Light: On the South Side
by Michael Abramson
Numero Group

The Numero Group name should be familiar to anyone accustomed to reading the Agit Reader’s virtual pages. Their impeccable collections of unearthed audio treasures—largely R&B and other funky musical forms—have found their way to our ears (thusly inspiring our pens) again and again. Of course, as touched upon in last week’s live review of the label’s Eccentric Soul Revue, the label has a special place in our Columbus heart given their eternal fascination with our hometown’s little heard soul scene. (I have a particular fondness for the imprint having interviewed Bill Moss upon the release of Numero’s first comp of his Capsoul label not too long before his death.)

While Numero’s output has thus far only been in the form of vinyl and CDs, with Light: On the South Side, the company has expanded its repertoire, venturing into the book publishing biz for the first time. The book’s 130-some pages are filled with the photographic work of Michael Abramson, done in the mid-70s at a handful of clubs on the south side of Chicago. But rather than capture the musicians plying their trade in those environs, as might be expected, Abramson turned his lens towards the folks enjoying the music, which just as often was provided by 45s in a jukebox as actual instruments and players.

As Nick Hornby details in his introduction to the book, Chicago’s south side was an American neighborhood that came to have a dramatic impact on the rest of the world through the R&B and blues that emanated from its tough streets. What’s beautiful about this book is that it captures those holes in the wall that few people who weren’t natives ever got to experience. This book is imbued with sweat, Schlitz and menthol smoke, and lovingly immortalizes the characters who loomed large in these jukejoint ponds.

Abramson’s main haunts were Pepper’s Hideout and Perv’s House, places where he was able to connect through his work even as his camera provided both a necessary buffer and unqualified access. His work possesses the unique dichotomy of being both poignantly intimate and, for the most part, impartial, empathizing with its subject whether it’s being celebrated or scrutinized. Abramson was given access to the doors and hearts of the patrons of Pepper’s and Perv’s, which comes through time and time again in the struck poses of cool, the candid acts of carnal longing and tenderness, and the obvious devotion to the groove. Perusing the book’s pages, it’s hard not to hear the swell of rhythm and emotion that’s evidenced in the positions and faces of each person to occupy one of Abramson’s frames.

Of course, Numero’s forte is music, and complimenting the book is two slabs of vinyl supposedly derived straight from Pepper’s juke. While one might suspect such an accompaniment to be just an afterthought, the book’s soundtrack is just as obscure and top-notch as anything the label has released. “You Made Me Suffer” by Andrew Brown is a burning soul reverie, while “Gimme Some of Yours,” by Artie White, is a smoking side of backwoods funk. “Young Blood” is a brash mix of boasting and horn punctuation that’s as good as anything this side of Lee Dorsey. In short, this record grooves just as good as it gets. If anyone ever doubted Numero’s dedication to their mission, which must read something like “leave no good record unturned,” this beautiful set seems to be the embodiment of everything they’ve hoped to accomplish—a visual and audio encapsulation of one small neck of the woods’ archetypal sounds.
Stephen Slaybaugh