Daptone Records, the perennial champions of ’60s and ‘70s era funk and soul, has gone sweet. After 20 years of putting out hard-hitting records with legendary singers Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley — as well as a dozen other groups — the Brooklyn-based independent label has launched Penrose Records, an imprint of contemporary bands dedicated to performing the ballads, sweet soul and midtempo tunes made famous in Southern California.
Sweet soul music – also known as lowrider oldies on the West Coast, rolas and souldies – are typically early ‘60s-style tunes that emphasize vocal harmonies. Most songs are slow-to-midtempo, many are ballads, and the sub-genre is generally stripped down compared to the highly produced Motown hits of the time. Motown and its contemporaries did cut sweet tunes — think Smokey Robinson’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy” and Brenton Wood’s “I Think You’ve Got Your Fools Mixed Up.”
But some of the greatest songs of the sweet soul genre — which largely receded in popularity after the ‘60s, in favor of more uptempo, produced and some times frenetic soul (and eventually funk, though ballads appeared on b-sides and in album cuts through the ’70s) — were made by lesser-known Latino musicians in Southern California and Texas. They performed originals and covers of soul and R&B classics to create Chicano soul in the early to mid 1960s.
“When I first got into making records… everything was just fast and funky, and stuff people could dance to,” says Daptone co-founder and Dap-Kings bassist Gabe Roth, a.k.a. Bosco Mann. “Over the years I got older, and tireder, and got more into ballads and slow stuff.”
With an ear for the sweet sounds coming out of East Los Angeles, San Diego and the Inland Empire, Roth launched Penrose Records — named for the sun-drenched studio the producer runs in his hometown of Riverside, Calif. The Daptone imprint debuts Tuesday (Mar. 3) with five singles from five bands who call the southland home: Thee Sacred Souls from San Diego, Jason Joshua from Miami (and soon SoCal), and East L.A.’s Thee Sinseers, The Altons, and Los Yesterdays.
True to form, the Penrose singles were recorded on vintage analog equipment, then souped up with Daptone’s trademark production to add even more depth to searing harmonies. Penrose will first release a five-song EP featuring all five bands, followed by 7-inch vinyl singles, and a digital compilation on April 10.
“Soul music is one of those things that never really leaves the culture, it always resurfaces,” says Sacred Souls vocalist Josh Lane. “There’s a soul movement again that Gabe and Daptone have started…to release five artists at the same time, gives you options because you know it’s tried and true and gonna be good.”
The Sacred Souls were originally an instrumental oldies group before the addition of Lane in 2019. The band quickly became a fixture in San Diego’s soul scene, and though they haven’t officially released any music – just a couple teaser videos on Instagram – the three-piece’s warm, pleading sound caught Roth’s ear. Soon after, the band headed to the Penrose studio to cut their first release, a single of “Can I Call You Rose?” b/w “Weak For Your Love.” The rawness of Thee Sacred Souls and other Penrose artists, as well as the organic nature of the way this group of musicians coalesced, is both refreshing, and reflective of how the Daptone family came to be.
“I feel like I kinda had my scene from the ‘90s on…we built this whole scene and this family and this mini empire,” Roth says. “What’s exciting to me about this thing is it’s not really my doing. I’m trying to produce stuff, and create a space and foster the scene and put resources into what these kids are doing — but it’s really their scene.”
Many of the Penrose crew have been playing together in various configurations at parties and clubs in Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire for years, and a handful play on each other’s singles for Penrose’s debut EP. Producer/songwriter/singer Joe Quiñones spent years singing harmonies with rocksteady group The Steady 45s in an adjacent revival scene, but long felt the pull of sweet soul. Like the majority of Penrose musicians, he grew up listening to oldies.
“My dad’s been in car clubs since I was born; I’ve always been at those car shows where oldies are being played. I met Brenton Wood there when I was 8 or 9 years old,” he says. “Back then, [sweet soul] was just like a car club kind of thing; it wasn’t a hip thing. It was something our parents were into and we got kind of dragged into it.”
Quiñones’ group, Thee Sinseers, have been performing the ballad-heavy soul heard on their parents’ car radios for several years, and their videos have amassed over a million views on YouTube. Their forthcoming Penrose single, “Seems Like,” features Roth on bass and layers falsetto vocals over Dap-Kings style horns. Members of Thee Sinseers, including Quiñones, also perform as rock and soul band The Altons. The group’s Penrose releases are the hypnotic, falsetto-laden “Over and Over” and a smoky-sweet groover, “When You Go (That’s When You’ll Know)” — the video for which is premiered below:
“Gabe’s kind of sound and the whole Daptone thing has been on the East Coast; it’s kind of the standard you had to meet,” Quiñones says. “They’ve always been a little more in-house, and I think they’re going a different route… starting to look at younger talent. Their New York crew is out there is doing their thing…and it seemed like [Roth] needed a new crew, so we brought in our guys.”
Penrose will still feature OG Daptone musicians and some new family friends. Roth and guitarist/producer Tom Brenneck (of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Charles Bradley fame) perform with Altadena’s Gabriel Rowland and Victor Benavides as Los Yesterdays; the band will release their “Tell Me I’m Dreaming” b/w “Time” single on Penrose.
