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WLRN documentary explores S. Florida soul scene of the '60s

Sun Sentinel

Before Miami Sound Machine, Jon Secada and 2 Live Crew, there was another sound that defined South Florida's music scene.

During the 1960s, a small Miami-based record label called Deep City Records helped usher a brand of Caribbean-flavored soul music that played on small table-top Zenith radios and record players throughout the region.

The story of that enterprise, the first black-owned record label in Florida, is being told through a new documentary, "Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound," which premieres at 9 p.m. Sept. 23 on WLRN-Ch. 17.

The film's producers wanted to tell this generally unknown story about the regional label and how it helped pioneer a unique Miami sound that was influenced by rhythm and blues and Jamaican and Bahamian music, and infused with the flair of marching band drums and horns.

"We as a community, even though we are a young community, we are working to tell our stories, and this is the kind of story that deserves to be told about Miami,'' said Dennis Scholl, one of the film's producers, along with Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle.

Scholl, vice president of arts for the Knight Foundation, first heard about the record label after a friend gave him a compilation CD. "I had no idea that it was all from Miami," he said. "When I found that out, I couldn't believe it because this whole scene had almost been erased from our collective community memory."

The film takes viewers back to the early days of soul music on the streets of Overtown and Liberty City by catching up with Deep City's co-founders and longtime friends Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall.

The song-writing pair recruited local talent including Helene Smith, Betty Wright and Frank Williams & The Rocketeers and helped introduce them to South Florida audiences.

Wright, who was discovered at age 12 at Pearsall's record store, became known for "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do." Smith was known for hits such as "The Pot Can't Talk About The Kettle" and "Willing and Able."

"Helene Smith was considered, at one time, the first lady of South Florida soul," music historian Jeff Lemlich said in the film. "There weren't a lot of female artists that were having big hit records, and she was really leading the way."

In the film, the label's co-founders share their struggles to promote their artists beyond the region's nightclubs and bar scene.

"It was hard to get on the air," recalled Clarke. "The only records we would sell were locally, no farther than maybe Palm Beach."

The film also features interviews with musicians about Deep City's effect on the area.

"What Deep City records did for the artists that performed in the local nightclubs … and things in South Florida, it gave us an opportunity to get our music out there, or own music, kind of like what Motown did for its artists in the Detroit area," Paul Lewis, a former Deep City artist and member of the KC & The Sunshine Band, said in the film.

The documentary has already been presented at some film festivals, including the Miami International Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

"It's an important story about people that were doing world-class work, making world-class music," said Scholl.

johnnydiaz@tribune.com or 954-356-4939

On TV

What: "Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound"

Airs: 9 p.m. Sept. 23 and Sept. 25, 8 p.m. Sept. 26, 2 and 10 p.m. Sept. 27 on WLRN-Ch. 17 in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach TV markets

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