticity to the records. Little was known of the musicians or Wooten himself -- in his series of excellent liner notes, Michael Hurtt's writes that Style's son Jason admitted that his father remains a mystery to him -- but that hardly dilutes the impact of Big Legal Mess' four-disc 2014 box set The Soul of Designer Records
. In a way, this mystery strengthens the music as it underscores that it was, in many ways, true folk music, performed, recorded, and sometimes written by musicians who simply had a compulsion to sing these songs. Hurtt details biographical information for as many of the groups as he can -- more than you'd expect, although the information is often sketchy -- but the common thread is this: these are groups raised in the church but whose material often was informed by contemporary soul (some of the latest tracks here even feature newfangled effects like phased guitars), so they sounded like they belonged to the present, not the past. Sometimes the group had a guitarist, sometimes they also had a bassist, but it was Janes' responsibility to fill out the arrangement, so he'd sometimes add some live-wire guitar to the proceedings. The focus was always on the groups whose joy in harmonizing was palpable. This kind of gospel music isn't made much anymore. It's all rural small groups who were determined to connect on the terms of the modern world, adapting to its rhythms and sometimes addressing its secular concerns. At times, this does mean the music is tied to its time -- music made on a budget usually reflects the limits of technology -- but that's what is exhilarating about The Soul of Designer Records
. Some of the groups are exceptional, as are some of the songs, but what matters is the cumulative impact, how the four discs paint a picture of a thriving, distinctive regional scene.