Misfortune & No Wealth: Soul band The 24-Carat Black was discovered in Ann Arbor and recorded its 1973 underground classic in Ypsi
The long-running 33 1/3 book series devotes each volume to the study of one classic album’s creation, impact and essence, and recent entry number 152 concerns an album made in Ypsilanti nearly 50 years ago. Author Zach Schonfeld relates the messy tale of quixotic ambition that birthed an album unknown but not unheard, commercially unsuccessful but the backbone of big hits for other artists: The 24-Carat Black's Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth.
Released by Stax Records in 1973, the album was the brainchild of Detroit native Dale Warren, a classically trained violinist who began his career arranging songs for Motown before migrating south to the funkier climes of Memphis. Employed by Stax, Warren’s talent for conducting helped build the lush, string-cushioned vibes of Isaac Hayes’ most iconic works along with other classic records of the R&B/soul label’s late era.
Warren composed his own ambitious set of socially conscious songs with the aim of producing a concept album about inner-city poverty, so he scouted for talent. At a University of Michigan frat party he discovered a nine-piece band of high school kids from Ohio with chops beyond their years. The band was re-christened The 24-Carat Black, an album deal was secured from Stax, and they headed for the legendary Morgan Sound studio in Ypsilanti to make a record.
Despite strong playing by the band and inventive arrangements from Warren, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth was not a hit. The album’s theatricality and deliberately downbeat subject matter didn’t cater to radio waves or dance floors. Strained relationships developed as The 24-Carat Black toured small clubs around the U.S. to promote the record. Schonfeld’s book details run-ins with big-time stars and small-town racists, fights over money and management, and an artist/muse romantic entanglement that ended one marriage and started another.
By 1975 Stax Records was out of business and Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth fell into obscurity. But as old vinyl gained new currency with the rise of sampling, Ghetto became known to savvy DJs as a prime source for fresh drum breaks and unusual musical motifs to build their tracks. Eric B. & Rakim, Jay Z, and Kendrick Lamar are just a few of the many influential hip-hop artists who borrowed bits of The 24-Carat Black’s musical DNA over the decades since their demise.
And that leads to the bittersweet heart of Schonfeld’s book—none of the surviving members of The 24-Carat Black receive royalties for the hit songs built upon their performances. His conversations with them concern thorny questions of authorship and compensation that entertainment law has yet to properly address.
An album ignored in its day for its dark mood and tense sonics found an audience in the afterlife, but what of the music?
Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth’s best moment is the title track, where the elegiac tone hardens into brittle bitterness. The instruments stab around each other, each following its own jagged rhythm, while a ghostly chorus wails an accusatory “Ghetto!” to punctuate defiant lyrics about breaking free from the system.
Another standout is the sleek, evocative “Mother’s Day,” utilizing a smooth, sophisticated R&B groove to address the plight of food insecurity in a politically corrupt city. After calling out every player in the game, the song drops deep into a long, contemplative jam where we are forced to think about what we’ve just learned.
The album’s opening track announces itself with melodramatic flair, putting Warren’s earnest theatricality and bleak vision on full display. After a brief but grand piano overture, a lengthy spoken-word piece introduces the theme and thesis of the song cycle to follow, then segues into a gospel interlude beseeching God for intervention.
Fred Beldin is a writer and musician living in Ann Arbor. His work can be found at thesearetheendtimes.com.