“dead!” – carolyn sullivan (1967)

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For about three years, I hosted an independent soul music radio show on my college radio station. I loved soul music and my station didn’t have a block of programming that focused on that particular genre. It first aired January 2007 and really offered a mixed bag in the beginning. I played a variety of already well-known standards plus songs I wouldn’t have played once the show matured. Until I got to the point where the material was interesting and cohesive, I had to do my homework while the show was clunky for it’s first semester or so.

At the same time, I obtained a leadership role within the station handling promotions. This meant taking the station’s brand and increasing visibility within the community. I figured one way of doing this was partnering with businesses that catered to the station’s listening demographic. Places like record stores, coffee houses, and comic book shops. I became pretty good at this type of work and developed a lot of great relationships with vendors.

One particular vendor that was close was a record store; really the only one in town. The owner had been a long-time listener of the station as well as my show in particular; he even would record my shows onto his computer for later listening which never bothered me. The record store owner was also a soul music aficionado and turned me onto some new stuff he was recently getting in. At the tail end of 2007, he introduced me Sharon Jones and the Daptone record label. When I heard Jones, I knew that was the sound I was looking for to kick off the second half of 2007 as the show entered into it’s second semester.

What really thrilled me about the Daptone label was the raw sound. It sounded dusty, but was recorded that very year. I then wanted my show to focus on independent soul artists that were contemporary, but had the style and appeal of an aged, obscure group. Through my experience doing promotions with the station, I worked out a deal with the record store owner. He could sponsor my show in exchange for free CDs for me to play. This worked out really well for me because I needed more content, but didn’t have the money to constantly buy CDs for the show. At the tail end of 2007, I became acquainted with soul record labels like Numero Group and Jazzman. Looking back, I may have been the only person in town who knew of these kinds of record labels. If not, then I was the only one who really cared.

My last show was December 2009; a Christmas show. I had one more semester left, but external circumstances took all motivation out of me to pick it back up again. Now that I wasn’t doing my radio show, I kind of stopped listening and keeping up. Graduation was coming and I just wanted a job. I then turned my attention to other kinds of music I had neglected over the last few years. I knew I loved soul music deep down, but I needed a break.

Within the last couple of months, I’ve been breaking out my old soul compilation CDs again. Southern soul mixes from Mojo, UK imported northern soul collections, and even my sizable Daptone collection have been getting rediscovered. I love compilations featuring obscure artists. One of my favorites is a 2006 release called Dead! The Grim Reaper’s Greatest Hits. This compilation features an eclectic mix of rock, pop, psychedelic, funk, and soul. Every track is about death. Some of it funny. Some of it macabre. All of it fascinating jewel within my collection.

One track that stood out for me was the 1967 single “Dead!” by Carolyn Sullivan. Now, I cannot tell you a single thing about Sullivan. According to Discogs, she only released three singles and appears on only a handful of compilations. Like many of the other artists on obscure compilations, she may have been someone who recorded a single and just couldn’t sell it. Or maybe it was something else. Who knows?

Our station featured breaks in the normal programming called “specialty shots.” These specialty shots began with a promotional introduction for that particular show while the song served as a taste of what a listener could hear. “Dead!” became one of my favorite specialty shots.

The track actually has two versions. One is darker and evokes the imagery of a woman slicing her wrists open while the other is a lover’s lament that her boyfriend has left her because he won’t pick up the phone. Naturally, I prefer the former. That version is so powerful and shocking to hear. The vocals are dark, sad, and project a sense of dread. Sullivan is on the verge of killing herself and you hear every aspect of her pain through her words. At times, it can be a bit too much and you need to resurface from the murky depths Sullivan is dragging you down into. Regarding the backing track, it may have been recycled from another single. The organ appears to sound jaunty at times and creates a stunning juxtaposition to the lyrics. The mood and tone of the organ change throughout the song and leaves the listener confused yet mesmerized.

Soul music offers a vast array of possibilities for the listener to suit whatever mood they may be in. The happy, party soul music can ease. The breakup soul music that can comfort. And then, you have “Dead” which serves as a sobering reminder that things can always be worse, so enjoy life while you can.

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