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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.

Eventually, Sevier and I make it back to Joe Gibson’s fortress-like house in Carrollton. Gibson’s wife Barbara answers the door, invites us in, and brings out two bottles of water. Let’s Make a Deal is on TV, loudly, and when her husband gingerly walks into the room using a metal cane and sits down, he appears far more absorbed by the game show than by Sevier’s offer to reissue the song he wrote for his daughters to sing 40 years ago. When Sevier asks questions about the song and the Soul Emotions’ history, Barbara answers, with Joe occasionally confirming various pieces of information. It’s not clear whether Joe is not well enough to talk at length, or if the Gibsons have the kind of relationship where she does all the talking.

Fortunately for Sevier, Barbara seems pretty enthusiastic and soon enough they are sketching out the terms of an agreement to license “It’s Time for Love” for the kid-soul compilation. Numero will pay an advance of about $300. Sevier promises to put a contract in the mail when he returns to Chicago. The Gibsons also have an album filled with photos and paraphernalia that can be used for the liner notes. Barbara shows Sevier back to her computer so he can scan some photos onto a zip drive and bring them home with him.

When she does, I’m left alone with Joe. I ask him what he thinks now about the music he made back then. “I still love it,” he says, his voice gravelly but assured. “I still have hopes and dreams that somebody will pick it up who can push it. Because those records are mine. That’s the biggest thing I can say. They’re mine. I just wish it could’ve gone where we would’ve liked to have had it back then, but it’s just one of those things. The music business is a funny thing.”

Once we’re back in the car, Sevier looks visibly relieved. “That meeting was pretty much the ideal,” he says. “It makes me want to double down and really get going on this kid-soul thing.”

A few weeks later, Sevier emails that he’s tried to correspond with the Gibsons since returning to Chicago, but hasn’t heard back. There has been a little action on the Valerian Smith project, though; Sevier has been working with the family on scouring the Library of Congress’ index for anything Valerian had copyrighted. It could be years before that project comes to fruition, but at least, after a meeting in Baton Rouge that left both parties wary, there are tentative steps in the right direction. None of the other leads they were chasing in Louisiana look promising at the moment, but as Shipley and Sevier make clear, their batting average down there was pretty typical.

“The problem is people are inherently lazy,” says Shipley. “They don’t really want to deal with their pasts.”

Back in the car after leaving Joe Gibson’s house, Sevier talks about Shipley’s willingness to sell Numero. The company was Shipley’s idea, but in some ways, Sevier has become the creative engine. While it’s easy to imagine the gregarious Shipley moving on to find success in other ventures, Sevier’s skill set, personality, and life experience seem almost singularly suited for exactly what he’s doing. Could he just walk away if someone made them a good offer?

“It’s a fantasy,” he says. “What would they be buying? No one could make money off this brand. What our brand stands for is virtually impossible-to-do projects. Laborious projects with very little return. To do this well, you really have to do this….” Sevier motions to the car, his notebook, and the traffic-clogged streets around us.

This is expensive — mentally, physically, and monetarily,” he continues, looking outside where it has now started raining. “Who would want that?”