Courtesy of Big Crown Records
A recent spate of CD and vinyl reissues has introduced a new generation to West Side soul, a San Antonio-born sound that emerged in the early ’60s when Mexican American teens blended R&B and doo-wop with Latin music influences.
Now, Sunny Ozuna — a key figure in that homegrown movement — is the subject of a forthcoming tribute album on which contemporary acts reinterpret classics he recorded with his band Sunny and the Sunliners.
Brooklyn-based Big Crown Records, responsible a string of reissues of Ozuna’s early work, will drop the nine-track album Dear Sunny… next month. Just in time for the singer’s 77th birthday.
“The title is supposed to read like the opening of a letter, an homage,” Big Crown owner Danny Akalepse said. “That’s the vibe we were going for.”
Akalepse’s appreciation for the San Antonio singer began several years ago after a DJ friend introduced him to the Sunliners track “Should I Take You Home.” Ozuna’s clean, soulful vocals and the song’s snappy production made him an instant fan.
“I just like, ‘What is this?’” Akalepse said. “I had to hear more.”
Courtesy of Big Crown Records
Dear Sunny… features artists from Big Crown’s roster, which skews heavily to retro-soul acts such as Lee Fields and the Expressions and Lizette & Quevin — no surprise there. But the inclusion of outfits such as indie-poppers the Shacks and the jazzy psych-pop trio Brainstory demonstrate Ozuna’s influence beyond soul and R&B.
While Ozuna is often perceived of as a San Antonio treasure, Akalepse said the seminal tracks he recorded in the ’60s and ’70s are revered across the country. Sunliners tracks get regular spins both from East Coast club DJs and at oldies and low-rider events across the Southwest and California.
And Akalepse would know. Dear Sunny… is the continuation of Big Crown’s years-long love affair with Ozuna’s music.
After his initial exposure to the Sunliners, the label owner scoured record shows for Ozuna’s out-of-print singles, his appreciation growing along with his collection. In 2016, he trekked to San Antonio to interview the singer and sift through his old recordings, promo photos and memorabilia.
The following year, Big Crown released Mr. Brown Eyed Soul, which collected some of the Ozuna’s best-known work from his classic era. Three more reissue albums and a string of reissue singles followed.
To be sure, Dear Sunny… sounds like Akalepse’s fandom rubbed off on his roster. All nine artists clearly have an affinity for the material that goes beyond serving up note-for-note covers. While the interpretations are reverent, more than a few are unafraid to add their own stamp, sometimes drastically reimagining the material.
The Shacks’ take on Ozuna’s iconic “Smile Now, Cry Later” opens the album, giving the song a breathy, ethereal quality that’s at once contemporary and nostalgic. Genre-blending New York group 79.5 reinterpret the upbeat “My Dream” as a sophisticated R&B heartbreaker with lilting female vocals and jazzy flute trills.
Veteran soulster Lee Fields’ take on “The One Who’s Hurting Is You” sounds as if it could have been cut during the same era as the early Sunliners tracks. The retro production puts Fields’ gritty, emotive vocals front and center. German funk outfit Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band deliver a dose of hard-hitting syncopation on their version of “Get Down,” a War tune Ozuna released as a single.
Akalepse said he’s shared the recordings with Ozuna and knows the singer has listened to “at least some of them.” But the label owner said he’s fine if it takes Ozuna a while to take in the whole tribute.
After all, Ozuna is a performer who continues to forge ahead, even in his sixth decade as a recording artist.
The singer still performs live and releases music — interspersing self-released Tejano, religious and Christmas albums between his soul and R&B releases.
“I hope that what we’ve done is bring Sunny’s music to new audience,” Akalepse said. “That’s been our motivation all along.”
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