Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sunny & The Sunliners-Mr. Brown Eyed Soul

For over 60 years, Sunny Ozuna has been a major force on the Southwestern music frontier as a singer, bandleader, composer and independent label owner.  The versatile and dynamic singer is as comfortable and conversant with traditional Tejano as he is with horn-driven instrumental R&B and smooth soul.   Throughout the ‘60s, Ozuna and his bands the Sunglows & the Sunliners were the leading lights of San Antonio’s vibrant Westside Chicano Soul scene.   Mentioning Sunny Ozuna & the Sunliners to older workmates will bring instant smiles of fond recognition and an outpouring of compelling recollections from a long gone time and place.

The spotlight on this collection shines on his 1966-1972 soul sides sung in English and originally released on his own Key-Loc Records.  What is most striking is the soaring doo-wop influence which lifts several of these songs into another realm.  On the national soul scene during this time, the essential doo-wop elements were rapidly receding from the mix as rough & ready front men like Curtis & Otis took center stage.  It fell upon the Southwestern regional bands working the bars, cantinas, ballrooms, low rider clubs and military bases (e.g., Randolph in San Antonio) to keep the close harmony sound alive-partially for the sake of the slow dancers.  (In the Phoenix-area, the Servicemen had a similar '50s deep into the '60s vocal group harmony sound out at Luke Air Force base.) 

Their sublime treatment of Billy Stewart’s “Cross My Heart” could be considered a crowning achievement in Chicano Soul by casting out their horns and raising their voices to petition the skies.  A lovely spare elegance is expressed through their version of Marvelettes' "Forever." “Open Up Your Love Door” presents their elaborate vocal arrangements all topped off with a coda of the signature James Bond Theme from the horn section. “Give it Away” has that not a care in the world “Grazing in the Grass” feel of the Friends of Distinction, but is actually a cover of the Chi-lites' first charting record.   Another highlight is their dusky cover of Little Anthony and the Imperials' “Outside Looking In” where the Sunliners’ backing vocals express the determined mantra of "Gotta Find a Way, Gotta Find a Way."  However, not everything works as their schmaltzy reading of “Our Day Will Come” gushes over the edge and will not be replacing the Ruby & the Romantics' #1 hit anytime soon as the definitive version. Throughout their recordings, their sound is bolstered by an undercurrent of that hypnotic organ-a sound which eventually found its way North to Saginaw, Michigan with ? and the Mysterians, who pushed it to the forefront on their timeless "96 Tears." 

Mr. Brown Eyed Soul is not only a starting point in hearing some of the most accomplished sounds to come out of the San Antonio and Southwest during the ‘60s, but also an immersion into the prevailing spirit of Chicano Soul.

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