Numero Group dusts off the sound of DJ Richard Pegue

November 29, 2011

By James Porter

(Photo/Numero Group)
The Numero Group's Eccentric Soul: The Nickel & Penny Labels features a collection of soul tracks written and produced by Pegue.

Anywhere else in the world, they would be called merely "oldies." But in Chicago, any rhythm & blues records from the past are known as "dusties."

The term was first coined by Herb Kent in the fifties, who still has a popular dusties radio show on Sunday afternoons.

But in the ensuing decades, the term has become equally synonymous with the late Richard Pegue, the legendary radio DJ, club DJ, doo-wopper (with his high school group, Chess recording artists the Norvells), guitarist, songwriter, producer, and jingle writer. (Yes, he was responsible for the famed Moo & Oink butcher shop ad).

Pegue died in March of 2009 at the age of 64.  But this month, the Chicago-based Numero Group released Eccentric Soul: The Nickel & Penny Labels, which compiles a grip of sides of 60s and early 70s vintage, written and produced by this noted legend.

Unpacking Pegue's soulful sound

The Nickel and Penny labels were owned by Maurie Alpert, Richard's old boss at the Met Record Shop. While some of the better-selling singles for this firm turn up in used shops on occasion, the time for a proper Penny/Nickel anthology is well overdue.

Absent from the collection is Pegue's tongue-in-cheek blues 45 ("Steel Mill Blues," credited to "Little Richard Earl & the Co-Workers"). But on the some two dozen selections, it's easy to get a glimpse of what made Pegue’s style so recognizable.

Pegue borrowed ingredients from everybody's kitchen to make his cake: guitar lines reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield; tambourine-accented Motown beats; and when the seventies arrived, wah-wah effects reminiscent of Memphis' Skip Pitts, the man responsible for the simmering guitar work on Isaac Hayes' "Theme From Shaft".

"The Ember Song" by Rotary Connection member Sidney Barnes was a popular early 70s jingle that was played regularly on Pegue's dusties show in later years as an actual song.

Pegue's signature, however, was his eerie use of choral backgrounds. For an admitted doo-wop fan, Pegue did not settle for simple four- or five-piece vocal arrangements; he raided the entire choir.

On the Norvells' "Without You", for instance, the lead singer sounds punished enough, but when the choral voices enter, they don't ease the pain so much as amplify it.

Pegue also worked with the Hallelujah Chorus, a large ensemble assembled by Pegue and originally called the Dubber Ruckie Rock & Roll Choir. Their track, "I've Got To Find A Way," sounds like nothing less than a secular Edwin Hawkins Singers.

The only comparable productions were the baroque pieces that Charles Stepney did for the Chess label around the same time for the Dells, the Radiants, the Rotary Connection and others. A few of these selections were local hits, like Little Ben & the Cheers' "I'm Not Ready To Settle Down." 

This novel approach should have garnered Pegue more hits on a nationwide scale, but it was not to be.

Dusties Convention lives on

Though Pegue passed away more than two years ago, his legacy endures through his famed Dusties Conventions at St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church, located at 41st & Michigan. Twice a year, mature people mostly over thirty get together for this event.

The name might lead one to believe that the Dusties Convention is a record show, with dealers as dusty as their discs slanging vintage harmony-group 45s. In reality, the ambience is closer to an old-fashioned record hop, with long tables on either side of the room and dancers gyrating right in the middle of the aisle.

The deejays (and what amounts to a VIP section) are right up on the church stage. Even if it’s 30 degrees outdoors, it feels like 95 inside, as both the dancing and the body temps increase. In fact, it's not uncommon to see dancers bringing drink coolers and a change of clothes.

Even though Pegue has been gone for a couple of years now, the convention itself still manages to keep the same momentum.

"It was not my intention to keep it going, but everybody kept asking and asking if we were going to keep it going,” says Sevina Pegue, the widow of the dusties icon. “He died in March, just about the time he started promoting the convention. The next word out of a lot of people's mouths after 'I'm sorry' [was] 'Is there going to be a convention?'.”

Pegue points out that her husband was sick for much of the last fourteen years before he passed away.

