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Diggin’ Beyond the Crates

The Numero Group has become the world's greatest reissue label by tirelessly chasing dead-ends, following every detour, and ringing doorbells at their own risk. DAVID PEISNER trails the label's founders through Louisiana as they sniff mold, rifle through trash, and maybe expose a few lost geniuses.

Later that afternoon, the Numero guys go looking for a man who ran a small label called Geodol, and end up at an empty lot in a trailer park. Shipley gets out of the car and asks a young woman in front of the trailer next door how long it’s been since someone lived on the empty lot. She shrugs. He picks through a pile of trash in the center of the concrete slab where a trailer should sit. “Just looking for maybe a piece of old mail,” he explains, “or something with some sort of information about whoever lived here.” There’s nothing.

That evening, they drive to the home of Walter B, who fronted Dunn’s post-Underground Express band, the New Breed. They’d gotten his phone number at a local record store, the Rock Shop (which also doubles as an emissions inspection station, a tax advice office, and a silk screening store), but Walter B hadn’t picked up. So, after a quick Lexis-Nexis search for a last known address, Shipley and Sevier decide to stop by, encountering a low-slung blue-gray house with black bars on the windows and two signs on the fence reading “Private Property” and “No Trespassing.”

Nobody answers the door. Shipley hoists himself up to peek over the fence into the backyard, then looks in the mailbox. “There’s no mail in the mailbox and the grass is cut, so someone is living here.”

A neighbor rides up on a bicycle and Shipley asks him if Walter B lives here. It bears mentioning that in this neighborhood — as in so many the Numero guys visit — thirtysomething white guys knocking on doors, sniffing around, and asking questions, look more like undercover cops, debt collectors, process servers, or bail bondsmen than record-label owners. There’s a slight pause and Shipley hands his business card to the neighbor, who confirms that Walter and his brother both live in this house. In fact, the whole street, he tells Shipley, is peopled with old musicians. It’s dark, though, and too late to start ringing doorbells.

The following morning, Sevier drives by another Baton Rouge address that he found on an old 45, but if there was ever anything there, it has long since been bulldozed. He then meets Sam Montalbano, the owner of Montel Records in the late ’60s, at a Starbucks in a sprawling shopping center, and Lynn Ourso, who ran a prominent Baton Rouge studio called Deep South, on a downtown street. Nothing much comes of either meeting.

Dustin Drase listens to an album on his portable turntable at the Rock Shop. (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

He also meets Harvey Knox, the last surviving member of a Baton Rouge band called the Herculoids, in a dank, cave-like workshop below his home. Knox, rail-thin in a black Harley Davidson T-shirt, is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelving units filled with electronic equipment that span a century’s worth of technological advancements — TVs, VCRs, DVD players, DVRs, radios, copiers, reel-to-reel tape players, laptops, turntables — along with countless weathered 45s. Knox makes his living as a repairman these days, but still plays out around town from time to time.

Sevier points to a pile of old recording tapes. “Are those Herculoids masters?” Knox says they’re not. “Who would have the masters?” Sevier persists. Knox pauses, glances toward the ceiling, and says, “Roy Stewart. He was the drummer and producer. He’s dead.”

Shelves of 45s at the Rock Shop (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

As the afternoon turns to evening, Sevier drops in on Lee Tillman, an R&B singer who had some regional success in the ’60s and ’70s. A lot of Tillman’s music has been reissued already and he doesn’t seem to keep any old recordings around the house. As a trophy shelf in his den attests, golf absorbs more of his attention these days than music.

“Every single person we are dealing with is not coming through,” Sevier says, as we drive south on I-10 toward New Orleans. “Not that this is in any way unusual,” he continues, “but when you keep doing this stuff what you hope is that Lee Tillman’s like, ‘I had this custom studio in 1973 and no one really knows about it. I’ve got this stack of masters.’ Or you want Lynn [Ourso] to be like, ‘Oh, here’s a ton of tapes no one’s ever listened to,’ or Sam [Montalbano] to say, ‘I’ve been holding off, but now I’m ready to deal. Here’s the stuff.’ None of that shit has happened.”