Miami-based Jason Joshua, who performs scorching ballads and Latin soul as the leader of Jason Joshua and The Beholders, connected with Roth through Adam Scone – an organist who performed with proto-Daptone soul jazz group The Sugarman Three (named for Daptone co-founder Neal Sugarman). Joshua’s single, the uptempo, guiro-laced “Language of Love,” is exemplary of the breath of influences that compliment sweet soul.
“I was raised on salsa music, R&B ballads, Chicano soul, boogaloo, Latin funk and even old Latin rock like The Ghetto Brothers,” Joshua says, adding that Daptone is his favorite label. “But I was always into the sweet soul and Chicano culture — these slow-a–, heart-wrenching ballads. Miami is such an uptempo BPM place; I was always getting kicked out of clubs for playing that stuff.”
While Miami and other funk and soul scenes eschew rolas, there is a generations-long appreciation for sweet soul music among California’s Latino communities. Eastern Los Angeles teens (as well as those in Texas, such as Sunny and the Sunliners) helped foster a love of sweet soul in the early ‘60s by covering soulful ballads by artists like James Brown; a handful of bands such as Thee Midniters, The Romancers and “La Bamba” singer Richie Valens became popular for their originals, and set the sonic standard for their neighborhoods. Those sounds, and other oldies heard on radio shows like The Art Laboe Connection, were kept alive by record collectors and people who spent evenings cruising along East Los boulevards.
“It’s handed down through family,” says Los Angeles-based DJ, historian and Chicano Soul author Ruben Molina. A member of the DJ crew Southern Soul Spinners, Molina has been an integral part of the Chicano record collecting community and has seen firsthand the multi-generational power of oldies. “We would do these DJ nights and at one table you could find a grandmother, the father, the kids and the grandkids — and all of them knew what they were listening to. There might be little gaps [in interest], but then another generation comes along and they pick it up.”
Today, there are dozens of sweet soul DJ events both inside and outside of Latino communities. You can find pop-up events like Hello Stranger, nights at Eastside Luv and crews like the B-Side Brujas in L.A, Suavecito Souldies in Oakland, and DJs throughout the East Coast spinning slowies. New groups such as Eddie and The Valiants are performing sweet soul tunes, while established soul and funk musicians have recently cut lowrider-friendly jams.
“I think people have always been into this culture, and I think it’s cool that it’s opened so much now that the hipsters are getting into it,” says Jason Joshua, who just released an LP of ballads, Alegria y Tristeza, on Fat Beats Records. “And that’s cool because hipsters buy records. Finally you can go DJ and play some slow s–t.”
Yet, Daptone isn’t the first label to tap this sweet soul scene. Durand Jones and The Indications (Colemine/Dead Oceans) entranced the lowrider community with their single “Is It Any Wonder?” in 2016, and are touring hard on their sweet soul-laced sophomore release, 2019’s American Love Call. “They came up at an interesting time, right when Sharon and Charles were passing,” Roth mused. “They filled a certain void.” The band is so beloved by lowriders that they wrote “Cruisin’ to the Park” in homage.
Ohio’s Colemine Records has since put out a number of sweet soul singles from singer/organist Kelly Finnigan (who has put out sweet stuff as The Sentiments on his own Transistor Sound label), Ben Pirani and by The Sinseers. The compilation Look at My Soul highlighted Texas sweet soul music, and even actor/entrepreneur Danny Trejo has gotten into the sweet soul game (with Joe Quiñones as a producer). Finland’s Timmion Records, which distributes music through Daptone, has released a number of sweet soul tunes and ballads, including Pratt and Moody’s popular “Lost Lost Lost.”
Brooklyn’s Big Crown Records — founded by Danny Akalepse and Leon Michels in 2016 — may be leading the sweet soul scene, though it refuses to be pigeonholed into one sound. The honeyed voice of its headlining artist, Lee Fields, fits squarely in the world of sweet soul, while Finnish-Belizean crooner Bobby Oroza has sold out multiple performances in California with his original ballads and Sunny and the Sunliners covers, and Thee Lakesiders brought Pachuco style to a souldies ballad.
Many of these new groups were immediately appreciated by Chicano soul fans in L.A., even if they are from outside the state or overseas, Molina notes: “It really doesn’t matter at this point if it’s Black music, white music, or Chicano music. As long as it has all the ingredients that fit the culture.” Roth notes, “Those sweet ballads and tearjerker harmonies, that’s the pinnacle of the scene right now. Helping these musicians create their own scene is exciting.”
Penrose will take its artist roster on a California showcase tour, beginning March 27 at The Paramount in Los Angeles. For Jason Joshua, the showcase and Penrose are an opportunity for a not-so-underground subculture to get its shine. “It’s cool that Latin culture is finally getting its proper recognition. It’s cool that other cats are doing it, but also really cool that Latin cats are f–kin’ doin’ it,” he says. “We can give hope to the other Latin kids playing guitar in their garage … someone brown like me doing this.”