“He was always trying to groom somebody to carry on the convention,” recalls Sevina Pegue. “Even though the grandchildren were still too young, he had so many protégés who he had also groomed, like Ray Neal, Al Greer, Tyrone Cannon, King George - those people knew the whole format."

Legacy, sound inspire others

Cannon, in his forties, is one of the younger DJs on the set. A resident of Cincinnati, OH, he regularly comes to Chicago to attend the Dusties Convention.

"A gracious friend of mine who is originally from Chicago that lives in Cincinnati, every time she visited, she would record (his show) on tape,” Cannon says. “That's how I got introduced to Richard. I was so intrigued by his show, because I had never heard a DJ play such good music and give such good information behind it. This guy just went so deep with what he did, it just blew my mind.”

Cannon started writing letters to Pegue, hoping to meet him.  Then one day, he heard Pegue talk about the Dusty Record Convention.

"I didn't know what that was; I thought it was a record show," Cannon recalls. "I came to Chicago in 1992 to visit; that was my very first Dusty Record Convention. That's how I met Richard personally."

Cannon was even moved to bring Pegue's format to the Cincinnati airwaves, closely mimicking his style during his own show, The Night Train, on WCIN, the nation's second oldest black radio station at the time. With permission, Cannon even went so far as to use the elder's tagline, "The Best Music of Your Life," to describe his show.

The significance of being a long-time fan-turned-contemporary is not lost on Cannon either.

"I never would have dreamed," says Cannon, "that I would be sitting in that very chair. Those are some big shoes to fill. I always equate it to when Smokey left the Miracles or when Diana Ross left the Supremes; they left a legacy of music, something that was pretty hard to follow. You have to really be on your P's and Q's to follow that trend."

An ambassador of soul

Dave Leucinger, a DJ/photojournalist in Madison, WI who calls himself "the Roadmaster," was lucky enough to spin a guest set, back before turntables gave way to computers.  He, too, recognizes the tradition.

An expert swing dancer himself, he's known for getting on the floor for a few rounds.

"I drive all the way FROM Madison just to DO the Madison," Leucinger exclaims,  a reference to the early sixties dance craze.

As a record collector and fan of regional roots musics, he was also fond of searching the dial for any airwaves from out of town.

"From up here in Madison," Leucinger states, "I was very interested in long-distance radio and trying to find out what wasn't getting played up here."

Even though he could barely pick up the signal of WGCI, where Pegue could be heard at that time, what he could hear kept him tuned in.

"I learned a lot about the music, things I wanted to find, and things I'm still looking for. I also really developed a respect for the programmer, this Richard Pegue guy," he says.

Listening to the show, Leucinger likened it to a get-together; kind of a weekly block party or record spin.

"I was writing him letters because I wanted to meet him, and then I heard him talk about the Dusty Record Convention," he said I didn't know what that was; I thought it was a record show. I came to Chicago in 1992 to visit; that was my very first Dusty Record Convention. That's how I met Richard personally."

After Pegue passed away, Leucinger connected with Sevine Pegue, his widow.

"When they held the first of the Dusty Record Conventions after his passing, I had kicked myself for not having gone down during the times when he was spinning records himself," Leucinger says.  "I asked if it would be too forward of me to actually throw a few tunes on in memory of him. She said, 'No, not at all; in fact, I'll make sure you are able to play.'"

After a short set from WBEZ's Richard Steele (who sang in the Norvells with Pegue), Leucinger took to the turntables and was a hit that night. And when his stint was over, he went straight back to the dance floor.

"It's hard to be a wallflower at these events," he says.

Ms. Pegue would agree.

Asked to describe the Dusties Convention for someone who has never been, she states that “you should expect that you’re going to dance. Even if you don’t dance, (the music will) make you get up. Come early to find yourself somewhere to sit; usually it’s standing room only by about 10:00. Bring your own everything; we have a few provisions for people who come who don’t know to bring everything.”

“It’s like a family reunion basement party.”

For five decades on Chicago radio, Richard Pegue’s radio shows were the soundtracks to many a blue-light party and stepper’s set. The Numero CD compilation and the Dusties Convention extend that legacy for decades to come.