Wednesday, June 11, 2014

TMFW 40 - Penny and the Quarters Get Their Big Break - 40 Years Later

Blue Valentine is a critically-acclaimed 2010 film starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.  It tells the story of Dean Pereira and Cindy Heller, a struggling couple whose troubled marriage appears to be irretrievably breaking.  The film alternates between the beginning of the couple's courtship and its end.  It's really well done - both Gosling and Williams were nominated for Golden Globe awards and Williams earned an Oscar nomination, too - and really really (really) depressing.
In a central scene in the movie (semi-NSFW), Dean tries to romance his wife by playing "their song," which we also see playing in happier times for the couple.  The song used in the film was "You and Me," by the group Penny and the Quarters.  The song's spartan arrangement and desperate lyrics fit beautifully in the movie, and one might think that it was created just for the film.  But in fact, the song was 40 years old when the film came out.  And remarkably, at the time of its inclusion in the movie, Penny and the Quarters were unknown.  
To clarify, the group was not "unknown" in the sense of "underappreciated" or even "unsigned."  They were "unknown" in the sense of "nobody had any idea who the people on the recording were." 
The mystery is well-described in this writeup in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch and this one in The Guardian.  In short, the recording was contained in a box of tapes and acetates that were sold at the Columbus, Ohio estate sale of Clem Price, who was the co-owner of a recording studio that fed a small Columbus-based soul music label called Prix Records.  The box was first thought to be master tapes from Prix, but instead they were discovered to include a treasure trove of unreleased demos and related material.  The tapes ultimately found their way to The Numero Group, a Chicago record label that specializes in rare R&B and soul music.  Numero researched what they had - reaching out to "every willing lifer left on the Columbus soul scene, including retired DJs, producers, and important local artists" - and was able to identify most of the tracks.  But they found "not so much as a glimmer of recognition at the name Penny & the Quarters." 
Despite having no information on the artist, Numero included "You and Me" as track 18 of 19 on Eccentric Soul: the Prix Label, their compilation of Prix recordings.  The record sold only modestly, but Numero fan Ryan Gosling heard the album and fell in love with "You and Me."  He recommended it to the director of Blue Valentine, and the film licensed the song from Numero for $750. 
After Blue Valentine propelled the song to prominence, the mystery was written up all over the web and the search was on.  First, the songwriter (and lead Quarter) was discovered to be a man named Jay Robinson, who was an established Columbus songwriter but who had died one year earlier in 2009.  His widow did not have any information about who Penny or the remaining Quarters might be, but claimed that her husband named the group based on the quantity of his pocket change on the day the demo was recorded.
Several months later, the remainder of the mystery was solved.  Nannie "Penny" Sharpe and her three brothers rounded out the group. They had recorded the track in 1970 when Sharpe was 21 years old.  The recording was not a proper demo but instead was a rehearsal, and it was the first take of the song.  (According to Sharpe, the song and its "my my my my"s were chosen because they provided an opportunity for her to practice her enunciation.)  The song never went anywhere.  Sharpe and her brothers did some backup work for other Columbus acts, but it seems that they never worked as a standalone group outside of that one fateful day.
The mystery was solved when Sharpe's daughter read about the song on the internet and heard what was unmistakably her mother on the recording.  For her part, Sharpe was delighted that her song made the improbable journey from recorded rehearsal to dusty storage to estate sale offering to compilation release to major motion picture.  
Stories like this one give me hope that in 2035 a recording of my high school band's classic "Rye Bread World" will be rediscovered and will become similarly famous.  Dare to dream. 
BONUS FACT:  When "You and Me" blew up, The Numero Group released it as a 45.  For the B-side, they went back to the Prix tapes and extracted a second Penny and the Quarters song called "Some Other Kind of Love."
BONUS FACT 2:  In 8th grade, one of my very first girlfriends insisted that we must have a "song."  At her suggestion, it was Paula Abdul's "Rush Rush."  To this day, each time I hear that song or see Keanu Reeves in the James-Dean-inspired video, the memories comes rush (rush)ing back.

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