Sunny Ozuna: The Brown Eyed Soul Man

Fifteen years ago, Danny Akalepse, a co-founder of the Brooklyn-based label Big Crown Records, was given a mixtape by a friend that included a nostalgic soul ballad called “Should I Take You Home.” The track was cut in the Sixties by Sunny and the Sunliners, a San Antonio, Texas–based group, and released via the bandleader Sunny Ozuna‘s own independent label, Key-Loc. Over a mellow, sunset-swaddled groove infused with a yearning horn fanfare, Ozuna trills a tale about returning his date home before 8 p.m. so that her mother doesn’t start “wondering on why we’re late.”

Akalepse was struck by the song — “The thing is a tune,” he says with reverence — and began hunting down a copy. First pressings have been known to fetch up to $800 on the collector’s market (and second pressings top out around $300), but Akalepse managed to snap up a couple of mint 45s for $30 each at a record fair in Pennsylvania. After that, he set about contacting Ozuna with the hopes of re-releasing his music. He had the hunch that Ozuna’s vibe would be welcomed by Big Crown’s fans, who are drawn to retro sounds.

Securing a deal with Ozuna took three or four years and involved Akalepse journeying to Texas to meet Ozuna in person. The result is Mr. Brown Eyed Soul, a retrospective of soul cuts released during 1966 to 1972 that are fueled by Ozuna’s dusky yet innocent voice. (Future plans include re-releasing some of Ozuna’s other albums, plus a project based around Big Crown artists covering his material.)

After talking with Ozuna, Akalepse became privy to the vast extent of his story, which has unwound chapter after chapter. “It wasn’t a case of me asking to reissue music and saying, ‘Hey, I think there’s value in something that’s already ran its course for you. I think we can turn this around and introduce it to new people.’ Because it didn’t run its course for them. That guy’s a famous guy, especially in the Tejano scene, and he’s still doing shows and everything.”

Originally recording as Sunny and the Sunglows, Ozuna came to national acclaim in 1963 with a slow-rolling cover of “Talk to Me,” an r&b No. 5 for Little Willie John five years prior. Sunny’s “Talk to Me” brought about an invitation to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, making Ozuna the first Latino artist to guest on the TV show. (He recalls meeting country singer Bobby Bare and pop artist Gene Pitney during the taping, and laughs as he says he didn’t realize the host was so short.)

With Sunny and the Sunglows, Ozuna mixed r&b and soul with Tejano and mariachi, and he never stopped his stylistic expansion. Singing in Spanish, he became a leading figure in the Tejano scene, eventually spinning his sound into the gospel and Christmas markets. As soul developed throughout the Seventies and Eighties, he absorbed new twists into a jukebox sound that ran from throwback weepers to finger-popping funk workouts. Talking from his home in San Antonio, the 74-year-old Ozuna estimates his catalog is around 69 albums deep — but the soul-influenced period from the mid-Sixties to the early Seventies is the one Mr. Brown Eyed Soul spotlights.

Admitting that he was “surprised” when Akalepse began to court that section of his oeuvre, Ozuna says, “I didn’t know that I’d be a pioneer on the Tejano music that relates back to the feelings and the culture of Texans and the way they’re brought up — my gut was to go with the rock ’n’ roll thing, but I also pursued Tejano, too. But Danny tried to get something that would relate to what’s going on in his area. He wanted to try and open a few doors to something a little bit different, and we did a lot of that risk-taking ourselves in building Key-Loc.”

Since Ozuna owns most of his masters, it was easier for Big Crown to arrange the reissue the songs than if it’d had to track down a long-lost rights holder. Although as Akalepse says, “Sunny could say ‘yes’ to all of it, but it also made it harder ’cause the songs are more dear to him. It wasn’t like, ‘What, you want that crap?’ It’s Sunny’s own stuff.”

Akalepse and his label partner, Leon Michels of the El Michels Affair, selected the songs for Mr. Brown Eyed Soul after collecting and studying Ozuna’s vault. Taking a cue from the breakthrough “Talk to Me,” a hearty selection of cover versions are present: Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “I’m On the Outside Looking In,” the Marvelettes’ “Forever,” and the Chi-Lites’ “Give It Away” are all songs that Ozuna recorded both because he was inspired by the original artists and because he hoped to score another hit that would fuel his career “through to the end of another year.” But it’s the original compositions that showcase his soul appeal. Set on the cusp of a relationship breakup, “The One Who’s Hurtin’ Is You” is sung defiantly over a surprisingly perky, organ-flecked groove; “Rain Makes Me Blue” is melancholy mood music with simple repeating lyrics about a flawed but inescapable love. It’s seductive stuff that wavers successfully between drumming up feelings of nostalgia and sounding like some newly discovered secret treasure.

“Even if you’re a soul music fan, a lot of people have no idea what this stuff is,” says Akalepse, who adds he feels both lucky and honored to be in a position to re-release Ozuna’s music on his label. “In this day and age there’s so much old music being discovered, and Sunny’s definitely another guy in the sweet soul cannon. He’s a big player with big tunes.”


