The soul group Edge of Daybreak (photo courtesy of the Numero Group).
The 1979 album by the Richmond-area band Edge of Daybreak is rare. Hen’s teeth rare.
Titled Eyes of Love, the original vinyl album can fetch up to $800 ($1,000-plus if still sealed) on the collectors market. The groove-laden soul record was recorded in, of all places, Powhatan Correctional Center, and the band itself was made up of prisoners at the jail.
“It was never really released,” says James Carrington, the keyboardist, trumpet player and co-songwriter for the prison group. “Most of the copies were destroyed in a flood. I’d say maybe 300 got out.”
“Alpha Audio, the leading recording studio in Richmond at the time, had a mobile recording unit,” says Marty Key, the co-owner of Steady Sounds, who has assisted the Chicago-based Numero Group label in reissuing Edge of Daybreak’s unusual one-shot. “They went out there and recorded this record, did everything in about eight hours. The local record store chain Bohannon’s kind of funded everything.”
“I knew the owner,” Carrington says. “I invited him out to the prison to hear us and that’s how it started.”
Steady Sounds will hold a party for Numero Group’s Eyes of Love re-release on Thursday, Oct. 22, nearly 35 years after Carrington, bassist McEvoy Chellis Robinson (a former backup player for Otis Redding, Robinson died in 2003), guitarist Cornelius Cade, and drummer Jamal Nubi — aided and abetted by other inmate talent, like falsetto singer Harry “Cupcake” Coleman — found themselves in the wrong place at the right time. Inside the prison, under stringent time restrictions and technical limitations, they made what, to many ears, is a classic soul record, awash in kicking rhythm and melodic lift.
The Numero Group reissue of Eyes of Love has already attracted attention from the likes of Rolling Stone, Salon and The Washington Post — and hailed as a true rediscovery. “The album itself, its merits outweigh the novelty aspect of how it was made,” Key says. “These guys [obviously] practiced, but it’s kind of amazing that they could do this in such a short amount of time.”
When Eyes of Love was being waxed, Carrington was in his early 30s and was in the prison system for assaulting his white live-in girlfriend, a conviction that he still maintains was racially motivated. “People knew of my situation,” Carrington says. He recalls starting another band when he was incarcerated at the since-demolished state prison at 500 Spring St. “I was the director of the musical program there. And we traveled out and played to the community.”
When he got transferred to Powhatan, officers there allowed him to have his synthesizer and Fender-Rhodes electric piano. “And some of the other musicians had their instruments. We weren’t the only band in the prison at the time, there were maybe three others.” He says that it was a technique of the warden’s to “keep things peaceful.”
It was prohibitively expensive for the group, and guards, to travel to Alpha Audio to record the band’s original material. “We recorded in the dining hall, the eating area,” the keyboardist remembers. “The very last song, before we even started it, the guards were at the door saying, ‘It’s time to go, it’s time to go.’ It’s surprising that the tempo didn’t waver because we were trying to get that last track down.”
The players themselves weren’t hardened criminals, Key says. “They were all musicians that had been in bands, just struggling along the way. In a way, it’s bad that they were in jail, but they also created this magical record. It wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been there.”
Members of the group continued playing music after their release. In Roanoke, Jamal Nubi started Business of Sweet Success, and even recorded an Edge of Daybreak song, “Let Us (Make Love).” Carrington formed the band Rise with fellow Daybreak member Cornelius Cade and recorded a 12-inch dance single, before becoming a Christian and switching his attention to gospel music. He got a full-time job with Bohannon’s after his release, and ended up buying the business from owner Milton Hogue, expanding it at one time to 11 stores.
Today, he owns Carrington’s Music in Petersburg. When he heard that copies of the original Eyes of Love disc were trading hands for four figures, he thought about reissuing the album himself. “But I was busy performing gospel music by that time.” One of his frequent out-of-town customers at the store was Jonathan Kirby, who asked him about the record one day. “I thought, ‘Why not? Why not let Numero Group have it and work it for us?’ ”
The members will receive royalties from sales of the re-release, and Carrington hopes that the disc’s notoriety will help him land a recording contract for the gospel music he makes with the Virginia Mass Choir (their latest disc, from 2014, is called Thankful). He used to look back on Edge of Daybreak with scorn. “But I’m kind of excited after all of these years. And I’ve come to realize that, even with the mistakes and all, what we did was kind of amazing.”
Edge of Daybreak’s Eyes of Love free Reissue Release Party will be at Steady Sounds, 322 W. Broad, Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. In attendance will be Numero Group’s Jonathan Kirby and members of Edge of Daybreak. DJ Troy Hurt will spin tunes. Here's a sample of the sound: