A Chicago record company that specializes in finding hidden – or forgotten – gems has re-released a record that will give Virginia’s music lovers a chance to discover a piece of Richmond history.
In 1979, a group of 10 prisoners calling itself the Edge of Daybreak recorded an album titled Eyes of Love at the Powhatan Correctional Center, just outside the city. The album was released on the small Bohannon’s Records label and quickly disappeared.
In October, the Numero Group reissued the album, including an impressive set of liner notes that detail its history. Its concept was similar to recordings made by John Lomax in 1936 at what was then called the Virginia State Prison Farm. Lomax, a music teacher from Mississippi, was touring the South trying to capture music made by slaves and shaped by their descendants. He found at the prison black prisoners willing to share blues-suffused songs of vulnerability and wicked humor.
The parallel between Lomax’s recordings and Eyes of Love is fleshed out in the liner notes. But beyond the obvious commonality – black prisoners making music 40 years apart in roughly the same location in the South – there are no aesthetic similarities between Eyes of Love and the blues Lomax collected.
Producer Jon Kirby first heard about the record years ago during one of his trips to North Carolina. A resident of New York, he would stop at Carrington’s Music Shop in Petersburg, Virginia, on the way down. The owner, James Carrington of Keysville, had been the keyboardist and bandleader for Edge of Daybreak. It was through him that Kirby learned about Eyes of Love; he wanted to rerelease the record, but it wasn’t until he landed at the Numero Group that it became a possibility.
The back story of Eyes of Love is certainly interesting – hardened criminals in the 1970s recording a soul album behind prison walls, an album long since lost. As prison guards stood by, each of the eight songs was recorded in a one-take session via mobile equipment from Alpha Audio in Richmond.
The results, though, are far from a revelation. No traces of the blues-steeped sounds Lomax found 40 years before echo here.
The music is very much of the era. You get sugary blue-lights-in-the-basements ballads, reminiscent of the kind that groups such as the Delfonics and Black Ivory did in the early part of the decade, all led by a piercing falsetto. Those numbers are counterbalanced with rudimentary up-tempo grooves, funk cuts with a decidedly disco pulse.
This was, after all, 1979, and black pop had become unabashedly sleek. Donna Summer was the era’s prelude to Beyonce, dominating both the pop and urban charts with classics such as Hot Stuff and Bad Girls. Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament and the Ohio Players, groups that sold millions of records a few years before with hard-hitting funk, streamlined its sound, adding more gloss and glitter.
Although the members of Edge of Daybreak were behind bars, they weren’t out of touch with what was on the radio as they tried to capture the disco thump of the day. Much of the music hasn’t aged well. The musicianship is generally fine, especially for a group with little, if any, formal training. But the material is shapeless and weak, even by 1979 standards.
The up-tempo cuts, including Bring Me You and the title track, wear out their welcome rather quickly. The ballads fare better, but not by much, as they meander and lack discernible melodies.
Still, like Lomax’s work, Eyes of Love is important as a distillation of music from oppressed and marginalized people, an expression of a range of emotions, even if the songs aren’t particularly memorable.