© 2022 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Birmingham's Lost Soul Sees the Light

R&B singer David Sea brought his gospel influences to some fine, previously unreleased soul songs.
R&B singer David Sea brought his gospel influences to some fine, previously unreleased soul songs.

Birmingham, Alabama has a storied history within the Civil Rights movement: It's the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," as well as the firebombing of a local church that killed four young black girls — not to mention the inspiration for John Coltrane's haunting "Alabama." Still, the city's musical contributions have attracted less attention, even though it's spawned everyone from folk star Odetta to Motown great Eddie Kendricks to recent American Idol winners Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks.

Birmingham Sound examines one slice of the city's rich history — a look at the Sound of Birmingham studio run by Neal Hemphill, who worked as a plumbing contractor by day, R&B booster by night. To be sure, Sound of Birmingham was never a heavy player in the southern soul scene, unlike the powerhouse studios two hours away in Muscle Shoals. But Hemphill and his artists — including San Dees, Frederick Knight and the Cold Grits — were nothing if not prolific. The first volume of a longer series, Birmingham Sound contains 23 tracks; the vault of released and unreleased material likely goes far deeper.

From those vaults comes "Let's Just Get Together," a phenomenal, never-before-released David Sea song. Sea may be familiar to contemporary fans — his career as an R&B vocalist didn't take off until the '80s — but he was recording at least a decade earlier. "Let's Just Get Together" showcases his powerful voice and roots in gospel singing, but his impassioned vocals are practically drowned out by the guitar playing counterpoint, almost in competition with Sea. Most likely, it was mixed higher than it should have been, but it gives the song a subtle undercurrent of dissonance that makes it that much more compelling. It's as if two performances are taking place at once, each trying to jockey for position. In the end, it's best to embrace the virtuosity of both.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oliver Wang
Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.