Here Are the Five Best Memorial Day Weekend Food Events in NYC

Not fighting the traffic or beach crowds this three-day weekend? Make the most of sticking around the city by taking advantage of what’s cooking up around town.

Free Suckling Pig Roast, Ariana, 138-140 West Houston Street, Friday, 7 p.m.

This Village Russian restaurant is kicking off the weekend with a free suckling pig roast and punch party. At 7 p.m., the kitchen will start serving up bits of the buckwheat-stuffed hog, and the bar will pour a berry and vodka punch. You’ll want to get there early to partake — food and drink are first come, first served.

Passport to Taiwan, Union Square, Sunday, noon

Come Sunday, Union Square will be filled with performances, art exhibits, and plenty of food celebrating Taiwanese-American heritage and culture. Look for goodies like bamboo tamales, shaved ice, oyster omelets, and intestines with noodle. Food-related exhibits include dough figurines and sugar paintings, which showcase the artists’ use of edible materials for creative purposes. A full line up of food vendors and activities can be found on the event’s website.

Rub-A-Grub, Do or Dine, 1108 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, Sunday, 2 p.m.

With a three-part menu accompanied by DJ sets, this musical feast includes bloody marys, beer and shot specials, and record-sized plates of hearty BBQ. Music will be provided by the I Love Vinyl crew, and a selection of appetizers courtesy of Justin Warner’s team are also part of the tasting menu. Tickets start at $15 for the event without food and $30 if you plan on dining or drinking.

Manhattan by Sail’s Out@Sea Party, Slip 1 — Battery Park, State Street at Battery Place, Sunday, 9:45 p.m.

Celebrate having Monday off by staying up late on a Sunday with this two-hour boat party geared toward the gay and lesbian crowd. Hop aboard the Clipper City Tall Ship where you’ll find a full bar — including Jello shots, pickle backs, and other drink specials — and a DJ, who’ll play sets as you take in the city skyline. Tickets are $20 if you use the promotional code MBSFFOS14; they can be purchased through the Manhattan by Sail website.

A Drinking Game NYC presents Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, A Celebration of Whimsy, 21-A Clinton Street, Monday, 9 p.m.

To cap off the weekend, head out for this live stage version of the 80’s cult classic, which involves drinking — both by the actors and the audience. When you hear key phrases and buzzwords, everyone drinks, which means that by the end of the show, certain lines may not come out as intended — or at all. There’s a cash bar inside the theater that will provide beer, wine, and soda, though the event is 21 and up. Tickets are $15.


After 46 Years of Business, Bleecker Bob’s Finally Closed This Weekend

It was the record store enshrined in West Village fame; a place where Bob Dylan and Kramer found their favorite vinyls in the dusty clearance bins that sat out front. The landmark from an era of the neighborhood that no longer exists, driven out by high rents, high spenders and, in this case, frozen yogurt stores.

On Saturday, Bleecker Bob’s shuttered its doors for good after 46 years on the corner of West 3rd Street and MacDougal–just a week before Record Store Day celebrations on April 20. The forced decision was a result of dragged-out litigation with the landlord, who asked for a much more expensive price tag on the prime real estate spot.

“The realtor wants $20,000 for this place. If you can get it, great,” Ski, an assistant manager at Bob’s, told the Voice a year ago. “But do you want some mom-and-pop or a Sbarro’s down here?”

No, just a frozen yogurt place. R.I.P. Bleecker Bob’s. You will be missed by all of us.



In Honor of Record Store Day: As CDs Sales Plummet, Vinyl Finds Its Fifteen Minutes

It was announced in early January that Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies, the record store on West Third Street that was a staple of Seinfeld and a personal favorite of Bob Dylan’s, would be closing after 43 years of business as a result of the neighborhood’s high rental demands. With the famous Fat Beats down on Bleecker out of business for more than a year now, Bob’s joins the graveyard of record stores unable to keep up with the cyber-age of the mp3.

“The realtor wants $20,000 for this place. If you can get it, great,” said assistant manager Ski, a burly man with a backwards hat. “But do you want some mom and pop or a Sbarro’s down here?” Plans are in the work to move to an East Village location but, as of now, the ‘For Rent’ sign above the Bob’s awning speaks for itself. However, their closing is running oddly parallel to the music industry’s turnaround, epitomized in today’s Record Store Day celebration that is attracting long lines all over the City, after a recession rough patch.

A turntable for listening purposes at A-1 Records on East Sixth Street
A turntable for listening purposes at A-1 Records on East Sixth Street
Passerbys gawk at vinyls on sale in front of Rebel Rebel on Bleecker Street.
Passerbys gawk at vinyls on sale in front of Rebel Rebel on Bleecker Street.

In a recovering market, vinyls have oddly found their nostalgic niche: their raw tangibility is not in cyberspace and big-named bands like Mumford & Sons continue to release LPs because people like Rachel and Spencer are still buying them. CDs, on the other hand, are being buried as a middleman between the past and the future of how we listen to music.

But it might be too early to tell if this revival is permanent, as Ski warns: “They say that girls are wearing their mothers’ bell-bottoms from forty years ago. Everything just goes around.”