Graded on a Curve: Sunny & the Sunliners,
Mr. Brown Eyed Soul

Led by vocalist Sunny Ozuna, Sunny & the Sunliners began as a sturdy regional act in the late ’50s, broke out nationally for a little while, and then just kept on rolling; of course, they’re ripe for contemporary discovery, and with Mr. Brown Eyed Soul, Big Crown Records has brought the goods. Earlier this year, label owners Danny Akalepse and Leon Michels issued the “Should I Take You Home” b/w “My Dream” single as a teaser, and this compilation’s 13 additional tracks don’t disappoint. Fans of classic doo wop, R&B, and soul shouldn’t procrastinate; it’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

Sunny Ozuna’s start in music is a variation on a highly familiar story, but one that somehow never succumbs to hoariness. As detailed in Ramón Hernández’s sleeve notes for this set, he started out as vocalist for The Sequence and then The Galaxies, both high school doo wop groups popular around Ozuna’s hometown of San Antonio.

It was Sunny and Rudy Guerra’s forming of the Sunglows that precipitated Ozuna’s impact beyond southern Texas. “Just a Moment” delivered their first regional hit in 1959, but it was “Talk to Me” that provided their national R&B chart breakthrough, making it to #11 in ’63 through Huey Meaux’s Teardrop label. The song resulted in an invitation to appear on American Bandstand, the long-running pop music-focused TV program hosted by Dick Clark; Ozuna was in fact the first Chicano artist to appear on the show.

Somewhere along the way, the moniker was adjusted to the Sunliners. Meaux continued to release the group’s recordings, but those studio forays are not what’s found on Mr. Brown Eyed Soul. The Sunliners’ contract with Teardrop ended in mid-’66, and it was then that Sunny and Johnny Zaragosa started the Key-Loc label; the music here cherry-picks from seven years’ worth of self-released productivity, a considerable length when compared to the much shorter periods of creative longevity experienced by many acts both well-known and obscure.

The enduring fruitfulness elevates this comp far beyond the typical raid-the-vaults rediscovery slab, and that the Sunliners weren’t desperately tackling trends in hopes of additional hits helps matters; the nationwide exposure subsided, but they maintained a sizable following (one that persists into the present) through clarity of vision spiked with elements of diversity.

Big Crown’s 45rpm preview spotlighted the core of their sound, which unsurprisingly given Ozuna’s roots in doo wop, emphasized romantic finesse over Brown or Redding-style belting and grit. After a short, endearing intro (“And now…it’s Showtime! Here’s Sonny!”), “Should I Take You Home (Or Should I Telephone)” delivers this album a stone beauty of an opener, the band adding vividness and just as importantly, weight as Ozuna ponders the song’s question with poise and panache.

Another big point in Sunny and group’s favor is that, at least on the strength of this collection, it’s hard to tag them as falling too heavily under the influence of another larger act, even while dishing out a high ratio of cover material. Instead, their version of Billy Stewart’s “Cross My Heart” simply taps into the late ’60s-early ’70s vocal group sound (which was of course an extension of doo wop); next to it, the original “The One Who’s Hurting is You” holds up well, offsetting Ozuna’s intensity of emotion with a cooler-toned backing vocal.

Hernández describes “Smile Now, Cry Later” as a monster hit (it’s apparently inspired hundreds of tattoos), and with its seamless blend of doo wop and soul, it’s not difficult to understand why. Their jazzy transformation of Ruby and the Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come” is equally impressive, while the original “Put Me in Jail” is as vocally and instrumentally strong as “Should I Take You Home.”

Next comes a pair of savvy covers, with their reading of The Marvelettes’ “Forever” subtly intensifying the ache of the lyrics amid precise execution. Even better is an update of the Flamingos’ slow dance behemoth “I Only Have Eyes for You,” during which they get crafty and swap out the familiar “sha-bop sha-bop” backing vocal line for a trumpet. Organ, a regular Sunliners ingredient, adds to the whole.

After another period-enhancing intro, side two begins with a turn for the funky. “Get Down” can be considered a digression from what Ozuna and crew do best, but in their favor, they clearly grasped the rudiments of the style, never getting too busy, as the words fruitfully engage with the topical. Quickly returning to established territory, “Open Up Your Love Door” is a structurally ambitious number complete with unexpected horn charts. After it, the cover of the Chi-Lites’ “Give It Away” is just sweet gravy.

Like “The One Who’s Hurting is You,” Ozuna and guitarist Rudy Palacios co-wrote “Rain Makes Me Blue,” and its slightly jazzy late ’60s pop sophistication is in no way inferior to the borrowed material peppered throughout the album. Considering their typically deft treatment of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Outside Looking In,” this is no small feat.

The production, always competent but never faltering into the overly slick, only helps matters, the consistency making a difference as Ozuna takes a late dip into wounded-heart crooner’s stuff on “I Have No One.” The record closes with the teaser 45’s B-side, “My Dream” a sharper version of a tune by the Harvey Averne Dozen.

It caps a well-rounded and cohesive collection of underheard nuggets from a transitional era for soul and R&B. Hopefully, Akalepse and Michels’ intention to get more of Ozuna’s material into the bins bears fruit, and likewise for a prospective album of Big Crown artists covering Sunny & the Sunliners’ stuff; it’s a cinch that Lee Fields would do a righteous version of “Should I Take You Home.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text