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New book ‘Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound’ coming October 10

Gene Williams and the Backsliders are caught in a moment of passion while performing at King Solomon’s Mines. Photograph by Mike Zerby, Copyright 1967, Star Tribune.
Gene Williams and the Backsliders are caught in a moment of passion while performing at King Solomon’s Mines. Photograph by Mike Zerby, Copyright 1967, Star Tribune.

by Andrea Swensson

April 14, 2017

It was a night I’ll never forget. It was a random weeknight in September 2012, and I was making my way over to the corner of Lake and Lyndale to visit the offices of Secret Stash Records, then an up-and-coming new reissue label in town. I’d gotten to know some of the staff of the label, and I’d told them about my burgeoning passion for raw and deeply grooving funk music, and they’d invited me to come check out the rehearsals for their upcoming Secret Stash Soul Revue, which would cap off several years of research and celebrate the release of their new compilation, Twin Cities Funk and Soul: Lost R&B Grooves From Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979.

I’d been listening to the new compilation nonstop, and as I descended the steps into their old basement space, it was like I could see the record was coming alive before my eyes. Players from at least half the groups on the compilation were positioned throughout the recording studio and rehearsal space, dissecting charts and noodling out horn parts, while my DJ friend Brian Engel wandered around the space starry-eyed, awestruck at the idea that he was about to watch the players from the 45s he spun for full dance floors at his Hipshaker funk and soul nights perform live after all these years.

The musicians made their way to the center of the room — Wilbur Cole of Band of Theives was on organ and Anthony Scott of Prophets of Peace was on bass, while the young co-founder of Secret Stash, Eric Foss, was holding it down on drums. Members of the reunited vocal group the Valdons stepped up to the microphones, and when they hit the high notes of the chorus to “Love Me, Or Leave Me” in perfect harmony, I couldn’t help but get a lump in my throat.

Something stirred in me that I night. I found myself flooded with a mixture of exhilaration and frustration. How was it possible that these talented artists were still actively making music in our city, and yet their stories seemed to have been written in disappearing ink? Why weren’t names like the Valdons, Maurice McKinnies, Wee Willie Walker, and Wanda Davis at the tips of Minnesota music fans’ tongues in the same way as the garage rock bands of the 1960s like the Trashmen and the Castaways, or the long list of punk rock bands that dominated the scene in our so-called heyday?

It occurred to me that these questions were bigger than a single article could possibly address. It wasn’t just a question of notoriety or talent; these were deep, nagging questions about racial disparities, segregation, and social justice. It wasn’t just about music — it was the construction of I-94 through Rondo, the civil unrest in North Minneapolis in the late 1960s, the politics that kept black musicians from playing in downtown nightclubs long after the Civil Rights Act had passed. The issues plaguing the Twin Cities now are rooted in decades of decision making and maneuvering, and have had a lasting impact on the dynamics of our creative community. And learning more about this history only further drives home how significant it was that Prince and his peers like André Cymone, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Morris Day broke through the decades-strong racial barrier in Minnesota, performed for mixed audiences at downtown clubs like First Avenue, and rose to superstardom.

The more I researched, the more the story grew, and so I did what any overwhelmed writer must do: I started taking notes. First at that rehearsal and the subsequent Secret Stash Soul Revue concert at the Cedar Cultural Center, then at libraries where I dug through newspaper clippings, then during countless hours of conversations with dozens of musicians, managers, DJs, and historians who could shed more light on the 1950s-1970s era when Minnesota’s funk and soul movement gained steam.


Today, I’m ecstatic to announce the impending release of Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound, out October 10 from the University of Minnesota Press. In it, you’ll find stories of the artists who laid the groundwork for that influential sound to take flight, and a musical progression that starts with Minnesota’s first recorded R&B group, the Big Ms, and ends with Prince making his First Avenue (then known as Sam’s) debut in 1981. And as part of my investigation into the foundation of the Minneapolis Sound, there are also stories about Minneapolis and St. Paul, which changed dramatically over the course of the 1960s in ways that are still reverberating on both sides of the river today.

I could go on and on about this, but I suppose I should save something for the book! For now, I’ll direct your attention to my publisher, the University of Minnesota Press, who has more details at the ready.

And if you’d like to get a better sense of the music of this time period and movement, please join me on the Current this Sunday night from 6-8 p.m. — I’ve put together a two-hour program for this week’s Local Show that will explore the roots of the Minneapolis Sound, starting with some of the Twin Cities’ earliest doo wop and ending with a few of the first recordings to feature a young Prince Rogers Nelson.

The following week, as part of a weekend of programming honoring Prince, I'll be playing two hours of the artists who brought the Minneapolis Sound to the mainstream in the 1980s. You can hear that show from 6-8 p.m. on April 23.


Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.