Robin Tomlin has one of the most recognizable voices in local radio. He barks a mile a minute in a rapid British accent, breathlessly reading back a list of obscure soul and funk songs on The Soulful Situation, his Monday afternoon radio show. Colin Powell (no relation to the former Secretary of State) is comparatively mild-mannered, but beneath his calm demeanor hides a razor-sharp wit and an impressive record collection. The talkative middle-aged British expatriate and the mild-mannered twenty-something American—both white—make an unusual pair. And they might not be the first act that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “classic American soul music.” But great music has a way of persisting through the ages, infecting even the most unexpected of devotees. As The Grits n Gravy Soul and Funk Revue, the duo have been throwing some of the best dance parties in town, fueled by an impeccable selection of soul and funk records from the 1960s and ’70s.
Tomlin grew up as a “mod” in the late-’70s UK, and his fixation with bands like the Specials and the Clash led to the discovery of James Brown (“Live at the Apollo was released the month before I was born,” he noted) and an ensuing obsession with soul music. He moved to the U.S. in ’86—“I flew into Dulles because it was the closest to the D.C. Go-Go scene,” he said—and ended up in Richmond, before making his way to Charlottesville in the ’90s.
Powell hails from nearby Nelson County. He is the grandson of a Baptist preacher, and was raised in a family that listened mostly to bluegrass. A high school interest in hip-hop led to a search for the original sources of sampled breaks, and eventually to an immersion in the Internet subculture of obsessive record collecting and trading.
The duo met while volunteering at WTJU. In early 2010, after a station fundraiser, Powell proposed the idea of the two of them hosting a regular monthly DJ series featuring vintage soul and funk records, and the suitably named Grits n Gravy was born. Their early gigs were a joyous, often unpredictable affair. Rowdy bar patrons repeatedly requested recent Jay-Z singles, or drunkenly demanded to hear Lady Gaga. But as the evening wore on, anxieties would loosen, and the crowd would end up shaking a leg to killer cuts from a bygone era. Vintage soul and funk is a genre that everyone enjoys (in theory), and Grits n Gravy is the perfect opportunity to put that appreciation into practice.
Alongside recognizable classics by James Brown, Otis Redding, and Sly and the Family Stone, the duo has a stable of reliable would-be classics that, despite their obscurity, are no less effective on the dance floor. Some songs are so infectious, you feel you’ve heard them before—or at least should have. Don Gardner’s “My Baby Likes to Boogaloo” is a personal favorite. Tomlin is particularly fond of “Can’t Find Nobody (To Take Your Place)” by Percy Wiggins of Memphis, as well as “Double Lovin’” by Percy’s brother, Spencer Wiggins. And a night on the Grits n Gravy dance floor remains incomplete without their unofficial anthem, “Funky Virginia,” a 1968 Norfolk-based single credited to Sir Guy.
While the discovery of rare records is its own specialized skill, the charm of soul is easily appreciated, and in recent years, many listeners have jumped on the funk bandwagon. Labels like Stones Throw and Numero Group have released numerous compilations of unknown classics by countless regional acts, and the bands on the Dap-Tone roster have stoked this flame by backing singers like Sharon Jones and Charley Bradley, giving them a second chance at a music career and introducing them to a new generation of fans.
Tomlin and Powell have twice made a pilgrimage to Ponderosa Stomp, a New Orleans-based festival “dedicated to recognizing the architects of rock-n-roll, blues, jazz, country, swamp pop, and soul.” The second year, they performed at the festivals’ Hip Drop pre-party, and have an open invitation to return. They also put their talents to use whenever a touring soul act makes its way to Charlottesville, and have performed as an opening act or after-party closer for Sharon Jones, the New Master Sounds, the Budos Band, Charles Bradley, and Al Green.
Since March, they’ve settled into a monthly gig at the Black Market Moto Saloon. “The nice thing about it is that people don’t just wander by when they’re wandering from bar to bar,” Tomlin said. “If they’re coming all the way over here, they’re coming to see us.” “More and more, people are coming here specifically to hear Grits n Gravy,” Powell added. “We have no idea who these people are. We’ve never seen them before, but they’re here for the music, and they love it.”